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Home Film ArticlesMovie Reviews South (Movie 1919): Harrowing Antarctic Expedition

South Ernest Shackleton Antarctic expeditionSouth: The Ernest Shackleton expedition in Antarctica is documented in this 1919 silent feature. In 2002, the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 aired the two-part movie Shackleton, featuring Kenneth Branagh as the titular explorer and Matt Day as Frank Hurley.
  • South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (movie 1919) review: Surprisingly popular San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation featured unique and harrowing documentary footage.

South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (movie 1919) review: Unusually agonizing history/adventure documentary

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I was surprised to see the large crowd waiting to get into this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival screening of South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic. I didn’t think that a documentary shot in the mid-1910s would interest so many people, but the theater was packed.

Narrated by Paul McGann, the screening of South recounted the story of Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 expedition across the Antarctic. Sailing on the Endurance, Shackleton was accompanied by a crew, a kennel of dogs, and Australian photographer/cinematographer Frank Hurley.

Whether or not Shackleton’s South Pole adventure – known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition – can be called successful is up for debate. After being locked in ice for nine months, the ship eventually shattered and sank in the Weddell Sea. South’s most striking sequence, in fact, is of the crew watching the Endurance in the throes of destruction. Beautiful and eerie, this segment consists of both film footage and stills of the ship falling apart in its icy grave.

At that point, Shackleton set out in search of help; that meant sailing in lifeboats for hundreds of kilometers. Upon finally landing on the southern Atlantic island of South Georgia, Frank Hurley focused on filming the local scenery and wildlife; penguins, sea lions, and albatrosses played in their world of ice and snow – and became food for the weary crew until their eventual rescue by another ship. (Only a handful of men sailed to South Georgia; most Endurance crew members and the dogs were left behind awaiting rescue on Elephant Island.)

Talented Stephen Horne

Now a few words about the musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Personally, I enjoy hearing more than just a piano at silent film screenings – and Mr. Horne delivers. A virtual one-man band, he accompanies his piano playing with accordion and flute. At times, I was able to watch him play and noticed he was looking at the screen instead of the sheet music. I was impressed by the way he improvised – or plays “cold,” as he calls it.

Now, that’s talent!

South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic / Endurance (movie 1919) cast & crew

Director: Frank Hurley.

Cast: Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley (Captain of the Endurance), J. Stenhouse (Captain of the accompanying ship Aurora), Captain L. Hussey, Dr. McIlroy, Mr. Wordie, Dr. Macklin, Frank Wild, Tom Crean.

Cinematography: Frank Hurley.

Music: Neil Brand (1999 British Film Institute video release).

Producer: Frank Hurley.

Production Company: Imperial Trans-Antarctic Film Syndicate.

Running Time: 88 min.

Country: United Kingdom.

South (Movie 1919): Harrowing Antarctic Expedition” notes

South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic reviewed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (website).

It’s unclear whether The Bottom of the World, released by the U.S.-based company Robertson-Cole in 1920, is a version of South.

South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic movie credits via the British Film Institute (BFI) website.

South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic movie image via the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

South (Movie 1919): Harrowing Antarctic Expedition” last updated in April 2023.

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