Geneva Anderson digs into art

Frank Hurley’s silent masterpiece “South,” from 1919, an unforgettable journey with Ernest Shackleton on his famed Antarctic expedition, screens Saturday at San Francisco’s Silent Film Festival

Australian filmmaker Frank Hurley’s “South,” chronicling Ernest Shackleton’s epic journey in the Endurance at the outbreak of World War I, screens Saturday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The Endurance, trapped in an enormous ice pack in the Weddell Sea, drifted northward throughout the Antarctic winter of 1915. Image courtesy: SFSFF

Journeys, real and metaphorical, are what fuel our human soul. And there’s nothing like film to poetically transport us to times and places we’d never have thought of going.  With his 1919 silent film masterpiece South, Australian photographer Frank Hurley risked his life many times over to bring British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s famed Antarctic expedition in the Endurance to life, capturing the very heart of human imagination and documenting one of the greatest survival stories of all time.  He also created a suite of iconic images, moving and still, which set a new standard for documentary photography.  Now restored by BFI, with the original tints and toning, South screens Saturday, July 14, 2012, at 5 p.m at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre as part of the 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF).   Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano, Paul McGann will introduce the film and read Shackleton’s letters to Horne’s elegiac score.

Were it not for Frank Hurley’s remarkable images, and his persistence against all odds, the story may have never reached the widespread audience that it did, nor have captured our imaginations as it has.  The self-taught Frank Hurley had an instinctive sense of the power of photography and went on pioneering voyages all over the world—from the Antarctic to Papua New Guinea to Israel and he served as official photographer with Australian forces during both world wars.  He made two remarkable and grueling journeys to Antarctica, first with Douglas Mawson’s 1911 expedition and then with the great polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in the Endurance at the very outbreak of World War I.  After the race to the South Pole had been won by Roald Amundson and Robert Falcon Scott in 1912, Shackleton fixed his sites higher—he would attempt the first transcontinental crossing of Antarctica.  His third polar expedition–the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17, for which Hurley was the official photographer, would be an attempt to walk across the frozen continent and its polar region with  a crew of 27 men.  Filmed in what might be the most adverse climatic conditions imaginable, Hurley managed to go beyond documenting the failed journey to creating images of great artistry, depicting the ship’s crew struggling for life on giant ice flows at the literal ends of the earth.

The remarkable thing about South is that, with its glorious cinematography, it imparts an amazing sense of the chaos, raw beauty and flow of nature— something to ponder as global warming takes its toll on our beleaguered planet.  It also captures that great era of late 19th and early 20thcentury colonial exploration for territory—the great risks and exhilarating highs involved in signing on for a pioneering expedition.

Hurley’s magnificently composed shots never crease to amaze.  The luminous, shimmering effects of the light on enormous ice masses that had turned the sea into a kaleidoscope of endlessly fascinating shapes captures both the romance and ominous danger of the journey.  Poignant shots of the ship alone, against an immensity of sea and sky, give the viewer a vivid experience of confronting pure oblivion.  And, while hanging from the ship’s mast, or trekking some distance to capture the Endurance gripped in the crushing ice that would force the crew to abandon it, Hurley manages to achieve proper exposure of sea, boat and sky—daunting!

The crushed Endurance sinking, reduced to a mass of tangled ropes and spars,  is an iconic moment that Hurley carefully rendered.  Using the line of dogs in the foreground to add scale and to anchor the composition, we wonder how Hurley did kept his composure under the most extreme pressure.  Even after the ship sank, Hurley continued to photograph, instinctively sensing the real drama was just getting started.  And after weeks on the utterly barren Elephant Island when the men must have had some of their darkest days, Hurley kept busy, filming wildlife shots of various seals and sea creatures, some of which are now endangered or extinct.   Hurley’s shots of the Yelcho coming into view on the horizon, as members of the joyous Elephant Island crew build a smoky fire to signal her, tell it all.

So thorough was Hurley’s commitment to recording the journey,  that just a few months after his rescue, he returned to South Georgia Island to make additional photos and film footage, attempting to capture the part of the expedition that he had missed while trapped on Elephant Island.

South is well worth the trek into San Francisco to the glorious Castro Theatre.

Full festival schedule—Chronological View  and  Calendar View

Details:  SFSFFruns Thursday, July 12, 2012 through Sunday, July 15, 2012 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street (between Market and 18th Streets), San Francisco.  Tickets: $14 to $20; $180 to $215 for passes.  Click here to purchase all tickets and passes.   Information: (415) 777-4908 or

The annual festival, the largest in the country, is held every July at the Castro Theatre and is sponsored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the artistic, cultural and historic value of silent film.

Parking Alert:  If you plan on coming by car, street parking in the only available parking.  Plan to arrive 45 minutes early to leave sufficient time for parking and walking to/from the theatre.

July 14, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment