The great British explorer Ernest Shackleton is very hot these days -- in marked contrast to how he and his hardy band felt during their 1914-1916 expedition to Antarctica. The "most glorious failure" of the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is more gloriously popular than ever, with a recent book and an IMAX film retelling the saga; there's scuttlebutt about a Hollywood version in the works, too.
So when Telluride film documentarian Scott Ransom asked John Mans, a veteran assistant cameraman and certified diver, to join him on a mission to the same frigid region, Mans didn't hesitate.
"I said, 'Hell, yes!'" the Boulderite recalls. "I knew all about Shackleton's journey, and the guy was the most unbelievable leader."
The Endurance -- Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Chez Artiste Theatre, 2800 South Colorado Boulevard
Ransom had been picked by George Butler, the director who'd crafted Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (showing through March 25 at the Phipps IMAX Theater), to help expand the story beyond a 45-minute IMAX film, with more shots of the barren South Pole landscape that Shackleton once traversed. Ransom brought in Mans, and in February 2000, the two filmmakers lifted off from a British helipad in the Falkland Islands, enveloped in bright orange "Gumby" dry suits -- a precaution in case the military helicopter crashed en route to an HMS icebreaker. Fortunately, the Lynx copter deposited the two Americans and their eighteen cases of gear safely on board the modern Endurance, named for Shackleton's ship.
The 37-year-old Mans soon discovered that his adventure would be considerably less rigorous than Shackleton's nearly ninety years before. "We were assigned the rank of officers," he says, adding that as their six-week mission progressed, they learned that the status had its benefits. "We could point the cameras at this forbidding terrain," Mans explains, "and then retreat to the 'Officer's Ward,' where there was a big-screen TV and bar."
Shackleton's people, on the other hand, became stranded on the ice and worked all summer long to fix their ship -- only to have it crushed in the moving floe. To save his crew, Shackleton made a heroic, 800-mile journey by rowboat across the fierce Drake Passage to find help. If Shackleton had failed, no one would have known the story -- much less seen his 35mm film that survived the ordeal along with most of the expedition photographs.
Despite their remote location, the 21st-century filmmakers were able to talk with director Butler via satellite telephone. "For about three weeks, we never saw any kind of dirt, rock or insects," Mans says. "Down there, you don't see mountains. It's all white -- either sky or ice or water." As the British icebreaker pushed further south than Shackleton had ventured, the camera team decided to try to get underwater footage of the compacted ice. Mans dove in an area that was "the furthest south anyone had dived in the Atlantic Ocean."
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While video from that foray didn't make it onto the screen, Mans and Ransom shot enough 16mm film to add about twenty minutes of screen time to Butler's original film, resulting in the feature-length documentary The Endurance -- Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. The pair soared over pods of whales, legions of seals and colonies of penguins in their pursuit of the forbidding landscape. They were even able to capture Cape Wild on Elephant Island, where Shackleton's men huddled for months under two rowboats. The team also bagged monster waves hitting the cutter's fifth story.
"We did get a little nauseous," Mans admits.
Still, it was a small price to pay for visiting one of the most remote parts of the planet and adding to the legend of an explorer who may have been the greatest survivor, rather than failure, in history.