BFI marks centenary of the death of Sir Ernest Shackleton

On 5 January 1922, the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration drew to a symbolic close with the death of Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Marking both this centenary, and that of Britain’s first attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the BFI presents TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM, a season at BFI Southbank throughout January, with associated film releases in cinemas and for home entertainment. The season programme includes the BFI National Archive 4K remaster of SOUTH (1919) on extended run. It will also be released in cinemas UK-wide on 28 January, followed by Blu-ray/DVD on 21 February. Talks and events include a Q&A with explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes for his expedition record, TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: THE TRANSGLOBE EXPEDITION sharing his first-hand knowledge, and further events in association with the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), The Explorers Club and YES & NO Magazine including Polar explorer Mark Wood. There will be themed collections on BFI Player (available from 5 January) and in the BFI Mediatheque.

An epic ode to the achievements of explorers across the globe, captured on film from the last 100+ years, BFI Southbank’s season journeys from peak to Pole, to tell a connected story about human endurance, international co-operation and our relationship with and the impact on the natural world. The birth of film coincided with exploration’s heyday as a competitive sport, a source of national pride and a beacon of scientific discovery. The work of pioneer filmmakers such as Herbert Ponting and Captain John Noel in the remotest corners of the earth, has fuelled a century of genre-spanning cinema, helping to slake our thirst for knowledge and our obsession to know more about the extremities of our planet.

The subject of exploration continues to have a narrative hold on filmmakers today with the likes of Werner Herzog and Kevin Macdonald drawing inspiration from those who travel to the ends of the Earth, pushing the limits of endurance and looking at the lessons to be learned from what they find there.

A highlight of the season is a new 4K presentation of SOUTH (1919), digitally remastered for the Shackleton centenary from the BFI National Archive’s restoration with its original colours matched by tinting and toning, and with a newly-commissioned score by Neil Brand.  Exquisitely shot by Frank HurleySOUTH is the incredible record of Shackleton’s 1914-16 Endurance expedition to Antarctica, one of the greatest survival stories in the history of exploration. The BFI remaster will premiere at the BFI IMAX on 27 January, with a live score performed by Neil Brand and the Covent Garden Sinfonia, conducted by Ben Palmer. 

SOUTH is released in cinemas UK-wide from 28 January and features on a special 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD set, released on 21 February SOUTH & THE HEROIC AGE OF ANTARCTIC EXPLORATION, which collects for the first time the surviving films from the Heroic Age, sourced from archives around the world, including footage from the Amundsen, Mawson, Shirase and Shackleton expeditions from the early 20th century.

Simon Fisher Turner performs a live score screening of THE EPIC OF EVEREST (1924) (29 January, NFT1), Captain John Noel’s documentary account of George Mallory’s final ascent of Everest. A recorded score by Simon Fisher Turner also features on THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924), Herbert Ponting’s poignant documentary about the ill-fated 1910-1913 Terra Nova Antarctic Expedition led by Captain Scott. This award-winning restoration by the BFI National Archive is re-released on Blu-ray/DVD on 21 February.

Alongside original film records for Shackleton (SOUTH, 1919), Scott (THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE, 1924), Mallory (THE EPIC OF EVEREST, 1924) and Hillary (THE CONQUEST OF EVEREST, 1953)’s expeditions, the season features documentaries including the Oscar-nominated short, FOOTHOLD ON ANTARCTICA (1957), one of a number of colourful shorts capturing post-war Antarctic exploration, plus Werner Herzog’s Oscar-nominated feature ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007) and Kevin Macdonald’s BAFTA-winning TOUCHING THE VOID (2003).

Big screen drama includes Charles Frend’s remastered Ealing classic, SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC (1948) starring John Mills, James Robertson Justice and Kenneth More, shot by Jack Cardiff, plus rare screenings of THE RED TENT (1969), a big-budget, all-star Soviet/Italian co-production, featuring Peter Finch, Sean Connery and Claudia Cardinale and a score by Ennio Morricone, and THE FIGHT FOR THE MATTERHORN (1928), a prized example of an interwar ‘mountain’ film. A German/Swiss co-production, the film recreates the 1865 battle between English and Italian climbing rivals to be the first to conquer the Mattherhorn summit.

Described by The Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer” Sir Ranulph Fiennes will present the rarely-screened TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: THE TRANSGLOBE EXPEDITION (1983) (18 January, NFT1), a film account, narrated by Richard Burton, of Fiennes’s Transglobe Expedition 1979-82; the first north-south circumnavigation of the Earth without leaving its surface. The epic journey, crossing both Poles, was captured using specialist all-terrain photography and 16mm shot by Fiennes himself as the expedition leader.

Established polar explorer and adventurer Mark Wood will introduce THE CONQUEST OF EVEREST (1953) (12 January, NFT3), Thomas Stobart’s glorious Kodachrome cinematic account of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Everest in May 1953.

Over the last 100 years, cinema has helped shape and create the mythical figures of exploration such as Shackleton, Scott, Mallory and Hillary, yet the contribution of Black and Indigenous peoples, integral to some key expeditions by Western explorers, remain woefully underrepresented in the history of exploration. Will a new generation of filmmakers take on these untold stories, such as pioneering Black explorer Matthew Henson? Similarly the achievements of early female explorers has tended to be eclipsed in the public imagination by the adventures of their male counterparts.

An illustrated talk, hosted by BFI National Curator Bryony Dixon and Dr Sarah Evans from the Royal Geographical SocietySilent Cinema: Intrepid Women (16 January, NFT1) will look to redress the gender balance, shining a spotlight on some of the early women explorers of the twentieth century and films of Rosita Forbes, Hettie Dyhrenfurth, Osa Johnson and aviation legend Amy Johnson.

YES & NO magazine in association with The Explorers Club will host a Salon exploring the nature of exploration now, with a panel of explorers and climate scientists reflecting on the historical icons and cinematic moments of the past that have driven and continued to inspire contemporary adventurers  (12 January, NFT3).

A complementary BFI Mediatheque collection is available to explore at BFI Southbank. INTO THE WHITE: 100 YEARS OF POLAR EXPLORATION takes viewers on an exciting journey to the icy extremes of our planet. The early part of the 20th century saw the ‘heroic age’ of popular imagination, during which Antarctica was explored, measured and mapped and the South Pole finally reached. The valiant efforts of men like Scott and Shackleton have continued to inspire filmmakers. Some of the best retellings are available here, alongside fascinating documentaries showing the subsequent work of scientists, naturalists and explorers working in the Polar regions.

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH themed collection of free and subscription titles including films from the Royal Geographical Society collection will be available on BFI Player from 5 January.