American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Shackleton's expedition was not necessarily noble, but its failure created the opportunity for legend. The South Pole had already been reached by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who outraced Robert Falcon Scott in 1911-12, in a competition that ended in Scott's death. Shackleton's plan was to cross Antarctica via the pole, and claim it for England; explorers of his generation were inflamed by visions of daring conquests.
What made Shackleton's adventure so immediate to later generations was that he took along a photographer, Frank Hurley, who shot motion picture film and stills (and entered the sinking Endurance to rescue it).
That film was the basis of "South" (1916), a silent documentary that was restored and re-released in 2000. It was not a sophisticated film; Hurley employed the point-and-shoot approach to cinematography, but his simple shots spoke for themselves: men with frost on their beards, dogs plowing through snow, the destruction of the Endurance in the ice. Above all they underlined the might of nature and the impudence of men; we are surprised by how small the Endurance is, and how the crew members seem like dots of life in a frozen world.
That footage has now been used by the documentarian George Butler ("Pumping Iron") as the basis for "The Endurance," a new documentary based on Caroline Alexander's book about the expedition. The narration is by Liam Neeson. The old black-and-white footage, retaining all of its power, is intercut with new color footage of the original locations, including Elephant Island, where the Endurance crew wintered in the endless night, crouching inside shelters for six months.