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The Iceman Cometh

A&E -- and a very game Kenneth Branagh -- add to the growing canon of stories about Sir Ernest Shackleton and his mythmaking excursion to the South Pole.

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The importance of being Ernest: Branagh and crew in Shackleton.  

Not to spoil anybody's fun, but what you get in Shackleton, the mini-series written and directed by Charles Sturridge and starring Kenneth Branagh, is Greenland rather than Antarctica. I suppose that when you've seen one glacier, you've seen them all. But if you feel the need of a southern ice cap, you'd have been better off watching Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance last week on the public-television series Nova, which chartered its own pair of expeditions to Elephant Island, Weddell Sea, and South Georgia. Or Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure at your local Imax, also a production of the Nova science unit. Or you could tune in early on Monday night, an hour before part two of the A&E mini-series, for Ernest Shackleton: Looking South, which talks to surviving relatives of the original crew, looks at the original Frank Hurley photographs, and follows filmmaker George Butler all the way to Shackleton's heart attack five years after his third failed attempt to make it to the South Pole.

That said, Shackleton is male bonding of the highest order. With his square jaw pointed windward like Dick Tracy's and his hair parted in the middle like that of an Irish tenor, Branagh's Shackleton is determined to recover for England the exploratory glory that's been stolen away by foreigners like the Norwegian Amundsen. Because of previous failures -- once with the luckless Scott, in 1902; then on his own, with Manchurian ponies instead of dogs, stopped just 97 miles short of the pole in 1909 -- he has a hard time raising funds for another go. It seems easier to leave both his wife, Emily (Phoebe Nicholls), and his mistress, Rosalind (Embeth Davidtz). Easiest of all is getting 27 able-bodied hearties to go with him, one of them a stowaway.

And so -- leaving behind the admiralty, the Royal Geographical Society, Lord Curzon, and the coincidental outbreak of World War I -- the Endurance is on its way first to Buenos Aires, then to the Grytviken whaling station in the Falkland Islands, where the crew is warned against the nasty ice ahead. They proceed anyway, with the occasional pause for the banjo sing-along and the occasional excursion on an ice pack to kick around a soccer ball, until falling temperatures, thickening ice, and gathering darkness trap the ship. Their intention had been to make the first overland crossing of the Antarctic continent. They are stuck instead for a sunless winter on an ice floe.

Now you must imagine the men hauling their lifeboats across the floe in search of water to float on toward any land at all. And the dogs they have to shoot and eat. And then the 90 miles of South Pacific that deposits them on Elephant Island, where there is seal meat to subsist on -- while Shackleton and five others in a single 22-foot boat go another 800 miles through 50-foot waves to seek help in the Falklands, only to land on the wrong side of South Georgia, requiring three of them to hike seventeen miles over snowfields, ice cliffs, and glaciers to the whaling station at Stromness. It takes three and a half months and four tries for Shackleton to get back to Elephant Island for the rest of his men. All 27 survive and return to England after 21 months of having gone nowhere, to find a war that is doing exactly the same.

It's an amazing story, wonderfully told. About the only thing that didn't happen to Shackleton was having the Larsen B ice shelf fall down on him. If the talent show in the claustrophobic ship's quarters, with the cross-dressing and the flamenco and the blackface, perhaps suggests testosterone poisoning -- who needs women when we've got penguins and each other? -- it's worth remembering that Shackleton brought back, instead of glory, all of his men. His judgment, at least on weather and topography, left something to be desired. But his values were certainly screwed on straight. That many of the men he rescued would promptly disappear into the Moloch's maw of World War I argues eloquently for hobbies over statecraft.

Shackleton
Sunday, April 7, 8 to 10 p.m., and Monday, April 8, 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E.

IN BRIEF:

  • The Court (Tuesdays; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) stars Sally Field instead of Joe Mantegna as the brand-new swing vote on the Supreme Court, and Pat Hingle instead of James Garner as the chief justice. From executive producer Carol Flint, it's better written, better acted, and better directed than First Monday, with the same topics (like abortion) on the docket.
  • Reel Radicals: The Sixties' Revolution in Film (April 2; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; AMC) suggests that upstart directors like John Frankenheimer, Buck Henry, Norman Jewison, Arthur Penn, and John Schlesinger and anti-heroic actors like Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, and Dennis Hopper used the sixties to change the Hollywood studio system. The clips are more interesting than the argument. Actually, American movies were much more interesting in the seventies.
  • Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy (April 3, 10, and 17; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is everything Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw think we need to know about globalization.
  • Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans (April 4; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) goes into the Eastern European woods of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine to introduce us to eleven Jews, representing some 30,000 who fought back during World War II. Afterward, read Primo Levi's novel on the subject, If Not Now, When?
  • History Undercover: Inside Pol Pot's Secret Prison (April 7; 10 to 11 p.m.; History Channel) makes us visit S-21, the former Tuol Sleng high school in Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge tortured at least 14,000 fellow Cambodians, men, women, and children, before sending them off to the killing fields in the routine course of a genocide in which 1.7 million perished. I have been to this place, where they kept archival records every bit as carefully as the Nazis, and I think you'll be as horrified as I was.
  • We Were the Mulvaneys (April 8; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime), based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, stares unflinchingly at the destruction of a family after its golden child, 16-year-old Marianne (Tammy Blanchard), is raped in 1974. With Beau Bridges as the father, Blythe Danner as the mother, and Mark Famiglietti, Jacob Pitts, and Thomas Guiry as Marianne's brothers. There is class here, but also Freud: Danner shouldn't have to choose between her husband and her daughter.

Photo by Nick Briggs.


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