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In many ways, the most exciting and important events of human history lie in the realm of global exploration. From the earliest sailors who discovered new shipping routes between nations and continents, to the journeys to America by the Vikings and Columbus, Magellen's circumnavigation of the globe, and the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest, mankind's desire to expand his knowledge of our Earth has been a series of dangerous affairs that have created heroes of almost mythic proportions. Of course, the majority of global exploration has had at its heart economic motivations — developing new means of trade and commerce, or simply discovering lands (and indigenous people) to colonize and rule. But by the dawn of the 20th century the globe had few uncharted frontiers, and only one virgin continent — the uninhabited Antarctica, which offered nothing in the way of economic opportunity, and thus little government support for wide-scale exploration. But there were scientific discoveries to be made, and the South Pole remained an alluring prize for those daring men who hoped to be the first to plant a boot-print upon its frozen ground. The British launched a team in 1901, led by Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, which fared poorly before an early retreat to the coast. By 1907, Ernest Shackleton (one of Scott's original team members) staged his own independent quest, which ended with a notable failure — he was forced to turn back just 97 miles from the goal. Scott returned to Antarctica again in 1911, but unbeknownst to the world, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was en route to Antarctica as well, and his well-equipped team became the first to reach the bottom of the world. Stung by his 1907 failure, Ernest Shackleton was still determined to make a name for himself in Antarctica, and in 1914 he planned an entirely new expedition that would traverse the continent — the two-year adventure remains one of the most harrowing in modern history and can be considered the last of its kind.

Charles Sturridge's television miniseries Shackleton concerns the voyage of the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton's Antarctica-bound boat, which departed England on a voyage to Buenos Aries, where it would make final preparations for the dangerous journey south and Shackleton's crossing of Antarctica. Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh) has been making a living lecturing on Antarctica for several years, but the recent success of Amundsen — as well as the tragic death of Scott in his 1911 expedition — has taken him out of the limelight. A restless, ambitious man capable of raising funds and rallying men, Shackleton approaches his 1914 venture with an enthusiasm not shared by his family, although he assembles a crew of able seamen (men who acknowledge they are explorers because they are "no damn use anywhere else"). But once en route from South America to the great southern ocean, setbacks arrive. At first, the Endurance is trapped in a massive ice floe that carries the crew for months off the coast of Antarctica. Shackleton decides the best course of action is to simply make camp in the ship for winter and wait for the next spring to continue, but it is only a matter of time before the Endurance is crushed by massive pressure and sunk. Forced to journey over the floe with dogs, supplies, and three lifeboats on sledges, Shackleton and his men plan to find open water and row to a distant whaling station, leading to a trek that would last another year, and causing the world to believe that the entire Endurance crew likely had perished.

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As the 1914 Endurance expedition ranks as one of the most astonishing feats of human survival in modern history, it should come as no surprise that a dramatic rendition would present its own challenges. For writer/director Charles Sturridge, this meant capturing Shackleton's critical scenes in actual polar environments. As documented in an excellent production diary aboard this DVD set, the British film crew selected Iceland and Greenland to stand in for the Antarctic environs — an expensive and daring choice, as Sturridge had three weeks to shoot in troublesome surroundings, and he had to vary his shooting script based on the weather and the overall condition of the Greenland ice pack. But it was worth it — it's hard to think of a film that captures the harsh, frozen vastness of Antarctica as well as Shackleton, creating a perfect backdrop for the extraordinary subject matter. Kenneth Branagh — who bears a resemblance to the real-life Ernest Shackleton, if about 10 years older — was Sturridge's original and only choice for the leading role, and Branagh's fans will enjoy his performance here. Shackleton is considered to have been a better leader of men than an actual explorer (some would say he was at his best when everything else was at its worst), and Branagh's grim determination, along with a few rousing speeches, recall the younger actor who played Henry V with such fire in his 1989 film. As a miniseries, Shackleton also offers a welcome length, with nearly three-and-a-half hours to cover the entire story. Of course, the earliest parts of the picture cannot compare to the gripping second half, but the planning phase offers an introduction to the film's many characters, and especially to Shackleton himself — a man who nearly died twice in the heart of Antarctica and wants nothing so much as to return and tempt death again.

A co-production of Britain's Channel 4 and the A&E cable network, the three-disc Shackleton DVD release offers a wonderfully crisp anamorphic transfer of the film (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 stereo. And in addition to the entire miniseries, presented in two parts, the third disc offers extras that are just as fascinating as the feature film itself. On board is the documentary "The Making of Shackleton" (50 min.), which is an engaging look at the film's difficult production journey to Greenland, and easily one of the best of its kind on DVD; the A&E channel's "Biography" episode on Ernest Shackleton (43 min.), which is a worthy companion to the miniseries; and best of all, the History Channel's Antarctica: A Frozen History (92 min.), which offers a lengthy look at the struggle between Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen to conquer the south pole. Three plastic shells in a paperboard slipcase.
—Robert Wederquist

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