Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
South - Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (1919)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

What follows is the true story of a group of 28 men who set out on a voyage across the unexplored and uncharted Antartic Continent. HMS Endurance leaves England in July 1914, the same month war is declared. On board is expedition leader Sir Ernest Shackleton; the ship's captain, Captain F. Worsley; Lieutenant J. Stenhouse, D.S.C commandeer of the Ross Sea supply ship Aurora; metereologist Captain L. Hussey with his banjo; head of Scientific Staff James Wordie; surgeons Dr McIlroy and Dr Macklin and the Second-In-Command Frank Wild. Shackleton immediately offers his ship and personnel to help the war effort but the Government tells him to proceed with the expedition.

Endurance leaves Buenos Aires on 27 October 1914. Cheering crowds see her off. Also on board is a pack of 70 dogs, the backbone of the expedition, who must be housed, fed and treated when ill - tasks undertaken by McIlroy, Macklin and Wordie.

The journey continues across a land covered in glaciers. Endurance cuts her way through the pack ice using her bow like a scythe. Shackleton directs the ship, his orders relayed via a chain of command to the man at the wheel, past icebergs, one 150 foot high, 28 miles wide which floats alongside for 9 months, sea creatures like crab-eating seals, through 1500 miles of ice and water.

One morning brings a sudden drop in temperature and Endurance becomes trapped in thick pack ice. It's 15 February 1915. A small lead, a channel of free flowing water is spotted ahead. They attempt to cut a path to this water. Shackleton steers the Endurance through but it becomes trapped again. The leads freeze up, winter approaches, Endurance is stuck for 9 months. A litter of puppies is born.

While they wait, the crew gather ice for drinking water, feed and exercise the dogs, build pylons made of ice blocks, try to build a motorised sledge, conduct scientific experiments, collect biological samples from the sea. It is 1 August 1915. Weather conditions worsen, the ice beneath and around the ship increases. The ship is crushed by the mighty force of ice. The men hack at the ice but it is no use. The ship finally disintegrates.

Removing their supplies from the ship they set up camp on the ice. At first they try to proceed on foot but when the going becomes too difficult they establish Patience Camp. Many times they have to strike camp because the ice floes shift and split beneath them. Eventually they find a safe piece of ice they name Dump Camp. They drift on this solid piece for six months and when this begins to break up they take to the sea in three lifeboats. After six days they reach Elephant Island, weak and frost-bitten. They remain here for four and a half months.

Shackleton and five companions set off for South Georgia, 800 miles away, in a small, 20-foot boat called the James Caird. On the journey they scale a glacial mountain range, brave violent seas, kill birds for food. By the time they reach land, three of the men are very ill. Shackleton and the other two travel 32 miles across the interior of South Georgia to a whaling station where they can raise the alarm. They reach the station on 20 May 1916.

At the busy whaling station blubber is striped from whales to make oil, while the extraordinary creatures of Antartica get on with the business of living and procreating - sea elephants, penguins, numerous and various birds.

Shackleton picks up his three ill companions in a rescue ship and then proceeds to Elephant Island to the remaining 22. He succeeds in landing the boat on the fourth attempt. All are saved. The Chilean navy escorts the survivors to Valparaiso, where they are given a hero's welcome by vast, cheering crowds.