documentary filmmaker george Butler's first film was Pumping Iron, about men bulking up. His latest, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (see review, page 70) is about men withering away. In 1914, the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton's ship, carried a crew of 28 men to the Antarctic, which Shackleton was attempting for the third time to cross by foot. They were thwarted by treacherous conditions before they even reached land (they were a scant 85 miles from shore), and it took more than two years for the crew to make their way home.
"I don't think modern people, in the same conditions Shackleton and his men endured, could survive two years down there," says Butler. "Mentally, we are not tough enough."
Butler is in town to discuss his film, which was turned down by 20 distributors after it premiered to rave reviews at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
"Everyone told us no audience would go see a historical documentary in a movie theatre. We are proving that theory as wrong as it could be. I do something very unusual for a documentary filmmaker in that I make all my films for theatrical release, which is what all documentary filmmakers should be doing."
He sounds very cocky for a man who's only made four films in 25 years, but he has a point. People will pay to see a documentary if it has a compelling story and powerful images. In this film, both elements are at work: a miraculous tale and stunning photos of the journey taken by crew photographer Frank Hurley.
"It's interesting that the religious and spiritual references in the film had to be taken out for the IMAX version because science theatres in North America will not tolerate a religious answer to a scientific dilemma," notes Butler.
"There is no scientific explanation for 28 men living 635 days in the Antarctic. It had to be a miracle -- there is just no other explanation."
Of course, Shackleton's leadership skills played a crucial part in the crew's survival.
"Shackleton was Irish. He had the gift of the gab. He liked talking and hanging out with his men, and he was very democratic and innovative in his management principles, which is why all of Wall Street has adopted Shackleton as a guiding figure.
"I got to make this movie because four major American corporations sponsored me," says Butler proudly. "People are beginning to listen to me, and I've made a big deal about this: corporate sponsorship of documentaries is a whole new avenue for filmmakers. It's been brilliantly successful for me, and look at Ken Burns -- he's now sponsored by General Motors."
It's a slippery slope Butler is treading. Here's hoping company logos don't end up inserted into documentaries to placate greedy CEOs.firstname.lastname@example.org
the endurance: shackleton's legendary antarctic expedition directed by George Butler, written by Caroline Alexander and Joseph Dorman, based on the book by Alexander, produced by Butler, narrated by Liam Neeson. 93 minutes. A Cowboy Booking International release. Opens Friday (February 1). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 70. Rating: NNNN