Three types of authenticity

The Aurora

Douglas Mawson’s ship The Aurora, from http://www.south-pole.com

This evening on Channel 4 there was an intriguing 90 mins documentary on Douglas Mawson, When Hell Freezes, made by the estimable Flashback Television. It’ll need to be some other time for me to produce for you a substantial post on silent film and polar exploration (a particular interest of mine), but this programme needs to be noted now for its use of original archive film of Mawson’s expedition as one type of evidence with which to convince us in our comfortable twenty-first century lives of the splendours and miseries of the golden age of Antarctic exploration.

Mawson is less well-known than Robert Falcon Scott or Ernest Shackleton, whose own Antarctic follies have been richly documented in recent years, Shackleton in particular. Mawson was perhaps less of a self-publicist, though he took care to have a motion picture cameraman with him (the motion picture rights helped pay for several of the Antarctic expeditions of this period), who just happened to be Frank Hurley, later (and particularly of late) to find fame as Shackleton’s cinematographer. Mawson also produced a book, The Home of the Blizzard.

His 1912-13 expedition – naturally conducted for the finest scientific reasons – explored the area of Antarctica to the south of Australia, and aimed to visit the South Magnetic Pole. Disaster struck when team member Edward Ninnis fell through a crevasse, complete with dogs and sled. Mawson and Xavier Mertz, who were with him, turned back from their exploration, but Mertz died on the return journey. Mawson made an astonishing solo journey back, arriving back at the home base only to find that the expedition ship the Aurora had left just a few hours beforehand (happily, some colleagues had remained behind in the faint hope of his possible survival). Hurley, of course, was not with the trio on this ill-fated section of the expedition, and consequently no film of it exists.

What I found intriguing about the film was its multi-layered approach to authenticity. We have in past years had the past made convincing to us through the use of archive film (and photographs). Today, however, the fashion is either for dramatic reconstructions, or a presenter going through the same privations as those suffered in the past. When Hell Freezes gave us all three, plus readings from Mawson’s text. Our modern counterparts were Tim and John, who retraced Mawson’s steps using the same equipment and clothing in the kind of pseudo-authencity one can only achieve when a television programme is to be made about the adventure. The dramatic reconstructions were bleached out to look like Hurley’s original footage, and at time the untrained eye would not have spotted the difference between the two.

The modern adventure failed to thrill, as it was inevitably doomed to do (“will Tim and John survive on the ice…?” Of course they will), but the idea was somehow to blend the three styles so that present became past and past became present. But modern video is too bright, too much of the moment – it anaethetizes the ordeal. The monochrome silent footage, by its very distance, makes those things endured in the past seem all the more astonishing, because they seem so distant. In seeing the films of Scott, Shackleton and Mawson we long for close-ups and the camera techniques of today that will bring them that much closer to us, but maybe it is the lack of intimacy that is their strength. When Hell Freezes‘s own faux dramatised scenes were strongest when they showed figures lost in the white distance, not trying to show the agonies etched on their faces.

Anyway, it was a good programme, and despite my advocacy of the archive footage, probably its best moment was the Touching the Void-like sequence where the exhausted Mawson falls down a crevasse and manages, utterly improbably, to climb back up, fall back, yet somehow find the strength to climb his rope once again to safety – while our modern day hero fails to emulate him. Whatever the means of imaginative recreation at our disposal, some feats lie beyond all comprehension.

Peter’s Polar Place is an excellent source of information on the works of Frank Hurley, including archive holdings of films films and those available on DVD. There doesn’t seen to be DVD available of Hurley’s original 1913 documentary, Dr Mawson in the Antarctic (erroneously known as Home of the Blizzard in some sources), but the film itself is held in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

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