Branagh Braves the Pole for Shackleton Epic

By Chris Hastings, Sunday Telegraph, 17 September 2000

KENNETH BRANAGH is to spend six weeks in the Antarctic to ensure the authenticity of a film about Ernest Shackleton, the Edwardian explorer.

In an interview with The Telegraph, the actor spoke about the challenges involved in recreating the adventurer's doomed 1914 attempt to cross the frozen wastes.

Branagh, whose pursuit of the authentic has recently led him to wear a hump throughout a radio recording of Shakespeare's Richard III, said: "The film is going to be a real challenge for all concerned. There is only so much you can do with computer technology.

"If the audience is to get a real feel of what Shackleton and his crew went through then we have at least got to give them some idea of the real environment of the place. That means filming in the area where their adventures took place. It also means I am going to have to be as fit as a butcher's dog - and put an order in for some thermals."

Branagh talked about a lifelong fascination with Shackleton and his Edwardian contemporaries which was sparked by old black and white feature films. He said: "Ever since I first saw Scott of the Antarctic with John Mills I have been fascinated by the so-called gentlemen explorers.

"It was something about their stiff upper lips and their lack of preparation for their expeditions which attracted me. Shackleton in particular appealed because he wasn't like any of his fellow explorers. While his colleagues tended to be from privileged backgrounds, he was very much of an outsider and I think that is what partly drove him. I think he was happiest when he was in the wild, among men and as a leader of men. The anticipation of the adventure was something which was in his life's blood."

Shackleton's mission may have been a failure but his name lives on because of the unbelievable odds he and his crew overcame during their three-year voyage. After setting off from South Georgia, Shackleton's ship Endurance became trapped in ice. Twelve hundred miles from land the men survived the next 10 months on a diet of dogs, penguins and seals.

When the ship eventually sank they were forced to make good their escape by lifeboat. Shackleton then travelled another 800 miles in a 22ft lifeboat called the James Caird to reach help. All of the men who left with him got home safely.

Charles Sturridge is directing the four-hour drama, which will be the most expensive ever made by Channel 4. He said that Branagh was his first choice for the role because of the personal traits the actor shares with the character.

Mr Branagh said: "I am not so sure how far we should take the comparison. I remember there was one famous occasion when he ended a dispute by punching a man in the face. I haven't gone that far. "I don't think my own achievements can quite match up to what he did. His story is one of unbelievable heroics in the face of impossible adversity. I would like to think that perhaps a certain adventurousness of spirit is something I share with him."

Shackleton's ability to motivate men in the most difficult circumstances continues to fascinate Branagh. He said: "He had a natural leadership quality which he combined with an absolute and visible readiness to do everything that everyone else was doing. "If there was a mast to be climbed, if there was ice to be cut, if there were sledges to be drawn, he was right in among them. If not universally loved, he was universally respected. They called him the boss."

Branagh is to add to his already encyclopaedic knowledge of his hero by reading unpublished accounts of the trip by some of the crew. He will also meet relatives, including Shackleton's cousin Jonathan Shackleton. The star believes that the current obsession with programmes such as Big Brother and Castaway, which dwell on what happens to people in adversity, bodes well for the film. "I think there is something in the air which means the time is right for a film about this man.There is an enduring fascination with endurance and adversity."

The film is also likely to benefit from a resurgence of interest in what has become known as The Race to the Pole. An exhibition, South: The Race to the Pole has opened at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The James Caird lifeboat is the star attraction. The exhibition also highlights the achievements of Scott and Amundsen.

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