Follow TV Tropes


Film / Shackleton

Go To

Shackleton is a 2002 TV movie written and directed by Charles Sturridge.

It's 3 1/2 hours long and was originally aired on television in two parts. It tells the true story of the epic Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914. Ernest Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh) is a veteran of Antarctic exploration who failed in his last attempt to reach the South Pole, turning back because he and his men faced death by starvation if they didn't. Unfortunately for Shackleton, in the meantime two different explorers, Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, reached the Pole—and Scott and his men died on the way back, instantly becoming martyrs.

Faced with eclipse and needing something to restore his fortunes, Shackleton hits on something that neither Amundsen nor Scott even attempted: march all the way across Antarctica, on foot. Desperate scrounging for funds finally gets him a ship and men, and he's off in August of 1914. (World War I is breaking out at this same time but Shackleton gets the thumbs-up from Winston Churchill and the Admiralty.)


Shackleton and his men take their ship, the Endurance, into the icy waters of Antarctica's Weddell Sea. There, disaster strikes. The ship gets stuck in the ice and, after several months, is eventually crushed by the pressure of the ice pack. Shackleton's men survive that just fine, but are stranded, left adrift on the ice pack. They are stuck in the coldest place on earth, hundreds of miles from any source of help or rescue.

Embeth Davidtz plays Shackleton's mistress, Lady Chetwynd. (Phoebe Nicholls plays his wife, Emily.)



  • Abandon Ship: Unlike most instances of this trope there is some deliberation in advance, as the boat is still being held up by the ice. But it's been shattered down below and the lower decks are filling with water, so on Shackleton's order "Abandon ship!" goes out and the men take to the ice.
  • Agony of the Feet: Blackboro's gangrenous toes are cut off while the men wait on Elephant Island. There's even a closeup of severed toes being dropped in a mess tin.
  • Answer Cut: Shackleton's question about Robert Scott's polar expedition, "Where is he?", is answered by a cut to a lone tent in the Antarctic wastes. Scott and his men are dead.
  • As You Know:
    • One of the members of the Royal Geographic Society points out that "This is the Royal Geographic Society!" when explaining why they shouldn't back Shackleton's journey.
    • "As you well know, the Weddell Sea is hemmed in on three sides like a U." This bit of exposition comes on South Georgia Island where a Norwegian whaler explains to Shackleton how the winds and geography trap the ice in the Weddell Sea and will make for very tough going for the Endurance.
  • Conversation Cut:
    • There's a cut from Shackleton dictating his letter to the newspaper about his expedition, to the men of the Royal Geographic Society reading that letter.
    • The exact same thing is done later, when Shackleton's wife dictating a letter to the newspaper about a relief expedition cuts to Shackleton's mistress reading that letter in the paper.
  • The Determinator: Shackleton, who by God will get his men home alive. When Wild says that the men don't see the point in backbreaking labor hauling sledges, because they're going to die anyway, Shackleton gets angry.
    Shackleton: They're not going to die. I will not let them die. Do you understand? I will not let them bloody die.
  • Disastrous Demonstration: Shackleton's propeller-powered sledge fails to start during a press conference. Shackleton brushes this off, but it's a sign of how they are Awesome, but Impractical.
  • Downer Beginning: Shackleton has just left a lecture when he receives a phone call with news that Amundsen has won the race to the Pole. Shackleton then says "And Scott, where is he?" Cut to the tent in the middle of the frozen Antarctic wastes, where Scott and his people lie dead. It's certainly tragic for Scott, but also bad for Shackleton, who won't be first to the Pole and is overshadowed by Scott the martyr as well.
  • Dutch Angle: Produced In-Universe as the Endurance is caught in the ice, tilted from the vertical, but the trope still works in demonstrating that their situation is deteriorating.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: "SHIP!!!" After all that—half a year stuck on the ice, months longer floating on the ice, the difficult voyage to Elephant Island, the even more difficult 870-mile voyage by the relief party to South Georgia Island, then finally Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean climbing a goddamn mountain to make it to the whaling station—after all that, Ernest Shackleton succeeds in getting every last one of his men home alive.
  • The Eeyore: McNeish the carpenter, who starts off pretty cynical about Shackleton's leadership and grows steadily more so as time passes on, spreading doom and gloom in the party. Subverted to an extent because McNeish is often right: he calls out Shackleton's It's Probably Nothing bullshit about a whale, correctly noting that the ominous sound they heard was ice grinding against the boat, and he correctly observes that the Endurance is built with the wrong shape and so will be crushed in the ice instead of being pushed up free of it. But he's wrong about the feasibility of Shackleton's plan to take to the sea in lifeboats, and he's generally a Debbie Downer in the worst possible setting, and events climax in a quasi-mutiny in which McNeish briefly refuses to obey Shackleton's orders.note 
  • Everything's Better with Penguins
    • Shackleton understands this well when he livens up his lecture about the Antarctic with pictures of penguins.
    • Shackleton and his reporter buddy are discussing the arrangements they're going to a make for a movie about the expedition that they can sell. As they watch an Antarctic newsreel with penguins, the reporter says "Look, penguins! The public loves them! That's just what we need in our film, lots of penguins."
    • The Argentinian bigwig in Buenos Aires, hosting a farewell dinner for Shackleton, brings a penguin that he puts on the table for the amusement of the guests.
    • Averted when Shackleton and Hurley are debating which of Hurley's still pictures to salvage as the Endurance is evacuated. As Hurley pulls out a glass plate with a photo of two penguins Shackleton rolls his eyes and says "No more penguins."
  • Fight to Survive: The expedition becomes this the moment the boat is crushed and the men are stranded in the Antarctic. Shackelton and his men then go on a desperate journey to survive, with Shackleton and a few picked men going on an even more desperate 800-mile voyage in a lifeboat to South Georgia Island, the only possible source of help.
  • Formally Named Pet: The ship's cat on the Endurance Antarctic expedition is named Mrs. Chippy. (Even though he's actually a tomcat.)
  • Home by Christmas: One sailor says that surely World War I won't last past Christmas. Another says that might be too optimistic but that it will surely be over by the time they get back. When Shackleton finally reaches the settlement in South Georgia, he wants to know who won the war, only to be informed that the war is still going on and millions have died in it.
  • "If My Calculations Are Correct, the shortfall is twenty-four thousand pounds," says Sir James Caird, noting that Shackleton is still £24,000 short. Caird cuts him a check.
  • It's a Costume Party, I Swear!: On South Georgia Island the sailors play a prank on Hudson by telling him the dinner before their departure is a costume party, which it isn't. When he shows up dressed as Buddha the rest of them roar with laughter.
  • It's Probably Nothing: After the Endurance is trapped in the Antarctic ice, the crew hears an ominous grinding sound and feels the ship move. Shackleton insists that it's the result of a whale mistaking the ship for a hole in the ice. It isn't.
  • Lecture as Exposition
    • The intro with Shackleton giving a lecture to a bunch of Germans has him telling them that he had to turn back from his own South Pole trek to avoid freezing to death, while both Scott and Amundsen are trying for the Pole as they speak.
    • Later, when Shackleton is getting Janet Stancombe Wills to fund the expedition, he uses her tea settings to explain to her and the audience his plan to make it across the Pole. (He and his men will come from one side while another party will land on the opposite side and leave food dumps for Shackleton and his men to eat after they've passed the Pole.)
  • Little Stowaway: Perce Blackboro, a young sailor who stows away the Endurance when it leaves Buenos Aires, because he wants a job.
  • Match Cut: From a penguin waddling around the banquet table in Buenos Aires to McNeish's cat, Mrs. Chippy, wandering around the mess table on the ship.
  • The Mistress: It's pretty awkward when Shackleton's wife Emily shows up at the train station to wish him goodbye and finds him in the arms of his mistress, Lady Chetwynd. It's just as awkward when this other woman—distraught over Shackleton's possible fate—rings up his wife for reassurance.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title: Shackleton. It is a pretty cool name.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: After Shackleton's wife applies public pressure, the British government takes forming a committee to decide what to do about the missing Shackleton expedition, just when said expedition has reached South Georgia. While the government is understandably preoccupied with the war, it never seems to occur to them to just request a neutral country in South America to send a ship on their behalf.
  • River of Insanity: Ernest Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica, which becomes a grim Fight to Survive after their boat is crushed by ice and the men are stranded in the polar wastes. Unlike most examples of this trope they actually make it home alive.
  • Tempting Fate: Shackleton seeks to calm his anxious wife by telling her "One more trip south! That's all it will be!" Instead it turns into a harrowing battle for survival lasting nearly a year and a half after the ship is stuck in the ice.
  • Terrible Interviewees Montage: Including a youth who prepared for the expedition by taking a bath full of ice, and an army officer whose commanding officer was quite enthusiastic when he proposed taking off for the South Pole. But not to worry, if war is declared "I'll make my own way back." The third interviewee also seems dubious as he was inspired by a dream to join the expedition, but as he's an experienced sea captain they can make better use of him.