These are the historical ‘facts’ that have been transmitted through our screen culture (and our wider, national culture), and continued to be reinforced with the renewed fashion for Edwardian polar history since the 1990s. Take one highly visible international example: a scene in Shackleton, the 2002 TV mini-series written and directed by Charles Sturridge.(2)
Ernest Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh) visits a London movie studio around mid-1914, prior to the departure of his soon to be famously heroic Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton is taken aside and shown a magnificent film of penguins and seals: Home of the Blizzard, a huge hit in Sydney that the studio is about to acquire the rights for. The filmmaker is Frank Hurley – and if he is taken as the expedition’s cinematographer, he will bring sponsorship income to Shackleton ‘s expedition.
What exactly is the evidence for the facts for Sturridge’s dramatisation? Sturridge’s film is well grounded in research, while taking acceptable dramatic licence to tell a story. Presumably, the filmmakers went to the current body of research about early polar cinematography. They may, for example, have referred to the 2001 coffee-table book, South with Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition 1914–1917, the Photographs of Frank Hurley.3 As well as newly reprinted stills from the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the book contains essays by polar historian Shane Murphy and photographic historians Gael Newton and Michael Gray – all three offer considerable authority for Sturridge’s dramatisation. Here’s Newton on Hurley’s motion picture work for the AAE:
Hurley returned to Hobart from the Antarctic in early 1913 … Once back in Sydney, he worked long hours putting together a film and accompanying lectures to raise finance to assist the Aurora’s return for Mawson. Home of the Blizzard premiered in Sydney that year. Hurley carefully honed his lecturing style so that he could give a polished performance when providing screen-side commentaries for the film or his lantern slides.(4)
And in another essay from the book, Newton and Michael Gray argue that Hurley’s:
still photography and cinematographic work in the Antarctic had attracted considerable interest and praise worldwide, partly because of such films as Home of the Blizzard, [which] premier[ed] in Sydney in 1913 and later released in London … [A] decisive factor in Shackleton’s decision to take him as expedition photographer seems to have been financial. As Thomas Orde-Lees noted, ‘Short of funds to the tune of £25,000 … Sir Ernest was offered this sum by an influential syndicate on the condition that he secured the services of the recently returned Mawson’s Expedition cinematographer.’ (5)
Similar versions abound on screen and online: in Anthony Buckley’s 1966 documentary on Frank Hurley, Sand, Snow and Savages; references to Hurley on the Kodak US website; and a 2001 episode of the ABC–TV series Australian Story.(6)
What is the authority for each of these sources, and for this body of historical narrative about Hurley’s AAE work, its commercial release and public recognition? South with Endurance has no footnotes; its bibliography lists general references to key primary archives and oral histories, but there is little specific primary source citation.
Instead, familiar names from the body of Frank Hurley biography loom large: Frank Legg, David Millar and Lennard Bickel – Frank Hurley’s earlier popular biographers.(7) So let’s step back to an extract from David Millar’s From Snowdrift to Shellfire (1984).(8) This is a typical retelling of the story recounted earlier in Frank Legg and Toni Hurley’s biography Once More on My Adventure (1966) and repeated in Lennard Bickel’s In Search of Frank Hurley (1980):
The need for Hurley’s film to recoup expenses was critical. Working long hours, Hurley put together Home of the Blizzard and the three months after his return it was being screened in Sydney to enormous crowds. As it was printed before the advent of talking pictures, Hurley stood beside the screen at every evening showing, reciting the story of the Mawson expedition.(9)
Millar relates a critical episode that also appears in Legg and Toni Hurley’s earlier work. In November 1916, on his return from Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Hurley pays a visit to Mawson’s then London residence ‘… to see for the first time, the final editions of his film of the Mawson expedition, Home of the Blizzard. Despite some scratching of the positive caused by sloppy handling, he was very happy with the final result. For the British release, it was renamed Life in the Antarctic.’ (10)
Aside from ignoring ringing contradictions – Millar seems to be untroubled by the change of title or Hurley’s curiosity about the content of a film he’d supposedly seen ad nauseum three years earlier – what is Millar’s, or Hurley’s other biographers’, evidence for these events?
Again, citations are elusive. Bickel’s work lacks footnotes; Millar’s footnotes are incidental at best and the account of presenting Home of the Blizzard is not acknowledged to any source. In his 1925 memoir Argonauts of the South Hurley does not mention either lecturing or ‘his’ Home of the Blizzard. (11)
One suspects Millar and Bickel’s source may have been Legg, but he in turn lacks citation, presumably relying always on conversations with Hurley and his family (that Legg indicates are his main source). The only ‘hard’ or primary citation in any of the three biographical accounts of the film is to an entry in Hurley’s diary, held in the National Library of Australia, which recounts the 1916 London viewing.(12) Even here, the writers are contradictory: Millar seems to suggest that Hurley saw the film at Mawson’s London residence; Legg that he saw it with a friend at a cinema.
Thus there is little primary evidence for the core of the episode dramatised in Shackleton, or for the title-year-author attribution at the head of the NFSA tape. They are not necessarily untrue, but they are close to being historical factoids. Despite this, they have been critical in creating the received history of the canonical 1913-released film Home of the Blizzard.
Having stripped this story down to these unreliable historical axioms, I’ll now attempt to rebuild the actual history of the AAE footage – in release, in popular reception and in private hands. To do this, I’ll make use of the following statements made in the Hurley literature, or in popular dramatic works like Sturridge’s Shackleton:
- That Frank Hurley directed or was the film’s auteur
- That he subsequently lectured with the AAE film
- That Hurley owned the AAE film and must be the source for the surviving film material
- That the film was called Home of the Blizzard on its release.
Did Frank Hurley direct Home of the Blizzard?
Douglas Mawson, scientist and modernist, realised early on the value of photography. Mawson and his academic mentor Edgeworth David had become the de facto photographers on Shackleton’s 1907–1909 Nimrod Expedition, contributing to the first, now-lost film coverage of any Antarctic expedition.(13) Mawson was among the many amateurs who also shot stills on the AAE, although his surviving plates suggest his limited skills. The work of Xavier Mertz on the other hand stands out, which may explain why some of his shots continue to be misattributed to Frank Hurley.
Although Mawson later claimed to have been the official photographer on the Nimrod expedition, he was in fact appointed as ‘Physicist’. He may have known enough about photographic craft to know his own limitations. Professionals would be required to provide documentation of sufficient quality to fulfil not just the scientific but the merchandising outcomes of his expedition. Although still photography was rapidly becoming an everyman skill by the Edwardian era, the cinematographer was a new caste of technologist.
In June 1911 Mawson contracted with the Australian office of Gaumont to provide ‘negatives taken (on the expedition) to be returned to us for exploitation on the basis of 50% each of the gross returns’. Gaumont would also ‘instruct [a] cameraman’ if necessary.(14) What the AAE was contracted to deliver needs emphasis: actuality (raw footage) for Gaumont to ‘exploit’ as it saw fit, not a completed official film.
As Stephen Martin’s research in 2002 reminds us, Frank Hurley nearly didn’t go to Antarctica.(15) Hurley used to remind everyone of this; his version of how he had to talk his way into the job, over the head of a preferred candidate, while on the train to Melbourne is repeated in Legg, Bickel, and elsewhere. But verification for this is elusive, whereas solid documentation shows Hurley still needed to apply for the job in writing and offer references.(16)
In accepting Hurley’s application in early October 1911, Mawson acknowledged that Hurley’s darkroom knowledge was ‘extraordinary’ but seems to have been hesitant nonetheless.(17) Oddly, there is evidence here not of Hurley talking himself into the job but of his mother nearly talking him out of it.
In early October 1911, Mawson received a letter from Margaret Hurley, warning that Frank ‘has an internal complaint … lung trouble so bad that I do not think he would come back if he started’ and adding, ‘do not mention to my son that I have written you’.(18) Although Mawson was a King, Country and Motherhood man, it’s unlikely he automatically accepted that Mother knew best. Yet Mrs Hurley’s letter appears to have renewed doubts that Mawson entertained about this self-made man, who did not belong to the caste of officers and graduate gentlemen who Mawson deemed more suitable companions.
By this time Gaumont’s Australian manager Fred Gent was already instructing Hurley in operating the supplied Prestwitch cinematograph. His apprenticeship was ‘very satisfactory indeed’ and Hurley was already establishing his renown as the Mr Gadget of polar exploration, designing ‘a clockwork arrangement to run the camera to get particular natural history studies’ which Gent was having fabricated.(19) Hurley may have used this device to film his own cinematic self-portrait (see below), walking towards the camera, probably on the day of the western base party’s relief in February 1913.