FORGET "Titanic." You want a real white-knuckle tale of ice and drama on the high seas? Look no further than the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall, where the adventures of Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer extraordinaire, are now being told in powerful words, weather-beaten artifacts and dozens of amazing -- and artful -- black-and-white photographs. It's a narrative with enough inherent drama to make James Cameron's cinematic trivialization of the 1912 sinking of the famed luxury liner seem like just another sob story about a doomed boy on a leaky boat.
Like the 1997 film, the exhibition "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition" tells a grand saga of early 20th-century hubris and the lopsided battle between Man and Mother Nature. Except this time the story is set not amid the icebergs of the North Atlantic, but on the shifting and hull-crushing "pack ice" of the Antarctic Circle where, although Nature again swallows up the boat, Man bounces back in an epic of survival against all odds that will inspire you -- and curl your toes.
The story begins 85 years ago this month, as Shackleton, with a crew of 27 men and 69 sled dogs, sets sail from South Georgia Island on the fringe of the Antarctic Circle in the Norwegian-built ice vessel Polaris -- rechristened the Endurance in honor of Shackleton's prophetic family motto, "By endurance we overcome." The year is 1914 and the race to the South Pole has already been won a few years earlier by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Still, Shackleton -- who had previously made two failed attempts at the Pole (once as a member of the team led by the better-known Robert Falcon Scott) -- has now set his sights on becoming the first man to cross the continent by foot.
But first he has to get there.
In January of 1915 -- after a month of zigging and zagging across the ice-clotted Weddell Sea and only one day short of landfall -- the Endurance becomes stuck, permanently. Mired in what Shackleton called the "gigantic and interminable jigsaw-puzzle" of 12-foot-thick sheets of floating ice, the boat is going nowhere fast. For 11 more months the helpless men wait for a thaw that never comes, living off an enormous larder of preserved food (supplemented by the occasional seal and penguin dinner).
To pass the time, they read or write diaries (in close quarters nicknamed "Auld Reekie" by a couple of wags). From time to time, they play pick-up football games, occasionally indulging in futile attempts to cut themselves out with saws and pickaxes as the drifting currents carry them hither and yon (yon being actually hundreds of miles in the opposite direction from which they were headed). In November, no longer anywhere near the shoreline, the tremendous pressure of the ice finally breaks up the 300-ton ship like so many popsicle sticks.
And the nightmare's just beginning.
After four more months on the drifting floes -- alternately camping in thin tents and dragging several tons of salvaged supplies and dog food behind them -- the men decide in March of 1916, with the ice now dangerously thin, that their only salvation lies in piling into the three remaining lifeboats and making their way toward an uninhabited crumb of land called Elephant Island. Over 100 miles of heaving seas they traveled, finally arriving in April (16 months after originally setting out). From there, Shackleton and a hand-picked crew of five set out in the James Caird, a lifeboat chosen to make an additional 800-mile journey to the whaling stations of South Georgia Island guided only by a hand-held sextant.
Astonishingly, they arrive one month later, but it will be three more months (and four attempts) before Shackleton is able to return to Elephant Island in August of 1916 in a tugboat borrowed from the Chilean government. Near tears as he counts all 22 members of his remaining crew running down to the shore, he can't help crying out in disbelief, "They're all there!"
Now, Shackleton is the indisputable hero of this expedition; although he never did walk across Antarctica, the incredible rescue from the ice could never have happened without his fierce determination. And the show is filled with many intriguing objects: diaries, a favorite poem, a shirt stitched from a tartan blanket, the actual James Caird and -- in case you think the navigation part was easy -- two working sextants. But the real star of the exhibition is a man named Frank Hurley, the mission photographer whose gorgeous and harrowing stills and motion pictures (with sonorous narration throughout by actor Liam Neeson) form the spine of this show.
Whether documenting the sheer breathtaking beauty of the icescape (in one shot covered with thousands of otherworldly "ice flowers"), the deterioration of the rime-covered boat as the ice slowly devours it in its maw or the daily life of the crew and the loyal animals that were eventually shot and eaten, Hurley's daring pictures, made from often miraculously uncracked glass negatives and from prints developed on board with melted ice, never fail to awe. "Hurley is a warrior with his camera," wrote first officer Lionel Greenstreet, "and would go anywhere and do anything to get a picture."
It's a great yarn and a stunning, strangely magnetic exhibition suffused with all the drama inherent in any triumph of the human spirit over the elements, but it inevitably raises the question: Why hasn't anyone made a movie out of this? Aside from the many books, Hurley's 1923 film documentary "Southward on the Quest" and a 1980s British miniseries, it seems to have been left largely untouched by dramatists.
But I've got just the man to play Shackleton. The actor is around the same age, like Shackleton born in Ireland, has a face made for playing heroes and has already done a lot of the necessary homework for the part.
Liam Neeson, call your agent.
THE ENDURANCE: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition -- Through Feb. 6 at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall, 1145 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut North). 202/857-7588. Open 9 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays; Sundays 10 to 5; closed Christmas day. Free. For more information on the exhibition, visit the Web site of New York's American Museum of Natural History, which has produced this traveling exhibition: www.amnh.org/exhibitions/shackleton.