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Adolphus Greely Abandoned in the Arctic

Arctic view from NH fILM

The hardest film to do well is a good documentary. Portsmouth’s Cocked Hat Venutres has hit the mark with its first effort. Abandoned in the Arctic is engaging, authentic and adventurous. without sensationalism it tells the tale of the lost 1881 Greely expedition and the scandal that plagued its survivors.




Geoffrey Clark went to the North Pole
to save another man’s soul

Arctic explorer Adolphus Greely can finally rest in peace. His reputation has been salvaged and his life re-animated by a dynamic new documentary that premiered to a capacity crowd last week at the Portsmouth Music Hall. "Abandoned in the Arctic" pushes beyond the stale story of whether members of the 1881 expedition were driven to cannibalism. The 90-minute film asks more important questions – Why did the Army abandon the Greely party for two years? What did the expedition accomplish? How on earth did six of the 24 original members survive?

SEE Greely survivors in Portsmouth Harbor 1884

Just hours away from death, the six survivors, including Greely himself, were discovered under an upturned boat in May of 1884. Amazingly, after years in the Arctic and months of unimaginable hardship and starvation, the expedition had preserved its scientific data, journals and glass-plate photographs. Greely’s party was delivered to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to recuperate, and it was during their triumphant return that rumors began to surface that the frozen corpses of the lost crew members had been stripped of their meager flesh.

Scene from Abandoned in the Arctic by Cocked-Hat Ventures LLC

Although the US Army rushed to cover up the details and the survivors denied the accusations of cannibalism, Lt. Adolphus W. Greely of nearby Newburyport, MA, never escaped the rumors. Behind his back, even little children called him "Eat-em-alive Greely." Today the research gathered just 450 miles from the North Pole has become a baseline for studies of Global Warming. But a long shadow has remained over Greely’s accomplishments and his name – until now. Dr. Geoffrey Clark of Portsmouth, NH, who produced the film, became obsessed with the Greely story in 1988 after visiting the ruins of Greely’s base camp in northern Canada. In 2004 Clark convinced five men and one woman to retrace Greely’s 250-mile escape route in open boats across polar ice to Cape Sabine. Among the modern crew was Greely’s great-grandson James Shedd, also from New Hampshire. Shedd narrates the 90-minute documentary. For Dr. Geoff Clark, who had never made a film before, it was a learn-as-you-go experience.

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But "Abandoned in the Arctic" is no home movie. Produced in High Definition, the film is a smooth professional blend of historic photos, live action in the Arctic waters, animated computer-graphic maps, contemporary interviews and re-enacted scenes of Greely and his crew. There is not a dull or wasted moment as the dramatic 19th century and 21st century stories unfold simultaneously.

Executive Producer Geoffrey Clark / Cocked-Hat Ventures

Independently made documentaries, by nature, are risky projects. They are costly and time consuming to make, and rarely turn a profit in theatres, on television or in DVD – if they achieve distribution at all. Telling the story from the perspective of Greely’s great-grandson James Shedd was an enormous gamble since James Shedd is neither actor, nor historian nor explorer. Yet Shedd’s voiceover, adapted from his personal journal, gives the story its heart, authenticity and center. When Shedd stands among the debris of Greely’s 1882 camp, or tries on his ancestor’s frail reading glasses, spots a threatening walrus in open water, or narrates an accident that nearly kills the cameraman – the audience is with him 100 per cent.

Gino Del Guercio, who produced, directed and wrote the script for "Abandoned in the Arctic" is a veteran of PBS, NOVA, the A&E and Discovery channels. Had he known he was filming in polar bear country, Del Guercio told a live cinema audience following the premiere, he might not have taken the job. Although Greely’s party survived, in part, because they shot and killed a polar bear after running out of food, only giant musk ox and walrus appeared this time. Del Guercio’s seamlessly threads together the many stories, past and modern, to create a thoughtful and sensitive study of what went wrong – and what went right – with the Greely expedition. The director’s flawless pacing and attention to tone prevents it from ever becoming didactic or maudlin. When scenes of the crew trapped in a freezing, sooty enclosure become claustrophobic, Del Guercio cuts to a sweeping aerial shot of Shedd and his team in red kayaks gliding through gleaming white chunks of ice against a blue sea.

The weakest moments of "Abandoned in the Arctic" come when the filmmakers offer modern object lessons about conflict management or scavenging for nourishing food. The results lean too much toward the Discovery Channel’s television relevance, when this film, in fact, is a mature documentary worthy to be seen on a large screen in art cinemas across the nation. The Greely story needs no excuses. All the drama and relevance one could ask for are embedded in the narrative itself.

Del Guercio, thankfully, knows how to play these lighter moments as comedy. The audience is allowed to experience the giddy I-can’t-believe-we’re-really-here excitement of the modern explorers. Yet we never lose the dark and chilling I-can’t-believe-they-actually-survived story of the original Greely expedition. Balancing this opposing tone and content throughout a feature-length documentary requires significant skill. The movie could easily have become as dark as a polar winter or as blinding as a polar summer. But like Greely, Del Guercio and Clark stay fully in command of their project. Like Greely, they are explorers on a mission, gathering data and presenting the facts.

"Abandoned in the Arctic" resists the opportunity to play up the alledged cannibalism. The film does not pander to Greely or forgive his failings and character flaws. It humanizes him simply by laying out the facts and by allowing his great-grandson to travel to the North Pole and stand where Greely stood. It may be only a tiny window, but it sheds an astonishing light on the shadows of the past.

Where Del Guercio and Clark take the film from here makes all the difference. The masterpiece has been painted, but will anyone get to see it? They are currently "shopping it around" to television channels and film festivals. Their production company, Cocked Hat Ventures, is named for an island near the North Pole. Based solely on the film’s own merit, "Abandoned in the Arctic" should do very well, if given the chance. Portsmouth viewers at the one-night premier watched intently, gripped by a story that Geoffrey Clark was compelled to tell. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Clark holds the audience spellbound with a fantastic tale and they come away changed by the truth of it all. In the dangerous world of documentaries, no one can ask for more.

To learn more about the "Abandoned in the Arctic" visit Cocked-Hat Ventures for an online movie trailer and detailed behind-the-scenes journal. An accompanying exhibit with rare artifacts from the Greely expedition is now running at the Portsmouth Athenaeum through October 

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the popular regional web site and author of a number of books about history.

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