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American Experience: The Greely Expedition

3.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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(Apr 26, 2011)
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Editorial Reviews

In 1881, twenty-five men led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely sailed from the harbor of St. John's, Newfoundland. Their destination was Lady Franklin Bay in the high Arctic, where they planned to collect a wealth of scientific data from a vast area of the world s surface that had been described by a British admiral as a sheer blank. Three years later, only six survivors returned, with a daunting story of shipwreck, starvation, mutiny and cannibalism. Abandoned, from producer Rob Rapley (Wyatt Earp), tells a harrowing tale of one of the great scientific adventures of all time. Drawing on an impressive documentary record that includes scientific accounts, diaries, photographs and letters, the film reveals the nearly unbearable pressures experienced by the members of the expedition, and shows how poor planning, personality clashes, questionable decisions and pure bad luck conspired to turn a noble scientific mission into a human tragedy.

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Product Details

  • Actors: n, a
  • Directors: n, a
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, Dolby, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS
  • DVD Release Date: April 26, 2011
  • Run Time: 60 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B004AR4VKY
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #136,123 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

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Narrated by Michael Murphy, this AMERICAN EXPERIENCE episode profiles the three year Greely Expedition, headed by Lt. Adolphus Greely. It was an ill-conceived US Army Signal Corp project manned mostly by cavalry privates with no harsh weather or seagoing experience. Their eastern Canadian mission had two public goals: to establish a meterological Arctic base, and to take polar and astronomical observations, and a private aim: to travel further north than the British had in the 17th Century.

Two men managed to beat that British mark by 4 miles, and scientific data was indeed gathered and carefully recorded. Everything else, unfortunately was a botch.

After the first winter, and with a resupply ship unable to reach them, Lt. Greely made the decision to head south in three small open boats toward a Greenland rendevous point. Miraculously, all 26 safely reached Ft. Conger, a warm and sturdily-built outpost surrounded by wild caribou and musk ox that could've sustained them for years, if necessary.

Believing he was obeying orders, the lieutenant made the expedition abandon this refuge and push further south over some of the most treacherous waters on Earth, a trip that reduced him to the edge of a nervous breakdown. He believed a rescue ship was waiting, but there was none. Unknown to Greely, two missions had already failed. One of the ships was crushed by ice and sunk. Thus, the rescuers needed rescuing themselves.

Too far south to dare making their way back up to Ft. Conger, the expedition was forced to winter in the open. They endured terrible weather and little food. As everyone weakened, the dead were left unburied, for no one had the strength to hack through ice to make shallow graves.
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If you liked DVDs on the Endurance, Shackleton's tragedy in Antarctica, or PBS' "Arctic Passage," then you will like this. For those unfamiliar with those sad tales, if you liked Cameron's "Titanic," this may appeal to you. Basically, if you want to explore how voyages fail and how sadly life is lost, then this will fascinate you.

This also points to being screwed over by the powers that be (like the Company vs. Ellen Ripley). The US military sent these men on a mission to the Arctic, but didn't give them a ship, promising to pick them up the next year. One ship did try to pick them up, but when it abandoned that mission, no replacement followed up on the promise. Later, the military blamed the men when it was exposed for its renege.

This made me think of "Mutiny on the Bounty," however, mutiny was avoided here. In fact, Mr. Greely was a dynamic character. He lost the trust of his men, but then gained it back. The facts here have "He's not heavy; he's my brother" themes to it. Some of the men saved a frostbitten comrade, rather than carry meat left by the British that would have fed others. Another man did the same.

Unsurprisingly, the crew was male, but there are interests to women as well. One of the interviewed scholars was a woman. The men were saved because Greely's wife exposed the military's cowardice to the press. Perhaps this work is an example of strong love between two spouses. This is the first time I've heard of white explorers traveling to the Arctic but having no contact with the Inuit people.

Just as I was about to say that "This disaster was nothing like the Donner Party," the work concludes by revealing that the men tried to hide their cannibalism. The work suggests they garnered no sympathy, but hey!
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