Although it is one of the less well-known Franklin documentaries, John Murray’s “Franklin’s Lost Expedition” (a.k.a. “Finding Franklin”) is also one of the best. Considering that it was made with something like one-tenth of the budget of the NOVA/ITN Factual program, it’s a remarkable achievement. Murray doesn’t go in for much in the way of staged re-enactments; the few he uses are brief and in the background. He couldn’t hire a full-size sailing ship, and so makes do with a miniature model. Nevertheless, his film does a far better job than the NOVA program of setting the Franklin story in its cultural context, while also vividly highlighting some of the more disturbing aspects of his story. Directed by Peter Bate, it originally appeared in the UK in a one-hour version on Channel 5; later, a 90-minute “festival” version was released.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve done some (unpaid) background research over the years for Murray. He and I met in Dundalk at the Leopold McClintock Winter School in January of 2008, and had a lovely time talking matters Franklin. I don’t appear in the documentary, but a number of pivotal figures do, among them David C. Woodman, the most tireless searcher of modern times, Rudy Wiebe, author of the brilliant Franklin novel A Discovery of Strangers, and Owen Beattie, who exhumed the Franklin crewmen buried on Beechey in the 1980’s (Beattie appears in footage licensed from the older NOVA show, “Buried in Ice,” which surprisingly was not used in NOVA’s own 2004 effort). As his continuity expert throughout the film, Murray has Andrew Lambert, a naval historian from Cambridge. With his beard and Oxbridge accent, Lambert – whose biography of Franklin is due out in the summer of 2009 – proves an agreeable guide.
The main story is quite similar in its broad outlines to that of the NOVA documentary; the differences are in the sidebar segments about the more controversial bits of the Franklin saga: Inuit testimony, the fate of the final survivors, and cannibalism. Working closely with David Woodman, Murray has a much better handle on the nature of the Inuit oral tradition; we see and hear testimony given to Hall, then follow Woodman on one of his expeditions based on that evidence, where he drills through the ice with an auger and drops a sonar boom.
With the final survivors, Murray decides to re-enact not their dress but their duress; he manages to get a volunteer crew of RCMP cadets to haul a sledge loaded with the likely weight of those hauled by Franklin’s crews. The cadets start out bold and strong, but by the end of the day, they are utterly exhausted, stumbling in to the nearest Tim Horton’s with dazed looks. How much harder must it have been for Franklin's already famished and scurvy-ridden men! The dramatic evidence of this segment clinches the argument almost without the need for narration.
And yet it’s the cannibalism segment which proves the most dramatic of all. It opens with an interview with Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee; stationed at a local butcher shop with knife in hand, Black cuts through a pig’s side in a manner which both demonstrates and uncomfortably evokes how cut-marks end up on defleshed bones. A few drops of blood are shown spilling onto snow, intercut with a skeleton illuminated with red light; this is all we need to put it all together. Anne Keenleyside, who studied the Franklin expedition bones, speaks from a cabin somewhere in snowy Canada, and the indefatigable Ernie Coleman makes a pitch for his ‘murderous Inuit’ theory. Best of all, in the extended cut, the segment concludes with a close-up view of Sir Edwin Landseer’s “Man Proposes, God Disposes” with its bone-chomping polar bears, an image which clearly had the same disturbing connotations for its original Victorian viewers.
Murray’s film is unique in that it provides both an element of sensation, dramatically visualized, as well as a rich variety of historical and cultural contexts. Unlike the NOVA show, which walks its viewers through the story in a guided-tour fashion, Murray’s film manages, as it were, to lift the velvet ropes and draw us behind the conventional scenes of the Franklin story, feeding the viewer’s imagination and enriching the sense of mystery. I recommend it highly.
Finding Franklin is not currently available on DVD, as far as I know, but does air occasionally on the History Channel. At the present moment, it's also watchable on YouTube in six segments, beginning here.