Friday, March 20, 2009

Finding Franklin (Documentary)

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; more information is available at the producer's site, Crossing the Line Films.


  1. This new website is excellent. I've had your RIC website book marked for years now.

    I have heard of this documentary but haven't seen it yet. The PBS Nova documentary is very good but tends to follow the standard reconstruction. The one exception to this being the Inuit visit to a manned ship.

    I've spent many hours reading and rereading both of Woodman's books and plan to get a copy of Nourse's book.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your kind words. From what you say, I do think you'd quite enjoy the Murray documentary; the YouTube version is quite watchable as long as you don't mind an hour and a half seated at the computer.

    The "Inuit visit" scene in the NOVA show is a bit oddly done -- the testimony described the commander pointing to a tent on the shore, whereas, since this was filmed on the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, above-deck shots weren't possible; it leaves the viewer puzzled as to how the Inuk could have understood Fitzjames's "do not go there!" at all!

  3. The "Muderous Inuit" theory. From Charles Dickens to today how tiresome. The evidence for this seems to be close to non-existant. I am aware of the Cape York in Greenland story but for the life of me I can't take it very seriously. Both the distance from King William island, the lack of contact between Inuit bands along with the told to x, who told y who told m who told s effect. Finally why the need to blame the Inuit?

  4. As a follow up I found the following quote from Coleman at

    To quote:
    "The men who died as a result of a native attack at Erebus Bay (oh yes they did - please do not tell me that such a suggestion is 'not appropriate', they admitted it to me)"

    I must thank Mr. Coleman for giving a very good reason not to take him eriously.

  5. Knowing Ernie, I think he's just saying here that "they" (that is, one or another modern-day Inuit) have told him that such a thing occurred. I disagree with him, but I don't think he's saying he's communed with the spirits!

  6. I think you are being too kind. Just what evidence have they found at Erebus bay indicating an attack by Inuit? The cut marks seem to have been done by metal knives. I would like to know what evidence he has for the Inuit ritually cutting up their enemies bodies. In fact it appears Inuit attacks on explorers seem to have been quite rare. Sorry all of this seems to be right back to 19th century fanatasies of "bloodthirsty savages". Finally given the paucity of evidence how is he so sure?

  7. It's a long story -- there is, I agree, no physical evidence whatsoever of any attack by Inuit on any party of Franklin's men. A few years ago, I came upon a web essay by Ernie containing his assertions, and was able to contact him by e-mail. He said that his evidence came from an "Inuit" source, but when I later had a chance to talk with him in person, it came out that his source was an Inuk woman who'd spoken with him on the tarmac at the Yellowknife airport! One does occasionally hear such claims up north; when I was in Gjoa Haven I met a fellow named James Qitsualik who passed along some similar claims from one of his relatives. But I think these tales are most probably very much garbled versions of earlier oral histories that have just become corrupted with age, repetition and the slow death of oral traditional culture. Dorothy Eber's new book details some of these, and while they do occasionally contain material that you can recognize in terms of testimony given to Hall or Schwatka, it's often distorted and misleading.

    The only connection I can think of would be that there are some stories in Nourse's edition of Hall's second expedition narrative in which Inuit described an attack on Franklin's men by "Et-ker-lin" -- that is, Itqilit, or sub-Arctic Indians tribes. In one story, "Aglooka" is said to have gotten a cut on his face during such an attack. These stories, though, were somewhat vague and contradictory even in the 1860's when they were first written down, so I don't think a great deal of faith can be placed in them; the very bad relations between Inuit and subarctic tribes at this period may have been a motive to slur them, I suspect.