Friday, April 10, 2015

Franklin's Lost Ships

Over the years, there  have been a number of documentaries that have covered some aspect of the Franklin expedition: the NOVA/ITN Factual Arctic Passage (2005) in which I participated, as well as John Walker's Passage (2008), John Murray's Finding Franklin (2009), and Mill Creek's The Northwest Passage: The Last Great Frontier (2014) -- but whatever their good or bad qualities, every one of these documentaries lacked something that Franklin's Lost Ships alone provides: one of Franklin's ships.

The discovery of Franklin's own flagship, HMS "Erebus" in September of 2014 has already changed everything. The mystery of the expedition's failure has by no means been "solved," as some claim, but a vital piece of evidence, missing for more than one hundred and sixty years, is now before us; even as I write this, divers from Parks Canada and the Canadian military are undertaking a series of ice dives on the vessel. What secrets it has yet to disclose may only be guessed.

And so, we have a new documentary, Franklin's Lost Ships, which just aired this evening as an episode of the CBC's series The Nature of Things. I was fortunate to be able to do some historical work behind the scenes, working with the team at Lion TV in the UK, which co-produced the program with Canada's  90th Parallel. I don't appear on camera, which is quite fine by me; having done so for NOVA, I've certainly had my moment in the (Arctic) sun, and am happy to make way for others. My friends Huw Lewis-Jones and Dave Woodman acquit themselves quite well, as do John Geiger, Ken McGoogan and forensic anthropologist Anne Keenleyside (who here completes a sort of Franklin trifecta, having also appeared in both the NOVA and John Murray films).

So how was the story told differently this time? From my own experiences with these documentaries, I've learned just how hard it is to squeeze everything important into an hour, and how many people and how much effort goes into any documentary of this kind. The ITN/NOVA team had more than three years to do their work; Lion TV/90th Parallel had only seven months. The result, given the timeframe, is quite marvelous; despite the occasional glitches that, despite all care, tend to creep into any project of this scope and urgency, we have here a fresh telling of a tale that's never been able to be fully told before -- because this is a story which actually concludes with the actual discovery of Franklin's ship.

I felt that the re-enactment scenes were dramatic and effective, although unlike Passage and Arctic Passage, there was no dialogue. The costumes were well-done -- though the fur hats sported by some officers were a little odd! -- and the shipboard scenes, which used HMS Trincomalee as their setting, were particularly effective. The only thing that jangled a bit for me was that the actors didn't as closely resemble the chief officers as I'd hoped; while the fellow who played Franklin was a fair match (despite a perhaps too-prominent five-o-clock shadow), the actors representing Crozier and Fitzjames didn't look like them at all. Never the less, the drama was well-played, and along with well-rendered CGI versions of the ships, set the stage effectively for what was to come.

The on-camera experts did their job well, though I would have wished for a bit more detailed historical background; one gets the sense that there was an imperative to keep things simple. And there are some treats: we get to see the original Victory Point Record at the National Maritime museum; Anne Keenleyside graphically relates the cannibal cut-marks using a modern skeleton; Huw Lewis-Jones puts his finger, literally and figuratively, on the searches of Rae and McClintock, vividly illustrating "the true horror of this great and miserable discovery." 

John Geiger gives us a strong in-person sense of the 2014 search, and both Ryan Harris and Marc-André Bernier offer vivid first-person accounts of the search for, and discovery of, "Erebus." Dave Woodman is there, too -- I would have liked to have heard more from him! -- and I think it ought to have been made clearer that the "southern search area" that the 2014 expedition turned to was that identified by Woodman from Inuit testimony, rather than just a lucky guess, as some of the voiceover seems to imply.

But of course it's the ship that's the star -- we see it in paintings and in the CGI re-creations; we experience it with the divers as they search through the debris field, and -- best of all -- we have a vivid CGI version of the hull as it lies today on the sea-floor. The ship's bell should perhaps get a credit to itself -- it's been woven into the re-enactments (we see it as the officer of the watch strikes the hour) and now, here it is, on the upper deck, its date -- 1845 -- legible despite silty water and marine growth. It's a sight that evokes the tragedy of other great wrecks, such as that of the "Titanic," and although so far, at least, we can't penetrate the ship's interior with a ROV-mounted camera, the sight of a table-leg in the debris that could have been from Franklin's captain's cabin sends a chill down our collective spines.

There will be other versions of this documentary -- the UK one will have a different text and voice-over, and there's to be a 90-minute one designed to be shown at film festivals. By the time that's out, there may well be new discoveries to add to that of the ship, and which may indeed require a change in the way the story is told. At the end, as with the NOVA documentary, we trace the fading footprints of the last few men who abandoned the "Erebus," and Lewis-Jones offers a fitting epitaph to "that last surviving band, the final fire before the flame goes out ... these man have in effect completed the final link in the chain of the Northwest Passage."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

UPDATE: Check out this very informative interview with director Andrew Gregg about the documentary.


  1. Russell, was there some compelling reason not to wait until more work was done on the Erebus site (including the retrieval of additional artifacts), before putting together a documentary? Maybe it's the methodical historian in me, but - like the Erebus Medal - rolling out a new documentary seems a bit "rushed".

  2. Glenn, I see your point -- but I'm actually glad that they didn't wait. The program will increase the public interest in those dives, and it can -- and probably will -- be re-edited to take account of new finds. Anything that is found will have to undergo conservation and study, in any case. I just hope that Parks Canada continues its blog and dive diaries, as these will now be all the more vital!

  3. Thanks for that, Russell. I suppose "the methodical historian in me" - like the genie - is at present, better left in the bottle (wink).

  4. I enjoyed the documentary and am keenly following the story as it develops! One question though - in the documentary I believe it was illustrated that the ships headed south after their stop on Beechy Island. I thought it was understood they first sailed around Cornwallis Island?

    1. Hi Andrew, and thanks for your perceptive comment. As it happens, because of the ambiguous language of the Victory Point record, we're not certain whether the Erebus and Terror circumnavigated Cornwallis Island before or after their first winter at Beechey Island, only that they did so prior to being beset. It seems most likely that, finding the route to the southwest blocked by ice in 1845, they sailed north as an alternative (this was allowed for in Franklin's sailing instructions) and ended up circumnavigating Cornwallis prior to making their winter harbor at Beechey. In the second season, they would have been particularly anxious to fulfill their main goal of linking the eastern and western Passages, and it was then that they became beset.

  5. I missed the program but managed to watch it online, thanks for the link. I loved the comment about how every other diver in the world wishes they could be one of the dive team! That would be truly exciting......bearing in mind of course it is an archaeological expedition, not a treasure hunt! Here's hoping they find papers!

  6. I just read that they are going to be showing the first video footage of the current diving on the Erebus. It will be shown at the ROM in Toronto, tomorrow, April 16. Hopefully they will release it to the general public later in the day.

  7. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. It's endlessly entertaining, interesting and a wonderful research resource.

    My apologies if this comment isn't perfectly on point to this particular blog entry, but as the bell from Erebus is mentioned here and I couldn't find a specific posting devoted to the bell and its recovery, this seemed a reasonable place to offer my comment.

    In the course of some research and reading I came across the blog of folk artist James Keelaghan, who performed two songs at the RGS' Erebus Reception in March, 2015.

    In that post, Mr. Keelaghan states that at the beginning of his first song (appx. 20-21 seconds into the embedded video) the sound of a bell is heard; the bell from Erebus. I would have thought that the bell was perhaps in too sensitive a condition to be rung, but I am by no means expert in such matters.

    My purpose in posting is to a.) inquire as to whether you have any information or view as to whether this was indeed a ringing of the bell from Erebus; b.) if it was so, simply to share this with you in the event you had not yet heard it (it gave me shivers, I'd like to hope they were justied by this actually being the sound of Erebus' bell being rung); and c.) to also bring to your attention in this whole regard, the "fuddy-duddy" views of Richard Mackenzie (ret. Maritime Museum of B.C.) to the effect that the bell should not have been recovered, which I found fascinating (but take no position on.)

    Thank you again for all your work!

  8. Thanks for the comment -- I listened to the video and did hear a slight clinking sound at the moment you mention. This could be the bell being tapped (though not rung -- which would require it be properly suspended and struck with sufficient force by a clapper). Even the "Liberty Bell," which is cracked and impossible to properly ring, is tapped on ceremonial occasions.

  9. Thank you for your reply. Most helpful!
    I neglected to link the opinion of R. Mackenzie that I mentioned. Apologies. Linking now, fyi.