Friday, May 4, 2018

Franklin Expedition Documentaries

Inspired by the current AMC television series "The Terror," based on Dan Simmons' novel of the same name, many viewers have been seeking more information about the actual histories of the Franklin Expedition. I've posted here before with some book recommendations, but for those who would rather -- or in addition -- watch a documentary film, there are quite a few to choose from. Since 1988, in fact, there have been no fewer than eight, and with the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016, there are probably more to come. So here's an annotated list, with links to online versions wherever those are available.

1988 NOVA: Buried in Ice -- The Franklin Expedition This first of all Franklin documentaries focuses on the exhumations of the three men of the expedition buried at Beechey Island, with the participation of archaeologist Owen Beattie and writer/historian John Geiger, co-authors of Frozen in Time. It's a dramatic story, well told, and one that still exercises a nearly magnetic pull on all who have taken up an interest in the Franklin story since then.

1994 CBC, "The Mysterious Franklin Disappearance" This is more of a mini-news-feature than a full documentary, but it features interviews with many key figures, among them Rudy Wiebe, Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, and Barry Ranford, the man whose search in 1993 uncovered one of the key archaeological sites on land, which became the source of inavluable new evidence about cannibalism, lead poisoning, and scurvy.

2001 History Channel: Arctic Tomb. A more tradional long-format documentary, made in the early days of the History Channel when it was still working to make a name for itself, it's the first to feature historical re-enactments (the actor who plays Franklin seems perfectly to capture his mild-mannered, religiously sincere persona). Numerous Franklin experts of the day, among them the late Chauncey Loomis and Louie Kamookak, along with Ralph Lloyd-Jones add depth to the presentation. My thanks to my good friend Bill Greenwell for tracking down a digital copy and getting it on YouTube!

2005 NOVA: Arctic Passage -- Prisoners of the Ice This is the documentary I first appeared in, and probably the biggest-budget effort yet made to tell the Franklin story. The first half of a two-hour two parter (the second recounts Roald Amundsen's achievement of the Passage), it also features Francis Spufford, Benedict Allen, Anne Keenleyside, and the late Roy "Fritz" Koerner, whose ice core studies suggested Franklin sailed at a period of unusually cold weather. Both the re-enactments and some of the on-camera experts, such as myself, were shot on location on Beechey Island and near the hamlet of Gjoa Haven on King William Island.

2005 Crossing the Line Pictures: Franklin's Lost Expedition. (No longer, alas, available online). Produced by the Irish documentarian John Murray, this film comes closest to capturing the feeling of the Franklin search in the years before either ship was found. Dave Woodman, whose work on Inuit testimony and tireless work on land, is a featured interviewee, as we see scenes from the Irish-Canadian Franklin Search Expedition, which Murray co-sponsored. Andrew Lambert is our on-camera expert, and there are some excellent segments, including my favorite: a scene where muscular new RCMP recruits try dragging a fully-loaded Franklin-era sledge across a frozen lake in Saskatchewan; by the end of the day, they're utterly exhausted and barely able to stumble into the nearest Tim Horton's.

2008 John Walker's Passage (clip only) Passage is a fascinating hybrid -- in parts, a magnificently acted and realized dramatization of Dr. John Rae's bringing of Inuit testimony about cannibalism back to Britain, and in part a sort of making-of documentary, including discussions and debates within which modern figures -- Ken McGoogan, Tagak Curley, Maria Pisa Casarini, Ernie Coleman, and John Muir -- add to the historical context and show why and how this story matters. The appearance of Charles Dickens's great-great-grandson near the end leads to a truly memorable scene.

2014 Mill Creek: The Northwest Passage: The Last Great Frontier (clip only). A modest film done mostly using archival imagery and interviews, this was my second go-round in the documentary lens. It's well-done overall, though it misses some of the depth it could have had with location footage and a wider array of speakers.

2015 NOVA: Arctic Ghost Ship. This documentary, interestingly, was originally directed by Andrew Gregg, who was the photographer and videographer for the 1994 CBC segment listed above. It was re-edited, however for the UK and US markets, so not all the versions have all the same on-camera experts or clips. Huw Lewis-Jones appears throughout all three, but Louie Kamookak only in the US version; the Canadian edit makes good use of Ken McGoogan's expertise. I served as a behind-the-scenes consultant on this version, the first to include the finding of HMS "Erebus" in 2014, and I can say that all three versions are quite good!


  1. Russell, I am so curious about one thing. Now that Erebus and Terror have been found where they weren't expected to be--do we know when the ice would have dispersed enough to move them from the abandonment site? I realize that either pack ice or a partial crew aboard could have moved them, but either way, they stopped being immobilized by ice at some point. Thanks for a terrific blog, by the way.

    1. That’s a great question! We don’t really have enough detailed climate or ice data to do more than guess when the ships were freed. It may indeed have been only a brief period — with a good wind, either ship could have made it from the abandonment site to where they were found in a matter of a few days’ sailing. Or it may have been done in increments over more than one season, if the ice only yielded in part. I hope that materials found aboard ship will cast some light on this question! — and thanks for your kind words!

  2. Is there any evidence that both ships were abandoned? They were military ships. It seems more likely that a number of men would be left to guard them and if found, point the rescuers to the path the crew took towards the mainland.
    From the exact position of discovery that the Prime Minister inadvertently gave away, it would seem that at least Terror was under some sort of guidance into Terror Bay.

    1. The word used in the Victory Point record is "deserted," not abandoned -- I think the implication of this term is that the leaving of the ships was not permanent. And I agree that the position of Terror strongly indicates it was under guidance; we now know from Parks's investigation that she did not have her anchor deployed, nor was she sealed up as she would have been for abandonment. The implication, to me, is that she was piloted and underway when she sank.

  3. Could you please advise me on a good read? It the Terror tv show, when Captain James is talking to Mr Blanky about his last arctic expirence, he said he would have hit the captain in the head with an ax. Is there a good book or piece written on that expedition?
    Dawson City, YT

  4. Is there any way of getting "Crossing the Line Pictures: Franklin's Lost Expedition"? I know its not online unless you speak german on youtube.

  5. Is there any way to view the Crossing the Line Pictures documentary? It was on YouTube for a bit there but got pulled it's the best doc by miles imo it's a shame people can't see it.