The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects


The silent documentary film ‘Home of the Blizzard’  records part of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–1914, led by the scientist Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958).

The film, produced and directed by the Australian photographer Frank Hurley (1885-1962), documents the team’s departure from Hobart, Tasmania on board the ship ‘Aurora’ and follows the expedition as it travelled down to Antarctica, stopping at Macquarie Island en route to Cape Denison on the coast of Adelie Land.  The footage captures the wildlife the men encountered whilst also revealing the day to day hardships of living and working on the icy continent.

In 1910, Douglas Mawson had been approached by Captain Robert Falcon Scott to join his Terra Nova expedition south.  Mawson was a natural choice as part of the scientific team as a geologist, with previous Antarctic experience gained on Shackleton’s  Nimrod team in 1907-1909.  Unimpressed by Scott’s scientific aims, Mawson turned down the offer and set about preparing for his own scientific expedition to the continent.  Unlike other explorers, Mawson was not concerned with reaching the South Geographic Pole, instead he wanted to explore the geography of Adelie Land and George V Land, the largely unexplored area lying immediately to the south of Australia.

As part of his expeditionary team Mawson appointed the twenty-four year old Frank Hurley as the official photographer and cinematographer.  Mawson, having taking many of the photographs on the Nimrod expedition, recognised the value of photography as a means of documenting scientific exploration and also to raise funds for future trips to Antarctica.  Although other members of the team were to take photographs, Mawson realised that if he was to be able to exploit the images commercially they needed to be of the highest quality.  Before leaving Sydney, the explorer entered into a contract with the film company Gaumont, who agreed to take all of the expedition’s footage as well as providing instruction for Hurley on how to use the cinematograph.

The ‘Auroraleft Hobart on 2 December 1911, travelling first to Macquarie Island where the expedition established a wireless base.  From their first encounters on the island the team were fascinated by the Antarctic wildlife.  Hurley’s footage shows the the humorous antics of the penguins hopping along the beach as well as focusing on the other wildlife on the island.  Continuing on to Antarctica, the AAE landed in Adelie Land on 8 January 1912, establishing their main base at Cape Denison, with a small second base camp established on an ice shelf, 1000 km to the west in Queen Mary Land.   Cape Denison proved itself to be incredibly windy, with gusts reaching as much as two hundred kilometres an hour.  Hurley’s footage showing the men bowed and struggling to walk brought the hardship of working and living in such an area to life.

In 1913 Hurley returned to Australia and there hurriedly assembled the film to assist with raising funds for Mawson’s return. The resulting film, initially titled ‘Life in the Antarctic’ , was released to great acclaim in July 1913.  Hurley had proved himself to be a skilled and determined film maker often going to great lengths to capture his footage.  The film helped to raise awareness of the polar region, revealing its splendour and the strength of the men that worked there. The film was silent without captions and would most likely have been screened accompanied by live narration.  The film was also screened in England where it was seen by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who impressed by the footage, later appointed Hurley as official photographer for his 1914 polar expedition.

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Currently on display at the National Film and Sound Archive .

View clips of Home of the Blizzard here

National Film and Sound Archive