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Bob Wallace: In Shackleton's Shoes


Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: Jan 2001

Meet the star and builder of the boats for Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure.


Category: Interviews

In translating Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure to the giant screen, White Mountain Films and Nova/WGBH Boston were intent on authenticity. The great adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton is played by Boston sea captain and shipwright Bob Wallace -- who also built and sailed the replica ships. As skipper of the scientific research vessel ABEL J, Wallace knows the polar seas well. A longtime Shackleton aficionado, he examined the original James Caird and pored over Endurance Captain Frank Worsley's diaries and Hurley's photographs before beginning work in a Uruguayan boatyard with his team. Both the building of the boats and the filming of the production proved to be highly rewarding experiences for the modern-day polar adventurer.

BMZ: What was the most exciting part of helping bring Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure to life for the Giant Screen?

Bob Wallace: While I had been to some of the locations that figure in the story of Shackleton's Endurance Expedition before, it was the greatest thrill to be approaching those actual places in the way he did, in our own James Caird and other boats, trying our best to replicate those important moments and be as faithful as possible to those real events. I felt we owed it to the story, Shackleton and his men.

BMZ: To what extent did you and the others involved get a sense of the hardships Shackleton's real crew had to go through? Was a lot of the film shot in the Antarctic, or did you use other, more friendly locations?

BW: I believe we did begin to get the sense of Shackleton's real hardships but only the begiinnings. Our experiences in the filming project only reinforces my awe and amazement at their abilities to stay with it against those odds. One of the important points to keep in mind when you see the film is that we were very careful to try to film the scenes that occurred in an actual place to do them in that real place in the way that the diaries and stories described them. So scenes in the Weddell Sea, at Elephant Island, and at South Georgia all are done in the real locations described. Some scenes of the ice camps, Ocean camp, Patience Camp, which, of course, were on the weddell Sea ice, were actually filmed on some frozen lakes in Utah.

BMZ: What sticks in your mind most about the experience of losing the three replica rowboats you'd built while filming off Elephant Island in the Antarctic?

BW: Losing the boats was not in the plan! That event actually occurred after the last day of filming at Elephant Island. We had done some work at Elephant Island, Point Wild, before, but the weather had turned against us. It is very volatile and exposed there. (Elephant Island, for all you sailors, is one of the wildest, most inhospitable places I have ever been-but beautiful) so we had travelled down into the Weddell Sea looking for pack ice to do other scenes. Having done that we travelled back up to Elephant Island, waited out horendous weather again for a few days and then finally got a window. We worked hard and long at Point Wild all day but when finished, too much big ice around and deteriorating conditions required that we try to tow the boats around to the lee of the Island, no easy task. Enroute the weather worsened and ultimately one of the boat swamped and parted the tow. We stayed nearby all night. In the morning the Caird was partially swamped, the Stancomb Wills was upside down but the docker was OK. We made several attempts to get the Docker back but the weather continued to deteriorate. Now remember that this is a ship full of film makers, not sailors. They are very good at what they do but the decision was made to abandon further efforts to get into the boats for recovery under the circumstances. Keep in mind that water temperature is about 32F.

BMZ: How is it that you're both the builder of the replica boats, and the star of the film? Which did the producers ask of you, first?

BW: Originally I was working with film Director George Butler on the details of using my research vessel, ABEL-J, to support the film crew in Antarctica. At an early stage he asked me if I identified with any particular character from the stroy. As a ship captain I was naturally inclined to Capt. Worsley and appreciated his extraordinary skill as navigator. However, George thought I would make a better Shackleton so that was it from then on. As the project continued to be organized I realized they had no real small boat experts and knew that if they wanted to film the boats someone needed to get started on the research and design for them.

BMZ: How did you first get into building boats? Were the boats used in this film special to you?

BW: I have since very young had a strong interest in small sailing boats and over the years have built several traditional types. I worked for many years as a boat builder and repairer on Cape Cod. The two smaller boats, the Stancomb Wills and the Dudley Docker were designed by Stewart Hoagland of Seattle based on his research into the Endurance story. Stewart led his team in Uruguay building those boats while my team built our James Caird replica. The James Caird has become a very special boat. In the filming down south she proved to be a real thoroughbred and we began to realize how it was possible for the real James Caird to have made the epic voyage.

BMZ: Did you build another replica of one of the lost boats? Can people go see that somewhere?

BW: Since returning home I have built another James Caird replica to support the films and exhibits and in between times have been able to experiment with the boat and learn how nice a little boat it is. I built replica #2 last winter in New England. She has been travelling with the Shackleton/Endurance Exhibition and will be at some of the Imax film openings this spring.

BMZ: Now that you've been through the creation of this film, what is the most amazing thing to you about the survival of Shackleton's men?

BW: The most amazing aspect of this survival story is just that-that they were able to hold together and survive against the conditions of the Antarctic. However, I do like to remind people that these men started out on that expedition intending to winter over in the ice, sending half of the team across the continent. They were very experienced for the most part, and men like Worsley and Shackleton, Wild and Crean were especially prepared for this work. Worsley had not been to the Antarctic but he was a very experienced ship and small boat handler and was a gifted navigator. We must not forget about luck. They definitely had there share when they needed it.

BMZ: What will people get to experience about the Antarctic by watching this film that might surprise them?

BW: I think the greatest experience will be to realize the vast size of the Antarctic. It is my hope that the scale of things will be projected on the screen-there is almost no way to describe the size of the ice in comparison to the Endurance or three small boats!

BMZ: What is the scariest or most intense experience you've had in polar regions?

BW: My most intense and scariest moments in Antarctica are my earliest encounter with the ice. I was running a small research vessel, tasked to get some scientists into some remote fields station in the Antarctic Penninsula Area. The ice would not allow it! There was impenetrable pack and giant bergs. I came to realize that these are the largest moving objects on the planet and they did not care about me and my small ship at all.

BMZ: The most beautiful?

BW: It becomes the most beautiful as you gain experience and respect for the same things as in the question above. As you learn to work the ice and the land you come to realize how privileged we are to see this great gift of a place.

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