I am fascinated by tales of survival. The viewing public is, too, since there have been many television shows featuring individuals (not counting the camera crew) placed in the middle of nowhere and demonstrating basic techniques for staying alive. My favorite was Man vs. Wild (2006-2011). I could watch Bear Grylls do things in the wild every day, and have been through each season a few times. Real life is better. Man vs. Wild is billed as “reality television,” though there is, by the show’s own admission, no small amount of staging that goes on while it is filmed. In some of the episodes, Bear talks about actual stories of people who lived through some of the most harrowing circumstances a person can endure this side of warfare. You usually see these things in documentaries because how much action can you get out of people sitting for days on end waiting for rescue? When they are made into movies, it is to mixed results. Most critics loved The Revenant (2015), the loosely factual story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who lived through a bear mauling. Most, that is, except for this Catholic one, though I had yet to start The Legionnaire at that time. One reasonable facsimile thereof that I did enjoy is the more recent Against the Ice, today’s review.
It is 1909 when Against the Ice begins, and Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is leading a Danish expedition to prove that the so-called Peary Island off Greenland’s northeastern tip is in fact a part of the larger landmass it neighbors. This is important because Greenland belongs to Denmark, and the United States is laying claim to Peary. If their expedition can prove that it joins Greenland, then the Americans will be forced to relinquish their claims. It is all ice and rocks, but such things were apparently important to the Danes. Captain Mikkelsen is also following in the footsteps of a previous mission that set out to do the same thing, but did not return. His ship, the (whether it is meant to be or not) ironically named Alabama, is frozen into a bay, and the captain is proposing an overland expedition to find a cairn left by the earlier expedition that contains further proof they need to put aside the American claim. It is a journey of hundreds of miles through glaciers, snow, mountains, crevasses, cold, polar bears, starvation, hallucination, flying saucers, and yetis. Okay, I made those last two up, but the point is that most of the crew see nothing but danger and probably death for whoever ventures out into the frozen wastes. Understandably, nobody volunteers to go with them until the mechanic, Iver Iversen (Joe Cole), steps forward. He is the least qualified. He has never set foot in the arctic, he is too friendly with the dogs upon which they must rely and potentially kill in certain situations, and thus does not have the trust of the captain. Unfortunately, he is their only option, and so they set out in March of the following year, with promises that they will return by the next August. It is a steep learning curve for young Iver. At one point he loses control of his sled and it careens into a crevasse. Later he has to shoot one of the dogs when it comes up lame, and feed its remains to the other dogs to keep the others healthy. Through it all, though, he remains in relatively high spirits. When they reach their goal and obtain the records left in the cairn, it conclusively proves that Peary Island is, in fact, attached to Greenland. Now they must make it back to the Alabama. During the trip there, the captain tried to keep the bonding with Iver to a minimal, maintaining a strict officer-seaman relationship. Slowly, Iver’s good nature begins to somewhat warm the captain’s cold heart. This is put to the test when the captain sees a partially frozen bay before them and feels they must cross it instead of going around, as Iver favors. The captain wins out, of course, but is forced to build his own cairn in which to stash the proof they had struggled so much to retrieve, lest it potentially sink into the icy depths should they fall in the water. Still, it is the leader that shows the first signs of cracking, and this is put to a test when they arrive back where they left the Alabama, only to find a skeleton of a ship. Thankfully, the crew had constructed a cabin and storage hut out of the wreckage, in which they take shelter. It is also stocked with a year’s worth of food, which they ration, of course. This proves necessary because, despite the desire of the Alabama’s crew, which had been saved by a different ship at a point before, to return to the site, the Danish government is slow to give them permission to do so. When they do, they arrive at a time when the captain and Iver had gone back to retrieve the data once more, and they discover that the attempt had been mounted while they were away. Thus they settle in for months and months of waiting. With time, the captain’s condition deteriorates, and he begins hallucinating about the woman he left behind, Naja Holm (Heida Reed). At one point, he blames Iver for taking his woman, and is about to murder the young man. Luckily, he comes to his senses before any real damage is done. Iver does not hold a grudge, and together they must protect their camp from a polar bear. After convincing it to go away once, they believe they hear it coming back, only to open the door of the hut and find their rescuers. After nearly three years in the arctic, they return to a hero’s welcome in Denmark, with Naja there to greet Captain Mikkelsen.
One could begin watching Against the Ice and probably fall asleep about a half hour into it. It was at that mark that I looked at the clock and saw that only thirty minutes had passed since I started it, which felt like an eternity. Such plots are not for everyone, but the long, drawn-out sequences are purposeful. They give a sense of the monotonous days that Captain Mikkelsen and Iver had to endure. People find it difficult to deal with not having anything to do other than to carry on breathing for periods shorter than fifteen minutes. Can you imagine having to deal with such conditions for nearly three years, and to do it in the north of Greenland to boot? No wonder they were on the verge of gibbering madness. I will not pretend to be an expert on such things, no matter how episodes of Man vs. Wild I have seen. Yet, I can use my Faith to speculate. I thought about this while watching the film: how would I continue on with being a practicing Catholic if forced to be in a similar situation? After all, obeying the Sabbath and weekly taking of the Eucharist are bedrocks of my beliefs. There was no church for thousands of miles, hence no way to take Communion. The one thing you did not see from these men, unfortunately, is prayer. In such extreme circumstances, the Church would acknowledge that there is no sin involved for not partaking of the Sacraments. Yet, how else does one maintain their connection with God? Further, I am willing to believe in real life (I did not research this) that both Captain Mikkelsen and Iver were begging God for a ship to come their way. Instead, we get Captain Mikkelsen talking to an imaginary Naja. Let us suppose, instead, that they did pray for deliveramce. This makes the miracle of their eventual rescue all the sweeter.
There are some other difficult moments in Against the Ice that might make the film hard for some audiences to watch it, such as when they kill and sometimes eat the dogs. As someone who loves canines, this was a particularly difficult part to see. Still, it works because the captain’s brooding is offset by Iver’s (mostly) unflagging cheerfulness. After his antics lead to them losing one of their sleds, and his favorite pup, he places greater trust in the captain. This carries Iver through the tense moments when his sole companion is clearly losing his mind. As such, you are rooting for them to survive, and that makes it watchable, and for free on Netflix.