Heroism, obsession, sheet ice and huskies. It’s a winning combination, the stuff of stories that show men – because these were stories about men – reaching beyond themselves to survive the elements. Sometimes, even in stories, they didn’t survive because they sacrificed themselves for their comrades, finding their best selves in tough situations. Before imaginary superheroes took over, these tall tales and true of derring-do used to fill children’s annuals.
Against the Ice is exactly that kind of story. In 1909, a Danish expedition led by Captain Einar Mikkelsen headed for the northwest of Greenland. Its mission was to try to recover information collected by a previous expedition and buried in a cairn at a point when the members of that team knew they wouldn’t make it back. The cairn’s location is marked on a hand-drawn map recovered from one of their bodies. This is the reality of a life of adventure: life, death and bad maps.
Exploration is only possible in summer. Leaving a ship and crew berthed on the shore, Mikkelsen and one of his crew – ship’s mechanic Iver Iverson (Joe Cole), the only man on board who volunteered for the job – set out to cross hundreds of miles of ice, including rivers filled with ice floes, with dog sleds. When the dogs are dead, they have to travel on foot. The country is uncharted and as tough as anyone might imagine. So are they.
Peter Flinth’s film fills us in efficiently on the purpose of the enterprise. The Danish government financed the first expedition in 1906 and this follow-up mission in order to establish that the northwest of Greenland, which the United States is trying to claim is an island within its coastal waters, is actually part of the Greenland land mass. The area never has been mapped, but America maintains that it is divided by a sea channel. Denmark must prove otherwise. The film never hammers the point, but it is worth remembering how much courage and sacrifice was expended on the head-butting of two empires.
Of course, that’s not what drives the men on the ice. Their motives are no doubt complex, unknowable even to themselves. The film doesn’t dig into them, either; for its purposes, these are good men without even much in the way of rough edges. Danish star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also co-wrote the script, was born to play stoic Captain Mikkelsen. Chiseled of face, agile of body and naturally authoritative, he is a man you would trust to lead you to safety even with a pencil-drawn map.
Which is dangerous, of course. In the film’s first scene, the captain is returning from a previous foray in search of the cairn with his most experienced lieutenant hoisted over his shoulder; he has frostbite. Mikkelsen takes off half his blackened toes with pliers while the rest of the men hold him down. Iversen, his new companion, doesn’t even have any polar experience. He talks too much. He’s wide-eyed and irritating. But his high spirits and conviction in his own good luck – which emerges intact from the loss of a sled, attacks by polar bears and being marooned – ultimately will be their joint salvation.
To have made this film at all must rank as an achievement in the annals of polar adventure. As a story of physical and mental resilience, it is inspiring. The icy landscape, often iridescent in sunshine, is another inspiration. There is an inherent problem with accounts of long journeys, however, that Coster-Waldau and his co-writer Joe Derrick never conquer. These two men were in Greenland for years. So much time is hard for a script to wrangle. Even when they face mortal danger, the script is obliged to hurry on to the next few hundred days; there is no time to build suspense and no time to allow relief when the danger has passed.
This might be exactly how it plays in real life, when you’re thousands of miles from anywhere and have to keep going, but the cumulative effect is flatter than any adventure story should be. The heroism stays with you, though. Heroism, huskies and the dream of adventure. Give me that over a superhero, any day of the week.