Director: Charlotte Purdy
Cast: Niamh Peren, Paul Hallett, Andrew Munro
Watch Erebus Into the Unknown online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Eircom / Virgin Movies / EE / TalkTalk
In November 1979, Air New Zealand flight DC10 went missing during a tourist flight over Antarctica. 257 passengers were on board.
It’s a story that sounds sadly familiar, following a year containing several tragic airplane incidents – but while today, search and rescue is carried out by teams of specialists, New Zealand’s response to the disaster was to send out 11 ordinary police officers to find and identify the bodies. Many hadn’t even seen snow before.
“We had no idea what Antarctica would throw at us,” says Stuart Leighton. “We just knew it was dangerous.”
Director Charlotte Purdy reconstructs the period convincingly with a blast of icy horror: the fresh-faced Stuart (who was only 22 at the time) provides a striking contrast to what he encounters, describing his first sight of the crash from their approaching plane as harmlessly as “a smudge” on the mountain.
Leighton and his more senior colleague, Inspector Bob Mitchell, give commentary as they go, only adding to the extraordinary nature of the task they faced: Mitchell, saying goodbye to his family, recalls how he thought he would never see them again.
While the mix of dramatic reenactment and knowing hindsight gives the documentary its impact, though, it also undermines it; what starts out as effective becomes overdone, turning from emotional hindsight into unnecessary exposition. Moments such as the playing of the black box recording are enough on their own to communicate the tragedy the team must face, while back home a country is in mourning.
Stuart having to use hands to tell the difference between male and female victims is unthinkably horrible, but the demands made of these unprepared police officers (Mitchell ironically went on a training course for identifying bodies on the day of the crash) eventually take second place to the unravelling causes behind the disaster. How could a plane fly into a mountain in broad daylight? The use of vox pops to create a sense of scandal and conspiracy around the answer undoes some of the documentary’s earlier work, striving for suspense only to lose part of its simple human story. The fact that the system these men invented to tag the crash scene is still in use today is undeniably important. More time to explore the airline’s culpability in the event, or perhaps a straightforward dramatic retelling, might give this interesting, moving story the compelling power it deserves.
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