Burial of John Franklin. Author: me


Kabloonas is the way in which the Inuit who live in the north part of Canada call those who haven´t their same ascendency.

The first time i read this word was in the book "Fatal Passage" by Ken McGoogan, when, as the result of the conversations between John Rae and some inuit, and trying to find any evidence of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin Expedition, some of then mentioned that they watched how some kabloonas walked to die in the proximities of the river Great Fish.

I wish to publish this blog to order and share all those anecdotes that I´ve been finding in the arctic literature about arctic expeditions. My interest began more than 15 years ago reading a little book of my brother about north and south pole expeditions. I began reading almost all the bibliography about Antarctic expeditions and the superknown expeditions of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, etc. After I was captured by the Nansen, Nobile and Engineer Andree. But the most disturbing thing in that little book, full of pictures, was the two pages dedicated to the last Franklin expedition of the S.XIX, on that moment I thought that given the time on which this and others expeditions happened, few or any additional information could be obtained about it. I couldn´t imagine that after those two pages It would be a huge iceberg full of stories, unresolved misteries, anecdotes, etc. I believe that this iceberg, on the contrary than others, would continue growing instead melting.

viernes, 25 de mayo de 2018


Singe I got hooked to the story of the lost Franklin expedition  in serch of the northwest passage I inmediately though it would be worth making a movie or a TV show.

The expedition wasn´t just another polar trip, in fact it was and still is, the biggest and more misterious tragedy which happened at those latitudes. For that reason, it seemed impossible to me it wasn´t ever put on a screen.

The story

It is true that making a movie or a serie about the Franklin expedition is not an easy task, not only because the difficulty of simulating a polar enviroment on which it happened, but because telling just the story of what directly related with it, we would have a very limited idea of what realy happened there. It would be necessary to go back on time towards its protagonist´s past, John Franklin to contextualize properly the expedition and to understand well who was that character. Same applies to his wife, we would be missing a very important aspect of the story if Lady Franklin´s intervention before and after the expedition sailed to the north.

Lady Franklin played a notorious role in the process on which her husband was chosen to command that ultimate attempt to locate the northwest passage, though maybe, the reason for what is more known, was for the impressive media campaign which she launched to press the Admiralty to organize the rescue missions after John.

The searching for the whereabaouts of John Franklin, which was carried out by tenths of expeditions, there would give lots of material to talk about, in part because they were essential to finally discover and cross the passage.

I guess that it was necessary to put limits, otherwise, gathering all these elements and those not directly related with the "polar issues" would likely  imply a task impossible to execute, if done, there would be needed ten seasons or more.

But  there are precisely those indirect elements which really add the needed salt and pepper to make a success of a TV show based on the Franklin expedition, and not a boring melodrama where at the end of the day we will end tired of seeing exhausted men starving, cold and dragging huge sledges episode after episode.

We find, for instance, in this dressing so fundamental, love stories condemned to a fail, like Crozier´s relationship with Franklin niece, Sophie Cracroft, fact which fortunately finds a prominent place in the show.

However, in my opinion, it shouldn´t have been left apart other ingredients like for  instance, the likely love triangle among Lady Franklin, John Franklin y James Clark Ross.  Something which could have perfectly have had place during the Ross´s visit to Van Diemen´s land in the voyage of discovery of the Antarctic continent while the Franklins were governors of the prison island.

It could have been introduced in the script, as flash backs the also likely flirtations of Lady Franklin when traveling all along the Mediterranean sea while Franklin was appointed to serve in Malta before departing to the Arctic.

It would have been a nice surprise if it would have appeared the spectral revelations of the deceased Weasy Coppin who reveal to her sisters and father in a mysterious way, through letters proyected in a wall, the whereabouts of the lost ships.

Revelación espectral
It would have been almost unbelievable for the spectators the fact that a small balloon  would make its appearance in England, after crossing the Atlantic ocean, reporting in an attached message about the exact location of the ships. That was such an incredible feat that everyone who studied the case reached the conclusion that it was not more than an hoax, very well fabricated, but an hoax.

The appearing of two mysterious ships frozen in a drifting iceberg in Baffin bay, which for long time was thought could be the Erebus and Terror, would have left us open-mouthed.

Surely, the dialectical conflict between the lquacious Charles Dickens and John Rae, bearer of the first bad news which came from the north regarding the ultimate end of the lost explorers, will entertain us because the controversy arised by the reception of those scandalous news about the practice of cannibalism which he brought to the VIctorian ENgland of the time.

From the paper to the screens

In time, I was conscious that a movie with a duration of an hour and a half or two hours wouldn´t have been enough to tell not even the prologue of the story. There was a first failed attempt by the hand of the canadian director Jean Marc-Vallé who, after the discovery of the Erebus in 2014, made public his intention to direct a film based on the book "On the proper use of the stars" by Dominique Fortier. Never again was heard about this project till Ridley Scott came to rescue, this time not to say it was going to be made a film but a TV show, something with much more sense. With the back up of Ridley one could already anticipate that the lack of means were not going to be an issue to develop the show. Now, the question was, which story would be put into the screen?

Some "Franklinite", felt disappointed somehow when it was knew that the script of the show would be based in the fiction novel "The Terror" written by Dan Simmons which was published in 2007, but, what the heck? after all I had always thought that Simmon´s novel had been the passport which had carried the not very well known Franklin expedition to an international scale, and I wasn´t wrong. The upside of chosing The Terror and not the actual story is that, as the novel it was, it had a beginning and an end which one could easily fit in into a limited number of hours.

Once known the project, my initioal disappointment turned into illusion. It didn´t matter what was brought to the screen were the actual story or the fictional one, what I really wanted to see was my beloved ships, the Erebus and Terror sailing again among icebergs in the canadian Arctic and also, all their occupants alive again wandering by the decks or dragging the heavy sledges. All that, I had no doubt about it, would be feasible thanks to the realism which new FX are now being used in the cinematographic world.

But the success the serie is achieving is not only attributable to those FX, the casting has been exceptional, the script has been remarkably donde and the historical researching which has been performed has been really praiseworthy. It is obvious that Ridley Scott team has done its homework and they been well advised.

The show

I was lucky enough to attend the Premiere in Madrid of the first episode and see how Jared Harris (Crozier) and Tobias Menzies (Fitzjames) were interviewed. There were numerous anecdotes whoch made laugh loudly all the audience.

Me at the right and my childhood friend Daniel at the left.
John Franklin is brilliantly performed by CIaran Hinds, an excellent actor who many will know for having worked in several TV shows, among others Rome and Game of Thrones, and also in many other movies and series. Ciaran does it very well, though he wouldn´t have been my choice to interpret the affable and kind John Franklin only for the fact that he is not bald, and Franklin was. THat was one of his more visible physical features.

The most beautiful Gretta Scacchi, also regular of TV shows, some years older than in the picture below, perform Lady Franklin  in a very credible way. She in the few scenes on which appears, shows, like in the actual facts, how she was the engine after Franklin, the one who pushed him to get the position of command in the expedition which eventually will cost his life, and also, how she was the one who shaked the world to find her husband after his disappearance.

Gretta Scacchi
After the premiere I not only got out fascinated after the interview to the two main actors but, after watching the first episode, I ended absolutely captivated by the realistic atmosphere which the creators have achieved to reenact. The setting, the ships, the characters, all was very real, in less than an hout the script team had made me to connect with the story. The sense of immersion was complete. I had an enormous desire to watch the next chapter, it was so huge the hunger that the waiting was almost unbearable.

Now, at last, after watching all the episodes, I can tell that in general it has been done a very good job. It is difficult, as Roderick Owen, one of the authors of one of the best biographies about John Franklin, to make a work valid for a few but at the same time, adecquate for many. Meaning that his work should satisfy the specialists in the topic and the big public as well. It is my believing that the serie has reached that goal.

Dan Simmon´s novel, when saw the light, and the Terror show now, have given an interntational projection to the Franklin expedition. As it was expected, the latter has rised the curiosity of thousands of people who are now haunted and now want to knoiw more about the actual story and its protagonists.  The truth is that there is much more to know and all the information available is simply fascinating. Even today, new things are being known about the men and the story. The shipwrecks recently found in the Arctic are still practically untouched, who knows what wonders and information can keep their holds and cabins the Erebus and Terror?
Restos del HMS Erebus
There is no lack in the ten episodes, of which the serie is composed , a wide spectrum of scenes which bring to our houses in a vivid way the same emotions that the actual story of the Franklin expedition made us felt to every people who read about it. We will taste realistically the brutal cold with which these men had to deal, we will feel the sense of abandonment experienced by the crews when with the pass of the months it was evident they won´t be able to escape from their icy prison. We will feel the tension arise among their captains and also among the sailors.

The details

In spite of the serie is offering us almost ten hour to develop the script, unluckily, this starts short time before the ships were trapped in the ice north of King William Island where finally almost all the men died, skipping the first winter which the expedition spent in Beechey island. It was there were three men died and were buried who will remain frozen under exceptional conditions of preservations as if they had been put in hybernation chambers.

Owen Beattie and John Geiger brought them to light in the 80´s to perform autopsies respectively on them to try to elucidate the causes of the disaster , or at least one of them. One of the theories their studies supported was that the crews were poisoned by the lead of the welding of the food cans which they carried. That investigation made of their book "Frozen in Time" a best seller and one of the most significant works about the subject.

The picture of John Torrington´s corpse, one of the men buried in Beechey island and subsequently exhumed by Geiger and Beattie, has become an iconic picture of the expedition. It appears in the cover of almost all the editions of the book Frozen in time, however, this character does not appear as such in the show. In his place, the death of David Young and his burial, make a wink to Torrington´s death and the other tow happened in Beechey island.

The actor who plays Young, has an outstanding likeness with John Torrington, so it happens with the coffin and the corpse disposal used in the sailor´s entombment. This way, it is perfectly well simulated the actual event.

About what really happened during the expedition little is known, so in reality, at the time to write the final script, besides of following the content provided by Simmons´s novel, there is plenty of room for imagination. It is known that the expedition spent a first winter in 1845-46 in Beechey island where there were buried the three men mentioned above, it is also known that Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames left the only written record in the northwest coast of king William Island. On it, it was said among other things that Franklin had died in june of 1847 and that 9 officers and 15 men had been lost. It was also said that the expedition had circunvalated Cornwallis island northwest of Beechey island and that they had spent two consecutive winters trapped in the ice off the north tip of King William island. A last annotation said that the ships were abandoned and that the remaining men will depart towards Back river, ocated in the north shore of the continent. A dramatic final note, which didn´t presage anything good because it indicated the carry out of a long and harsh hiking through horrid barren lands almost empty of game.

Note left in King William island
The record was signed in april of 1848 and it was found in 1859 by the expedition of Leopold McClintock. Their mortal remains, found in boats, abandoned campments, or scattered on the ground, will end telling their tale. Besides physical evidences, there were Inuit testimonies on which it was told how the natives came across some of the survivors, stumbled upon their death bodies or got into the abandoned ships while they were still beset in the ice. These stories were told by the Inuit to the explorers which come to the north searching for Franklin and allowed that part of the story could be reconstructed through the haunting, tragic and horrific tales they told.

 Facts or fiction

The Terror TV show reenacts numerous events which are considered as true which appear like cornerstones through the script, and also many which are pure speculation and are food for debate, or are just  based on events of other expeditions which happened before or after the Franklin´s one.

One of the actual facts of more relevance set in the show may be the moment the note mentioned above was signed and put into the cairn in King William Island, a scene which has been performed with such faithfulness till the point that the writting of both captains imitate perfectly the actual ones.

As it was expected, the poisoning coming from the welding of the cans occupy a visible place, but not critical, to justify the tragedy as it was indicated in the book. Scurvy also has a place, a serial killer common in this kind of expeditions which used to leave a trail of loose teeth, old wounds which started to bleed again,  stiff articulations and then the death.

It happens a mutiny, about which many historians and scholars have especulated, there are also situations on which disabled or sick men are abandoned in the camps. It is setting out, though it is never seen in the serie, the possibility that some men could have come back to the ships to reman them. Even the pets have a place of honour, specially the monkey Jacko, about who I developed some time ago a theory on which I gave him certain protagonism in the final, and yet unsolved, outcome of the expedition.

For all who are well immerse in the actual facts, it has been a pleasant surprise to see characters who one didn´t think he would find in the show, as it is the case of the controversial John Ross, who in the fiction ask Franklin visibly worried with a deep voice if he has a escape plan. What in fact Ross told Franklin is that he would go to search for him if he doesn´t shown up after a second winter, and that was precisely what he did though some time after what he promosed and in spite of his advanced age to participate in those kind of voyages. Ross knew well the dangers Franklin was facing because he himselg had barely survived four winters trapped in the northwest passage years before.

Thomas Blanky, one of the ice masters of the expedition, whose role together with the surgeon assistant Harry Goodsir are key in the show, tells a overwhelming description of that expedition happened along the years 1829 to 1833, on which in my opinion John Ross escapes unfairly mistreated. 

Ian Hart (Thomas Blanky) becomes one of the most charismatic characters of the whole plot. He performes the role of a so weather beaten sailor who doesn´t care to die neither in the jaws of hunger nor of the monster. His attitude in the show towards life or death, to which he faces with good humour , is enviable.

We can also see the renowned Arctic council, a comittee superbly painted by Stephen Pearce in 1850 and which actually existed. It was formed by the most important explorers of the time. In the show, this scene which cannot be missed, the members of the council, exceptical and ironicly confront at an outraged Lady Franklin who resort to it to ask for help to rescue her husband. Lady Franklin is not deterred by the funny comments of some of the members of the council and finally,  shows her strong will and put them in their place.

But maybe, the most satisfying thing of all for me, have been the inphograpic modelling  of the ships Erebus and Terror. It is amazingly realistic. The support of Mathew Betts in that task has been decisive. Through his blog Building HMS Terror, Mathew started some years ago to share publicly the evolution of the building of his model ship of the Terror. An accurate model which incorporates all the modifications and improvements made before the ships departed in 1845. Those modifications included the incorporation of a locomotive steam engine which powered a screw propeller, becoming the ships the firsts on using that system in the northwest passage.

There are other minor details which are delightful for those crazy "Franklinites" among which I consider myself included. We can see how are used with naturalness objects which appear here and there and which are known for us for being part of the unique relics from the Franklin expedition  which were brought to England by searching parties. Almost all of them are under the custody of the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich. Objects like the medicine chest, cuttlery, dishes, chronometers, oars, spikes, glasses, shoes, etc.

We should also thank that the Daguerrotype camera of the expedition appears in a scene, a detail not well known but which make us hope that there could be obtained some images coming from the expedition. It is not completely crazy think they could be still in good shape inside any of the shipwrecks.

There are other scenes which help us to be trasported to the life inside a polar expedition, like the sound of the ice which so many times can be heard during the show, the scene when the sun is saw for last time and when it appears again the next summer, explicit images of amputations of fingers, etc. but also the daily life and routine on board Royal Navy ships of that time, like disciplinary punishments carried out with brutal indifference, funerals performed in the upper deck, and so on.

Finally, in some other scenes, we can recognize with accuracy how are reenact some of the encounters among the Inuit and the survivors described above. Those foggy stories are related and studied in the fascinating books "Unraveling the Franklin Mistery" and "Strangers among us" de David Woodman.

But not all these pieces  fit perfectly well in my expectations, I think I will have omitted without  a trembling hand the presence of certain elements which haven´t been specially of my taste. For instance, the attitude of the villain Hickey, whose performance in my opinion is slightly overacted.  I didn´t like the megalomaniac and bizarre dramatization which makes the character little understandable. His evilness contrasts like the sun and the moon with the totally opposite character of Harry Goodsir, whose surname fits nicely with his angelical attitude.

It is neither convincing for me the creature of antropomorphic countenance who compulsary must appear as it is written the fiction novel which inspires the show. I have had the feeling that the appearance of the monster  made not more than bothering and distracting the attention of the spectator from an excellent  polar survival thriller. I think that if the monster scenes could be omitted with surgical precission, we would obtain a much more compact product.

But despite all these tiny  slip-ups, which surely many have appreciated, in conclusion, the result of this fine job has been a serie which is worth watching because it has reached the fundamental target which I was looking for, it is a serie which conveys an accurate picture, monster apart, of what happened, or may have happened during the Franklin expedition in searching of the northwest passage. So in short, it only remains to say:

Bravo team!

1 comentario:

  1. Sorry, but the invention of both Hickey and the creature almost ruin an otherwise excellent story based on facts. It is so carefully, so meticulously produced and directed, why those two haunted devils were needed to spoil it all ? Probably to please a larger audience, those who hate heroic narratives because reality is always cruel, those who hate beauty beause gore kitsch is fashionable in fringe or alternative culture.

    Well, all I wished for was a tale of heroism and beauty, and Ridley Scott failed me. At least I have the lush production.