On 28th November 1979 perhaps the worst air disaster in New Zealand’s history occurred when an Air New Zealand DC-10, Flight TE-901, loaded with 257 passengers on a sightseeing flight over Antarctica slammed into Mount Erebus, the continent’s second highest active volcano. There were no survivors.

Mixing archive footage and photos, dramatic reconstructions and interviews, Charlotte Purdy and Peter Berger’s drama documentary Erebus: Into The Unknown chronicles the 14 harrowing days that followed the crash for the team of New Zealand police officers who took part in Operation Overdue, the incredible effort to recover the remains of the dead for the untried disaster rescue team.

Within 11 hours of the tragedy the team of mostly ordinary Kiwi cops, the youngest of whom, Stewart Leighton, was just 22, were on their way to the last great wilderness, the most formidable, unforgiving environment in the world, unprepared for the sheer carnage that awaited them. Many of them had never been on the ice before (and never would again), and all would be irrevocably changed by their experiences, toiling in treacherous conditions in twelve-hour shifts, miles from McMurdo Sound, the closest thing to an outpost of civilisation in Antarctica, as the physically and emotionally exhausted men desperately battled to chip bodies and body parts from the ice, bagging and tagging the remains, racing against the clock as rising temperatures threatened the break-up of McMurdo’s Winter ice sheet, the only place capable of landing the Hercules transporters needed to ferry the bodies back to New Zealand.

Stunningly shot against a backdrop of Antarctica’s harsh, stark beauty, Purdy and Berger’s film also touches on the crash investigation and the allegations of cover-up that have dogged the tragedy ever since but, with a slim, TV-friendly running time of just over an hour, the directors wisely concentrate on the recollections of the policemen involved particularly Leighton, Gregory Gilpin, the grizzled Bob Mitchell and the operation’s commander Jim Morgan. 35 years later these fascinating, quietly courageous, compassionate men are still haunted by their time on the ice and the horror they witnessed and the film is an honourable tribute to their bravery and sacrifice.

EREBUS: INTO THE UNKNOWN is in cinemas 9 January and DVD/On Demand 12 January

Movie Review: Erebus - Into The Unknown
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