The Search for the Northwest Passage (2005)

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Released 1-Sep-2005

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Audio
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 2005
Running Time 110
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,4,5,6 Directed By Louise Osmond

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Maureen Bennett
Richard Betts
Kåre Conradi
Francis Crozier
George Dalton
Thom Fell
Anthony Gardner
Darri Ingolfsson
Christian Pedersen
Bohdan Poraj
Colin Tierney
Lesley Tuckey
Crispin Wells
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $29.95 Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (256Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.75:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio Unknown Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

   Like El Dorado and Atlantis, the search for the northwest passage was a dream that drove countless explorers to their deaths since the 1400's. The lure was strong. If there was one clear passage across the top of Canada then east/west travel would be much easier and trading ships could avoid the long and treacherous journey around the bottom of South America. Unfortunately, and this is no spoiler, there really isn't a northwest passage as the shifting ice mass from the north pole makes each journey across the top end a new adventure.

    The Search For The Northwest Passage is a recent British made-for-television documentary in two parts, both of which were directed by Louise Ormond. Rather than tracing the history of the various attempts over the centuries the documentary focuses on two attempts: the doomed effort of Sir John Franklin in 1845 and the journey by Roald Amundsen in 1903. The show is composed of live recreations using jobbing British actors and narrated by Colin Tierney and some archival material, together with interviews with suitable scholars including arctic experts and historians. Fans of the British series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World will know precisely what to expect in terms of the production values, although it must be said that these two documentaries do not feature as much acting as such. Instead, the voiceover dominates.

Episode 1: The Franklin Expedition

    The Franklin expedition was and is one of the most enduring mysteries of English history. Franklin took two boats with 120 men into the arctic gloom and disappeared.

    As time passed various clues as to the fate of the expedition were discovered. Even so, it was a shock to the system for the British Empire that it could all have gone so horribly wrong. For this was no amateur effort. Franklin used the latest technology including supplies for three years. He was an experienced arctic explorer who needed no help to navigate the icy waters. As the film suggests this may well have been his undoing. Despite heated ships and 3000 books none of Franklin's men knew how to build an igloo or hunt in the arctic.

    For those who like their documentaries with a happy ending this is not a film for you. The cold looks cold and the film shows step by step how technology failed the explorer and, over an unimaginable 5 years, whittled the crew away to nothing. It is a bleak and sad story and for the squeamish has some scenes showing exhumed sailors, still perfectly preserved, who were dug up to answer some key questions about their fate. I won't spoil their findings but suffice it to say that a series of factors combined to doom the expedition from the start.

    Despite, or perhaps because of, the sense of creeping doom this is a fascinating documentary.

Episode 2: The Amundsen Expedition

    Roald Amundsen was an explorer from birth. He read voraciously and, apparently, no story captivated him more than the mystery of the Franklin expedition. He became obsessed with the challenge of finding the northwest passage.

    His expedition could not have been any more different than Franklin's. Eschewing large well stocked ships he instead chose a shallow fishing boat that could travel quickly and lightly through the icy waters. The speed of the boat served him well when he began his attempt early to outrun his creditors!

    In a crucial turn Amundsen drew from the lessons of the local Inuit people and learnt arctic survival techniques. In fact, the documentary focuses heavily on the time that Amundsen spent in the company of the Inuits learning these skills and understanding the people. Compared to the Franklin episode this film lacks drama as Amundsen seems to have had a relatively clear ride with rocky shallows being the only real threat.

    Both episodes are attractively filmed and nicely presented on DVD. It's a sad irony, however, that the possibility of using the northwest passage for commercial shipping is only increasing with the advent of global warming as the amount of ice blocking the waterways is diminishing.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


  The Search for the Northwest Passage is presented in 1.75:1 which appears to be its original made-for-TV aspect ratio. It is 16x9 enhanced.

    The look of the film is a mixed bag. The bulk of the film is shot in hi definition video and contains some truly impressive looking images. Just check out the sailing scene at 2.44 in the second episode for an example of the sumptuous look. The interior historical recreations and the talking heads inserts are also excellent. There is no aliasing or artefacts to be seen as should be expected in a recent TV production.

    The boundless vista snow scenes are less successful. One IMDB poster who says that he was involved with the production has said that these shots were filmed on 16mm. This would actually make sense as I had initially thought that they may be stock footage. The film is fairly grainy, has quite a few artefacts and it looks to me as if there was a problem with the lens fogging. It is not a serious problem but it is noticeable as it stands out from the remainder of the show. The footage is used as an inter-title between story elements and you do start to notice some repetition (including one naughty moment where the filmmakers reversed some footage!).

    This is not a major complaint as the interludes are brief and I am sure it is difficult and expensive to film in these regions.

    Otherwise the transfer is very impressive.

    There are no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The audio for The Search for the Northwest Passage is English Dolby Digital 2.0 (256Kb/s). This is perfectly adequate for a pair of films that are largely voice-over. As a result the question of audio sync doesn't even come up, let alone disappoint. The voice-over itself is well modulated, clear and remains interesting throughout.

    The music is appropriate if a bit unmemorable.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


     The DVD does not come with any real extras.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    I cannot find a reference to a DVD release of this show in Region 1 or other regions.


   The Search for the Northwest Passage is a fascinating pair of documentaries that show the dedication and drive needed to pursue the toughest goals - even if the prize was ultimately illusory.

    The transfer is nice and clean and the only flaw is the long range snow scenes.

    The audio is perfect for the films.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Monday, August 28, 2006
Review Equipment
DVDOnkyo DV-SP300, using Component output
DisplayNEC PlasmaSync 42" MP4 1024 x 768. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJBL Simply Cinema SCS178 5.1

Other Reviews NONE
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