South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition
The original footage of Shackleton's 1914–16 Endurance voyage is a document for the ages. The 1919 film, directed by expedition member Frank Hurley, is silent, and the ship itself is the most compelling character—charging 800 miles through the floes toward its unlucky fate, before being surrounded by the ice on all sides like a cornered animal.
The 1938 movie is 3.5 hours long, is devoid of a storyline, and was funded by the Nazi party. But Leni Riefenstahl captured the drama of the 1936 "Hitler Olympics"—Jesse Owens showing up Das Führer—and pioneered now-ubiquitous filming techniques, such as slow-motion panning and cameras planted on athletic equipment.
Thor Heyerdahl & Co.'s 1947 float from Peru to Polynesia calls two words to mind: balsa and balls. After the Norwegian ethnographer's theory—positing that pre-Columbian South Americans used "primitive" craft to settle Polynesia—is laughed off by his fellows, Heyerdahl recruits five guys with names like Bengt and Torstein, then builds and rides a big raft some 4,300 nautical miles into the Pacific, battling sharks and cruising with the trade winds the whole way.
The Conquest of Everest
The big peak has inspired many documentaries, but the 1953 original still stands above the rest. George Lowe's Conquest follows Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's team from the planning stages to Camp IV, where the cameramen fall back. No matter: The climax—when expedition leader Colonel John Hunt breaks military decorum to hug Hillary and Norgay upon their descent—is plenty dramatic.
The Silent World
It's extremely hard to find, stars skinny French divers in yellow bun huggers, and features numerous acts of animal cruelty: a whale harpooned and sharks clubbed to death onboard Jacques Cousteau's Calypso. It also won a 1957 Oscar and created the phenomenon we now know as the underwater film.
Cornball ("He could have a ham sandwich" on the nose of his board). Insensitive (try counting the use of "natives"). And yet, you can't help but love this 1966 film. Mostly because the plot is so pure: Two guys travel the world in search of the perfect wave, ultimately finding it off South Africa. Still, there's something bittersweet in watching the quest: You just don't find empty breaks like this anymore.
Fitz Roy: Mountain of Storms
In 1968, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, along with skier Dick Dorworth and climber Lito Tejada-Flores, drove a van from California to the bottom of Argentina and summited 11,073-foot Fitz Roy. (They picked up another climber, Chris Jones, on the way.) Tejada-Flores's gift to us was the camera he brought to film the journey. Sadly, the original Fitz Roy: First Ascent of the Southwest Buttress is tough to find, so go with this version. It contains cheesy voice-overs and funk music, but it still features Chouinard and Tompkins aid-climbing Fitz Roy in wool hats and incredibly cool shades.
There is not one word uttered for 86 minutes, just a collection of gorgeous and disturbing images—Canyonlands National Park; freeways; an atomic bomb test—backed by Philip Glass's haunting soundtrack. The magic of this 1982 cult classic lies in director Godfrey Reggio's willingness to leave the entire experience up to interpretation.
Blizzard of Aahhh's
The early years of extreme skiing, in the late eighties, were not pretty. There was too much neon, too many hop turns. There was a new sport—snowboarding—to ridicule and a myopic ski industry to rant against: Most American resorts wouldn't allow you to ski their gnarliest terrain. But, as the rebellious spirit and ripping action of 1988's Blizzard remind you, the birth of big-mountain skiing is still fun to watch.
For All Mankind
As this Oscar-nominated 1989 film demonstrates, the 12 men who walked on the moon's surface during the six Apollo landings between 1969 and 1972 were some of the most intrepid explorers in our history. Director Al Reinert and editor Susan Korda culled through 6,000 hours of NASA footage—and set it to a quietly rapturous Brian Eno score—to create this composite view of a complete moon mission from liftoff to splashdown.