REVIEW: OPERATION EREBUS
On November 28th, 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 carrying 257 passengers on a sightseeing tour of Antarctica did not return on time… Eleven ordinary policemen went to the inhospitable and volcanic Mount Erebus where they discovered the plane crash and hundreds of dead bodies, an operation which would haunt the men who responded, the families of the victims and the New Zealand psyche for decades to come.
This is an intriguing documentary that blends historical re-enactments of the police Disaster Victim Identification Team’s lives with real time interviews with the main characters decades later. These ordinary blokes from Auckland had never been to Antarctica and experienced the hellish conditions there, but the duty fell to them to go. The blend of real interviews with the re-enactments brings to life the visual context and emotional power of these events, and gives the film an edge traditional documentaries may lack.
“There’s nothing worse than the fear of the unknown. And the known wasn’t particularly good either.” – Stuart Leighton The team found the terrible reality of a plane crash and the multitude of bodies they had to recover from the most inhospitable location on the planet. This is a psychological drama as well – many of the official respondents were young and naïve street police, and the pressure on these men to do their duty – to tag, bag and recover bodies in this situation was terrifying. One wrong move and they too, could be killed from unexploded canisters, the snow and ice and arctic conditions, and the dramatic re-enactments heighten this tension.
A warning to viewers–whilst the recovery scenes are delicately handled the reality is still heart-wrenching as an overwhelming “scene of utter destruction– both human and aircraft” awaited them. Decapitated bodies, people torn apart–the horrors experienced continued not just in the recovery process, but have haunted the response squad down the long years since the tragedy. And it is their story of courage and perseverance, of human duty that shines through in this film.
There is also the backstory of the culpability of the airline with regards to the crash, and the mystery of what happened to the flight. They appear to have crashed directly into Mount Erebus in a snowstorm, and the responsibility of the company is still controversial to this day, and was downplayed by the airline at the time. A ring binder that was in the hands of the captain of the flight was recovered, but mysteriously went missing when handed over to the airline’s representatives. Photographs of the flight the time it went down also showed the conditions were clear, but that depth perception was skewed from the dry air conditions.
The story of that doomed flight, and the brave New Zealand men who responded to the tragedy has become part of the cultural landscape for New Zealanders, and this film is a unique window into that slice of history and the human spirit it revealed.
Operation Erebus is now available on ScreenZone: