Erebus: Into the Unknown (REVIEW)

On Set DOP DJ Stipsen

A compelling and must-see documentary about the brave men who recovered bodies from the 1979 Air New Zealand crash that left 257 dead.

On Nov. 28th, 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 carrying 257 people on board crashed into Mount Erebus, the second highest volcano in the Antartica. Several men were sent to the crash site to look for the human remains. This compelling story is told in the new documentary Erebus: Into the Unknown.

Stuart Leighton was a 22-year old Wellington constable when he was asked to be part of a team, a team of 11 policemen, to go to the crash sight, a crash sight that was 4000 meters up on Mount Erebus, an active volcano that also happened to be covered in ice and snow. Leighton, along with Seargants Greg Gilpin and Mark Penn, among others, were part of the Disaster Victim Identification Team. In this documentary the men relive their experience on that mountain by telling their stories themselves. Intercutting the interviews with the men are amazing reinactments as well as real footage taken at that time. It's makes for a fascinating and very realistic documentary.

Before arriving to the crash sight, Penn says that "we couldn't visualize the crash scene at the time."

On the second day after the crash these men are sent to McMurdo Station - a U.S. Antartic research center to train for their time up on the mountain after seeing the crash scene from the plane that the men said 'ilooked like a slight smudge on the mountain". The men faced uncertainty of what they would encounter, including the harsh conditions. They are dropped from a helicopter in near white out conditions to a scene of utter destruction, and spend the next two weeks bagging the bodies (and body parts) that they find at the crash scene. The men describe the brutal weather that they were exposed to including snow and very cold wind storms, not to mention having to live in tents next to what was a graveyard. The men spend 14 days on the mountain, and are able to gather all the remains that they could find. But it took it's toll. They had a hard time when they went back home, unrecognized by their country and forgotten for their bravery and determination. "We deserved better than what we got. There was no one there to support us" says one of the men.

While discussing their time on the mountain, the men still have the look of horror in their eyes. They were tasked with a job that basically almost no one had ever done before. And these men were brave to take this task on. And what makes Erebus: Into the Unknown unique is that it recreates the true account of what happened on that fateful 1979 day and couples it with the real footage that directors Peter Burger and Charlotte Purdy incorporate into the film. Photographs taken on the mountain by the men, as well as news footage add to the dramatic element. Incredibly, the actual flight recorder conversation is also played. Amazingly photos taken from one of the passengers on the plane before it crashed are also shown.

Erebus: Into the Unknown also goes into detail of the coverup of the plane crash by the CEO of Air New Zeland. A document found at the crash sight goes missing, which kicks off the investigation. The cause of the crash was determined to be due to a mistake made by airline officials who altered the navigational coordinates to fly directly at Mount Erebus, and committed to tell the crew. In 2007, the men received Special Service medals, finally acknowledging their efforts in the recovery operation.

The Air New Zealand crash was at that time the 4th largest air disaster at the time. Mount Erebus is the second highest volcano in Antarctica and the southernmost active volcano on earth. It is the 6th highest ultra mountain on an island.

Kudos to the actors who portray the men in the film, and the art director who recreated the crash site on a mountain. It all looks so real, this documentary is like a fly on the wall film. It's extremely recommended. Further reading on the plane disaster and recovery can be found by reading the book:

  • Peter Mahon, Verdict on Erebus, Auckland, William Collins Publishers Ltd, 1984

EREBUS: INTO THE UNKNOWN is now in cinemas as well as on DVD and On Demand