Bearing a rather mediocre title, this 2-part BBC documentary chronicles the arduous journey of four British war vets as they attempt to ski to the North Pole as part of the Walking with the Wounded, a charity which helps wounded service men and women re-integrate into civilian life.
Although aided by two guides, each vet is affected by terrible trauma from duty in Afghanistan – a broken back, loss of limbs, and terrible physical and emotional scarring among the four – yet their journey is designed to prove both to themselves and other vets that great goals can be achieved in spite of physical limitations.
The first part covers the genesis of the project as well as the men’s training, and the involvement of sponsor Prince Harry (hence the title), who traveled with the men about a third of the way before having to leave due to prior military commitments. (Harry may have wanted to journey with the men to the end point, but he knew his involvement took some of the media attention away from the men, making his early departure quite logical.) Part 2 is exclusively about the journey, and the drama focuses on the vets as well as Harry’s comradeship with the men.
Director Alexis Girardet (who journeyed with the men, and served as co-cinematographer) uses images of the landscape and the men’s past and present – namely, their traumatic injuries – to remind viewers of the trip’s uniqueness in spite of there being plenty of documented & publicized trips to the North Pole.
The key focus during the first part is the men’s drive to meet their goal while still rehabilitating from their wartime injuries. Stills from the men’s Afghanistan tours – showing buffed and athletic soldiers – are deliberately contrasted against their scarred arms and legs, which establishes for audiences recognition of how much they’ve already achieved in regaining strength and mobility. The details also provide context for the men’s struggles as they make their way through the extreme arctic terrain using artificial limbs or in some cases the mobility of a single arm.
Crossing moving ice plates, slushy sub-zero water gaps, and dragging heavy sleds which can easily go astray and crush a man’s limbs, the men also deal with the effects of cold on their able and unmovable limbs, but early into the second part, the men’s physical limitations become less of a hot button issue when the drama is simply men crossing a beautiful & cruel terrain, and the dangers that can physically damage damage, and kill.
Harry’s inclusion becomes natural insofar as he’s a career military man, and his on-camera comments & side interviews show him to be a realist: he has a private life, a public life, and a military life, and the three seem to have shaped a level-headed, good-natured guy of whom each of the vets respect. The camera’s constant presence may well capture a mix of slight performance and genuine vulnerability, but most viewers will come away from the doc with respect for Harry and the men, and the stunning arctic environment most people will never experience on their own.
The BBC broadcast version contains more material than the U.S. edition, and each episode comes close to a full hour compared to the truncated 37 mins. version for American TV. The doc may not offer anything new in terms of visuals or the postwar experiences of vets, but the project and documentary were designed to remind its primary British audience of the men and women serving and returning from military campaigns, and their ongoing challenges as they re-integrate into civilian life after making great sacrifices.
Edited versions of the 2-part series are available on YouTube, whereas the longer U.K. versions are still available online
Also available: a podcast with composer Lorne Balfe.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan