Director Matthew Dyas is best known for television documentaries on such figures as Brian Cox and Kate Humble, usually with a science or natural world focus, including a prior series on Sir Ranulph Fiennes in 2019. In Explorer, he takes a more focused look at the life and career of arguably Britain’s best-known undertaker of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions.
Beginning with audio of Fiennes recorded thirty-four miles from the North Pole, we open with a written record of his life’s work, including 1982’s Pole-to-Pole journey, his discovery of the lost city of Ubar, his 2003 running of seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, and his British record for climbing Mount Everest.
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There is plenty of archive footage, including his induction into the Hall of Fame and his earliest expeditions as a young man, all framed with audio contributions from the likes of the late-Sir David Frost, which contextualises a life of adventure, redefining what it was possible for a human being to achieve in the field of exploration. Dyas even includes the words of the Prince of Wales, all over the most beautiful shots of some of the most hostile environments on Earth. Many of these audio contributions seems to be recorded over the phone. On the minus side this means that sound quality can vary, but more positively, that there is a freshness to these perspectives, as though the subjects have not been forewarned of questions and are giving answers off-the-cuff. With plenty of contemporary news reports, the scale of what he is achieving comes through at all times.
This is not simply a collection of archive footage, however, as Fiennes is a full contributor, with plenty of time with the subject as he is today. He is a genuinely likeable, dryly amusing presence, as well as self-deprecating about both his achievements and his talents. Much of his life is spent lecturing, as this – he explains – is the only way that an explorer can make a living, and given its hand-to-mouth nature there is always the concern that this source of income may dry up.
A theme that comes through all the way through this work is how little he is understood both by family – except his wife, Ginny, who was a fellow explorer – and by his fellow explorers. The former do not understand his drive to undertake these expeditions, while the latter do not fully understand the power of his leadership. We see examples of explorers – such as Oliver Shepherd – questioning his methods as very unorthodox, particularly when he cuts down his supplies, against their advice. His overwhelming competitiveness is a subject of debate, as there is the view expressed that he is working through some trauma in that need to win, in a field that should be about exploration.
Another prevalent theme is the physical cost of this lifestyle, and we see very unpleasant examples of frostbite, and Sir Ranulph’s need to just keep going through these challenges. Rather than leave this as a portrait of some superhuman, absurdly driven man, Dyas takes his time with Fiennes, to listen to the childhood stories, to learn about the environment in which he was brought up, to understand his family ties. As can be typical of a British man of his generation and social class (he was born in 1944 and is from a public-school education) he can come off as a little reserved when discussing these things; not that he is hiding anything, but that he uses terms like ‘respected’ when discussing his mother. Showing depth of feeling does not come that easy to him. He is, at least, telling us a reasonably comprehensive story, aided by memories from childhood friends and home movie footage from childhood. The love of the outdoors and challenging oneself came from this time.
After a run through his childhood and failure to succeed in the British armed forces – having been expelled from the SAS – we spend time with him in Oman, as he was latterly seconded to that country’s army. As a documenting of a man’s life, it is really rewarding to get this detail, but it may run too long for the tastes of those looking to focus on his career in exploration, as everything covered to this point takes up a considerable amount of the film’s running time. He is an engaging speaker, the visuals are terrific, and the sense of closeness to our subject is enough to make this enjoyable to watch.
Sir Ranulph first met Ginny – his first wife, sadly to pass away in 2004 – in 1956, at the age of twelve. As Ginny was also a public figure, the film has plenty of archive voiceover from her to complement the images, and flesh out the story of their love, and her family’s concern about their relationship. Ginny as the driver of her husband’s ‘mad’ expeditions – and crazy ideas, such as auditioning for James Bond and getting to the final six candidates, at the time when Sir Roger Moore was cast – is also a prevalent theme. The plan to travel to polar regions was hers, as hot climates where thought not to be a reliable source of money. The present-day footage works as a break from these stories but stays relevant enough to illuminate them.
As interesting as all of this proves to be, it is the latter seventy minutes of the 113-minute running time where the film really comes alive. With Ginny in place, and the expeditions underway, we get a real sense both of the scale of challenge and the level of public interest in their adventures. The score ramps up, and the film develops momentum, with the cross-cutting of archive footage and voiceover noticeably increasing in pace.
For all that, we are still trying to delve into the subject: discussion of his being bullied at school, his distaste for the ‘Sir’ moniker – which he inherited for reasons too complicated to recount here – his understanding of the challenges in each journey, his feelings at each successful or unsuccessful conclusion, his failed fight – with Ginny – to adopt a child, amputating his own damaged digits after frostbite, and his day-to-day life today. His outlook on life has changed completely with age, after a heart attack, and with the loss of Ginny to cancer in her 50s – a matter covered extremely movingly by Dyas. He is now a man married again (and we hear from his second wife Louise), with a longed-for child, and with a lack of fear for what comes next in his life. This makes him arguably less driven than in his younger years, but has contributed to his very kind bearing as an older man,
In summary, Explorer is as comprehensive as could be expected, with distribution money from Universal Pictures meaning that the film has a budget allowing for plenty of travel, a decent score, and enough time to cut together an impressive amount of home movie footage, archive interviews and news reports that make this a relatively lavish production. This is recommended to anyone with an interest in human exploration of our natural world or the exploits of truly remarkable people.