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Two men pilot dogsleds across the artic wilderness.

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Emily Clark

Movie Review

In the early 1900s, much of Greenland was still uncharted. Americans swooped in, claiming land they believed wasn’t connected to the greater island and challenging Denmark’s government to prove them wrong.

Danish explorers set out to map the landscape (and thus prove the Americans wrong) on what was called the “Denmark Expedition.” Tragically, the expedition ended in the deaths of main exploration team, including Captain Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen.

Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen knew Mylius-Erichsen well. “He was a dear friend and fine explorer,” Mikkelsen said. “But he never knew when to give up.”

Now, Mikkelsen is on an expedition of his own—to find out exactly what happened to the members of the Denmark Expedition and to recover their findings, if possible.

His crew successfully finds the bodies of Mylius-Erichsen’s team but at great loss: Mikkelsen’s chief musher loses his toes to frostbite on the first outing, rendering him incapable of continuing the mission.

But the journey isn’t over yet.

Along with those remains, Mikkelsen finds a journal with a map, describing the location of a cairn (a stack of stones that you can see from a great distance) where Mylius-Erichsen safely stored the map of Greenland his cartographer had drawn. This map proved that the supposed Peary Channel didn’t exist, making the American claim to Peary Land invalid.

Iver Iversen (a naive and inexperienced navy mechanic who joined the expedition after their ship, the Alabama, broke down in Iceland) volunteers to accompany Mikkelsen for a second outing to retrieve the cairn’s items.

But Iversen might be in for more than he bargained for. The planned 180-day trip goes unexpectedly long—more than 700 days longer. And the conditions are perilous: You’re just as likely to freeze to death as you are to starve or get mauled by a polar bear.

It’s just two men against the ice.

Positive Elements

One thing that stood out to me as I was watching this film was the spirit of determination. Mikkelsen couldn’t explain his need to find the map of Greenland, but he someone knew it was his duty—and his alone. His determination to see the mission through drives him, it makes him a better leader, and it helps him and Iversen survive.

That isn’t to say he doesn’t have moments of doubt. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Mikkelsen and Iversen find themselves abandoned in Greenland for two years. And during that time, Mikkelsen begins to question if they’ll ever be rescued. But in these moments, Iversen steps up and urges his captain not to despair.

The two men encourage each other through the worst of times even as they sometimes argue with one another. They put aside petty differences of opinion and the even more serious instinct for self-preservation in the interest of camaraderie and ensuring the survival of both parties. [Spoiler Warning] And as a result, they remained good friends for the rest of their lives.

Members of Mikkelsen’s crew never give up on the hope that he and Iversen are still alive. They fight for the Danish government to send a rescue mission to Greenland and even put up a generous reward for any passing ships that might be traveling that way.

At times, Mikkelsen seems unnecessarily harsh with Iversen. However, it’s done for Iversen’s own good, since one wrong choice can lead to dire consequences on the ice.

Spiritual Elements

Mikkelsen panics when he has a dream that a polar bear destroyed their findings. When he finds that the cairn they built was indeed wrecked (though their journals remained intact), he says, “There’s truth in every dream.”

After Iversen sees a mirage of his grandfather, he asks the captain if he believes in ghosts. Iversen then says he believes his grandfather may have passed away, and that’s why he saw him.

Mikkelsen and Iversen both believe in luck. We hear the songs “Joy to the World” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” played on a phonogram.

Sexual Content

Iversen says his grandfather took him to Holland’s “Red Light District” before his first naval assignment to teach him how to be “a man.” And he says a woman there “expanded his knowledge greatly.”

Conversely, Mikkelsen said his own father took him to the venereal disease ward of a hospital to show him the “dire consequences of such behavior.”

Mikkelsen has dreams (and later, hallucinations) of his fiancé, Naja, back home. He imagines them lying in bed together (with her in a camisole top). [Spoiler Warning] And when he later sees her in real life, he embraces and kisses her.

Violent Content

The hardest thing to witness here is the treatment of sled dogs. Although modern practices of caring for these creatures has vastly improved, in the early 1900s, the animals were primarily used as beasts of burden—and therefore, were expendable.

While training Iversen to drive the dogs, a crew member explains that each dog can carry 100 pounds from the start. Once 100 pounds of food has been consumed, it becomes dead weight, so they shoot the dog and feed it to the others. We never see those actions onscreen, but we hear the gunshots and the yelps of other animals. We also see Iversen tossing pieces of meat to those remaining. And suffice it to say that there are none remaining by journey’s end.

Not all the dogs are shot, however. Iversen tries to save a canine that’s suspended by a length of rope after it falls off a cliff. Unfortunately, the rope snaps, and the dog dies. Another collapses from exhaustion. (Mikkelsen and Iversen eat its liver since they are low on food supplies.) Two more get mauled by a polar bear.

Speaking of which, after killing the dogs, the polar bear goes for Mikkelsen, who shoots it twice. The bear crushes Mikkelsen’s ribs before Iversen is able to load his own gun and shoot it a third time, killing it. But the bear falls on top of Mikkelsen, crashing through the ice and nearly drowning the man.

Mikkelsen tries to murder Iversen during a delusional episode. He hits the younger man, and they wrestle. Iversen manages to escape, but Mikkelsen follows and fires a gun. Luckily, he misses. And Iversen forgives him since he knows that Mikkelsen wasn’t in his right mind during the incident.

Frost-bitten extremities are amputated. Someone destroys a sledge in anger. Iversen casually discusses the circumstances under which he would eat Mikkelsen for survival.

Crude or Profane Language

There are four uses each of the f-word and s-word. We also hear a few utterances of “bastard” and the British expletive “bloody.” God’s name is abused a couple of times. Someone makes a crude hand gesture.

Drug and Alcohol Content

People toast and drink alcohol. One man is given whiskey as an anesthetic. Mikkelsen smokes tobacco from a pipe.

Other Negative Elements

Iversen and Mikkelsen both get a mild case of food poisoning (after eating the toxic liver of a dead dog) and vomit. Someone tosses out a bucket full of urine. Iversen lances a growing boil on Mikkelsen’s neck when it becomes infected and inflamed (and we see some of the bloody puss ooze out).

Although I stated earlier that Mikkelsen often makes harsh decisions for the benefit of the pair’s survival, sometimes he’s just mean. He allows his own lead dog to sleep in the tent with him and Iversen but refuses to let Iversen’s lead dog come into the warmth. And there are times where he criticizes Iversen’s performance even though the younger man is doing his best.

Mikkelsen also begins to hallucinate, which he fails to inform Iversen about even though it affects his state of mind. He subsequently has delusional (and sometimes dangerous) episodes.

A minister for the Danish government adamantly refuses to fund a rescue effort for Mikkelsen and Iversen. He states that it’s unnecessary, since they are likely already dead. But when a whaling ship eventually saves the two men, the same Danish official publicly claims that he always knew they’d return home safely.

Some people lie.

Conclusion

Against the Ice is based on the true story chronicled by Ejnar Mikkelsen in his book, Two Against the Ice. But it’s not a story for everyone.

I would strongly advise anyone with even the smallest hint of a love for animals to steer their ship away from this icy tale.

Crew members advise Iversen early on not to bond with his sled dogs. “The dogs work for you,” he’s told. And from a purely exploration-oriented point of view, that cold calculus makes sense. If a dog is no longer pulling its weight, then it’s only consuming valuable food resources.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch Mikkelsen and Iversen kill their dogs for survival. And if I’m being honest, it does feel cruel, no matter how icily logical the rationale is.

Other violent moments happen when a polar bear attacks and when the two men start losing their senses after being stuck in isolation for more than two years. Beyond that, we hear some foul language and crude talk about sex (one man describes a visit to the Red Light District—a well-known area of Amsterdam where prostitution is prominent).

Against the Ice is certainly an interesting historical piece. But again, I’d emphasize, It’s not a story for everyone.

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Emily Clark
Emily Clark

Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.