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The True North

March 01, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though controversy still rages as to who actually was the first man to reach the North Pole, most history books maintain that American explorer Robert E. Peary accomplished the feat on April 6, 1909, giving him credit rather than Dr. Frederick Cook.

But, until recently, most historians had virtually ignored the contributions of Matthew Henson, the African American who is now credited with "co-discovering" the Pole with Peary 89 years ago.

TNT's new film, "Glory & Honor," examines the complex relationship between Peary (played by Henry Czerny) and Henson (Delroy Lindo). Kevin Hooks ("Passenger 57") directed the historical drama, which was partly filmed on Baffin Island, near the Arctic Circle.

Peary had hired Henson to be his personal valet in the early 1890s. Over the next 18 years and nine expeditions to the Arctic, Henson became indispensable to Peary. He learned to communicate with the Arctic's Inuit natives, drove the dog sleds and was Peary's translator.

After the 1909 expedition, though, Peary's fame soared and Henson drifted into obscurity, working as a valet and a custodian before his death in 1955. Finally in 1988, Henson got the recognition he long deserved and his remains were interred in Arlington National Cemetery next to Peary's.

Executive producer Bruce Gilbert ("The China Syndrome," "9 to 5") believes the themes explored in "Glory & Honor" are very relevant for today's audiences.

Peary, Gilbert says, represents "the kind of figure which we see a lot of today who is totally goal-driven. He is so focused on the goal, he's not paying attention to the process. Henson, on the other hand, starts the story as somebody who is directionless. He comes to understand the value of having a goal and trying to achieve something that is difficult. He learned how to combine the goal with the process. By that, I mean he is in the moment. He savored everything the journey represented to him along the way."

"The title really becomes very accurate in terms of how these two men lived their lives," adds director Hooks. "It's very easy to see how Peary was wooed by the glory and the fame of being the discoverer of the North Pole. Conversely, for a man like Matthew Henson, who had no chance of gaining any kind of glory or fame at all, he was really in it for the experience and what that experience meant for him . It was really more about the honor of being there."

Lindo ("Malcolm X," "Crooklyn") believes Henson was just as obsessed with finding the Pole as Peary. But, he adds, "I think the experience for Matthew Henson represented some discovery of himself, an affirmation of himself as a human being. I think, at least initially, he felt that achieving the Pole would allow him an escape from the restraints of how he was looked on as a black man. Of course, that didn't happen."

Czerny ("Clear and Present Danger") explains that Peary was frequently ridiculed in the press for "traipsing around the North Pole with this black man. From my point of view, Peary could be seen as a kind of heroic figure [in his relationship with Henson] who said, 'The hell with you people. I am taking the person I trust most in my life.' "

Neither Lindo nor Hooks knew much about Henson before beginning the project. Lindo has vague recollections of seeing bits and pieces of the 1983 TV movie, "Cook and Peary: The Race to the Pole," in which Henson, played by Samm-Art Williams, was a minor character.

"The only thing I distinctly remember reading about Matthew Henson was when I was about 10 years old, there was a black history calendar in my grandmother's beauty salon," says Hooks. "For one of the winter months there was a small picture and short biography of Matthew Henson. It stuck out in my mind because I had never given any thought to the fact that there were black people that far north. It really caught me by surprise."

Filming in the Arctic was an incredible experience for all of those involved.

"I'm longing to go back there, as a matter of fact," Czerny says. "There's nothing but white. For me, there was something incredibly therapeutic about it."

Before filming began, Czerny says, the actors spent a few days on the ice learning how to work with the dogs and the sleds.

"We set up camp and pitched tents on the ice and slept on the ice," he says. "A caribou was felled and some of us chowed on raw caribou, which to our urban ears is completely barbaric. But that's all there is up there [for the Inuit]. You either do that or you die."

Lindo describes his days on the frozen tundra as "really wonderful and very humbling." During the three weeks in the Arctic, he spent as much time as possible with the Inuit actors. "From my point of view, that was keeping with what, I think, the spirit of Mr. Henson's relationship was with the Inuits."

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