Robert Edwin Peary
Rear Admiral, United States Navy
Pennsylvania State Flag
Born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, on May 6, 1856, he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1877. He was appointed a Civil Engineer, USN, in 1881 and progressed through the ranks to Rear Admiral, USN.

He made voyages to the Polar regions in 1886, 1891, 1893-95, 1896, 1897 and in 1898-1902. In 1904, he was preparing for another voyage in the summer of 1905. Wrote many articles and books about the Polar regions. 

He died in Washington, DC, on February 20, 1920 and was buried in Section 8 of Arlington National Cemetery. His gravesite is topped by a huge globe on which Peary's personal credo, "I shall find a way or make one," is inscribed. His wife, Josephine Diebutsch (1863-1955) is buried with him. 

At the turn of this century, the idea of a man reaching the North Pole was a very big deal. It was so big that some 756 men had died trying to get there.

Then along came Robert E. Peary, a civil engineer with a burning desire to secure a place in the history of exploration by being the first man to stand where there is no east or west.

A key member of Peary's party was a black man, Matthew Henson. Mainstream American history tended over the years to overlook his role in the success of the expedition that, after several failed attempts, reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909.

In recent years, Henson's contribution has been put into a clearer perspective, with the man whom Peary hired as a valet in the 1890s getting credit for coming up with key ideas that helped make the polar quest successful. In 1988 his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery and buried near Peary's, with a plaque acknowledging him as "co-discoverer of the North Pole."

This week, TNT offers a two-hour digest of this sprawling story, beginning Sunday at 8 on the cable network. The film, "Glory & Honor," repeats at 10 and midnight the same evening, then on Tuesday and Saturday, and next Sunday, Monday and Thursday.

The movie attempts to profile the two men and detail the attempt to reach the North Pole, including earlier unsuccessful expeditions.

We are introduced to a driven, self-centered Robert Peary, portrayed by Henry Czerny. Matthew Henson, played by Delroy Lindo, plays a more outwardly directed individual -- he's the one who makes valuable friendships with the native Inuits whom Peary largely ignores.

So much story to tell in so little time, some 92 minutes of narrative. Both lead actors lobbied for fuller portrayals of their characters than that span would permit. Add to that the perils of filming in locations similar to the ones in which the original drama played out -- there was at least one heart stopping mishap on a frozen waterway -- and you've got quite a handful for executive producer Bruce Gilbert.

In the end, are both historic figures treated fairly? Is one diminished to make room on the screen for the other? Long after the shooting stopped, Lindo still expresses disappointment that the treatment of Henson -- so rarely, if ever, treated in dramatic productions -- wasn't more detailed.

Gilbert, meanwhile, points out that choices had to be made in terms of snipping away various details of the story and cutting away some elements entirely. And he sees the story in terms beyond Peary vs. Henson.

"One of the things that attracted me to the story was that it seemed to encapsulate a kind of parable about how to live your life," said Gilbert. 

"By that I mean, Peary represented a way of leading your life that is completely goal directed. A lot of this is relevant today. Sometimes people think they want to become rich or famous, no matter whether they are a rock star or an investment banker. Often they find if they are successful it feels kind of empty at the end of the day.

"A character like Henson, who starts out kind of undirected, going where the wind blows him, ends up getting the best of what people want from their lives, to live in the moment, to be more process oriented, to take what life presents them and savor it."

Henson was no less compelled to get to the Pole than Peary, said Gilbert. But in terms of motive, he took a different path.

"Henson became goal directed, he wanted to get to the North Pole as much as Peary did," said Gilbert. "But the added quality he brings to it, that he develops, is he's able to live every moment along the way and learn what life has to present him."

So, when the Peary party finds itself base camped among the Inuit people, Peary is indifferent to them. Henson, meanwhile, makes friends, learns their language and customs and acquires some of the Inuit skills that prove to be keys to a successful expedition.

The diverse motives and styles of the two men make up the show's title, "Glory & Honor."

"I've always thought," said Gilbert, "that if Henson had not succeeded in getting to the Pole, he would have been disappointed, for sure, but he would not have been crushed. He would have lived a rich and full life. 

"If Peary had not succeeded, he would have been totally defeated. It's those lessons, I think, that is what the movie is about for me. It is told against the backdrop of reaching the Pole, but it could speak to any of life's endeavors."

Meanwhile, one of Lindo's endeavors was to tell an audience more about Henson than he feels "Glory & Honor" does. From the beginning, he said, and still, he had problems with the treatment given Henson in the script credited to Jeffrey Lewis and Susan Rhinehart.

"When TNT approached me," said Lindo, "they did not say they were doing the Matthew Henson story. They said they wanted very much to illuminate from his point of view for the audience just what his role had been in the Arctic expeditions.

"We all agreed he'd been historically ignored, and they wanted to change that. Maybe I took that too literally. But the fact is, I took them at their word. That actually is not what the film is. Nominally, maybe, because my character narrates it, but it's about Henson and Peary."

Late in the program, in a swift, kiss-less but romantic sequence of scenes, Henson meets Lucy, played by Kim Staunton, courts and marries her.

"I thought it was critical that the two women most important to Matthew Henson's life, that they be given equal illumination," said Lindo, who did extensive research on Henson, reading books, visiting locales where Henson had lived and contacting descendants.

The other woman in his life, Lindo said, was an Inuit woman, with whom he fathered a child.

"Both he and Peary had sons by Inuit women," said Lindo. Henson's relationship "is not at all in this film. I think that's something fundamental to who he was as a man."

Indeed, Peary's involvement with an Inuit woman is told very pointedly when the explorer's manor born wife, played by Bronwen Booth, shows up at a camp and finds him with the heavily pregnant woman.

A sequence involving Henson and an Inuit woman was shot, said Gilbert, but had to be edited out. He noted that Henson had been married before his exploits with Peary, a union that was ending at the point where the movie begins. "If you look closely you'll see he's wearing a wedding ring," said Gilbert.

"There are always aspects of the story you can't get into," he said. "You have to make editorial choices as to what's going to be excised and what's going to remain. . . . Often in the mechanics of movie making it comes to taking out a sequence rather than a few seconds here and a few seconds there."

Time constraints impose a form on movies, Gilbert observed. "Sometimes that's good -- it's like haiku poetry, there's a discipline that goes with that."

The writer-producer has faced the same predicament in other films, he said, including "Coming Home" and "The China Syndrome." For the controversial "China Syndrome," centered on a mishap at a nuclear power facility, "you couldn't believe the research that was piled up concerning nuclear power that did not make it into the movie. You hope to get enough of the essence of the characters to inspire people to look for more information, or for other movie makers to make another treatment of the subject. That's about the best you can hope for, to give a full presentation being cognizant that in 90 minutes you can't deal with the character's entire life."

Gilbert said he did indeed hear Lindo's concerns, "and Henry Czerny was just as vocal about his character and trying to make sure that the Peary character from his point of view did not become one-dimensional.

"There was a healthy give and take between actors, producers, writers and directors that is a good thing and a healthy thing because it keeps you on top of the game and gives you the best chance of insuring that the characters stay rich and full-bodied." The discussions, he said, got heated at times, but never ugly.

The hazards of filming on Baffin Island, however, might well have gotten ugly.

Gilbert and director Kevin Hooks took a cast and crew of more than 150 people to the island off the northeast coast of Canada and shot outdoor scenes near the Arctic Circle.

They went there, Gilbert said, to have a location that offered the variety of landscapes Peary and Henson had encountered, from the mountainous coastline and permanent ice cap of Greenland, to vast expanses of frozen ocean. Home base was a now abandoned air station.

With the forbidding territory came danger. Inuits helped them cope. "I can't underestimate the effect of being around the Inuit people," said Gilbert. "This is their environment, they've been there far longer than most civilizations on Earth. . . . They're incredibly warm and open, but they are still this hunter-gatherer society. They savor life and have a respect for nature and animals and you come to respect it too. A small mistake can mean your life."

Each day, the cast and crew set out in convoys of snowmobiles and sleds to reach shooting locations. "We listened to our guides, who were very knowledgeable," Gilbert said. "It's easy to get lost -- you go over a rise and can quickly lose perspective."

On the way back to the base one day, two snowmobiles and the crew on them plunged through the ice. "But the people were fished out, and we saved the snowmobiles too," recalled Gilbert. "The crew members were cold and scared -- but unhurt."



RobertE. Peary Gravesite
Photo courtesy of Ron Williams

Page Updated: 20 May 2001  Updated: 13 January 2003 Updated: 29 February 2004 Updated: 1 January 2006