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The Great White Silence

The Great White Silence

By Ben Nicholson • March 11th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Gaumont British Distributors

Original release: October 26th, 1924
Running time: 108 minutes

Director: Herbert G. Ponting
Composers: Simon Fisher Turner and Espen J. Jörgensen

Cast: Herbert Ponting, Robert Falcon Scott

The Great White Silence

It’s very easy to underestimate the pioneering nature of early film production, and it’s something that even film history fans can take for granted. When cinema was a newly discovered medium there were vast amounts of exploring and experimentation to be done and there still is to this day.

If we see a clip of a car driving along a road and then a clip of a man behind a steering wheel we conclude that the man is driving the previously seen car. This editing technique – cross-cutting – had to be invented by someone at some point and is now used so frequently it’s hardly noticeable.

This idea of combining inventors, adventurers and filmmaking seems to have been perfectly summed up by Herbert G. Ponting’s 1924 documentary The Great White Silence, shot between 1910 and 1913, during Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic.

The initial release of this version of the film (there were other cuts of the footage released for public consumption from 1913) came over a decade after the tragedy and it does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of the men who travelled south – those there to conduct scientific research, the explorers who made for the pole with their leader and the documentarian himself.

The Great White Silence

The Great White Silence is carved into three rather distinct chunks; the voyage to the Antarctic and the men arriving, adjusting and settling in their new home from home, some remarkable wildlife documentary footage and Scott’s final attempt for the pole. This isn’t ‘Captain Scott: The Movie’ and the man in fact is curiously absent from the majority of the runtime. What we get instead is an engaging look at what their journey was like and how they managed to find their feet on such icy terrain.

Ponting’s commentary, through the use of inter-titles, gives as a British voice watching over proceedings and allows us to laugh at the mishaps, enjoy the company of various comical animals and ultimately gives the otherwise minimal footage of the final expedition added gravitas.

The part of the film that really stunned me though was the footage of the natural world. Over a century before the BBC gave us the fantastic Frozen Planet, Ponting was on his own with a camera in temperatures that were almost unworkable and getting shots which modern wildlife cameramen would be very proud of. A shot of the ships prow forging ahead through the ice is revealed to have been shot by him suspended over the edge of the boat – anything to get the shot.

It’s impressive to see Ponting giving us insights into the Adélie Penguins and their thieving behaviour which was used to such brilliant comic effect in Frozen Planet. There’s a gut-wrenching sequence in which a seal mother attempts to help her cub The Great White Silencefrom the water as a pack of hungry Killer Whales circle closer and closer in. It’s hard, when watching the film, not to feel a sense of great pride in the fact that when this footage was broadcast to the people of Britain at the time, it’s likely to have been the first time that they’d seen such wonders.

Although introspection is not on Ponting’s agenda, The Great White Silence does create a very moving sense of the isolation of the group as he shoots icebergs and the rest of the surrounding environment looming large in every direction, lest we forget the perils of their little holiday.

The actual South Pole attempt is handled extremely well, especially considering Ponting didn’t go on it, and is created through stock footage of the team, maps showing their progress and Ponting’s narration which includes various extracts from Scott’s diary. This is put together superbly and builds to the naturally heartbreaking climax.

Having been largely forgotten, The Great White Silence was uncovered, re-mastered and released by the BFI in tandem with the centenary of Scott’s arrival at the South Pole and his death. During this process they restored the colour tinting which was originally done by Ponting but which had been removed from later versions. This makes for a somewhat surreal experience as we don’t see the normal The Great White Silencegreys of monochrome photography that we’re used to but we differentiate day and night by yellow images or purple ones and watch the film as its original audience would have.

On top of all that, one of the film’s strongest features is in the one thing that’s entirely different from the original release; the score. Composed by Simon Fisher Turner and Espen J. Jörgensen, the aural environment created for the new version of the film compliments Ponting’s images at every turn and when the climax hits, it’s the music as well as the images that overwhelm.

When George V saw the film he said he wished all British boys could see it to imbue them with a sense of exploration. Despite its sorrowful ending, The Great White Silence is a joy for fans of early film, for fans of wildlife and for fans of adventure. I’m with King George; it really is a must see.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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