Antarctica: The Great White Silence

(1924; dir: Herbert Ponting; language: English)

The Great White Silence was originally filmed (and later edited together) by photographer Herbert Ponting as a record of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. It’s an absolutely jaw-dropping film, and as soon as I saw it I knew it was one for the blog. Of course one could argue that the film is technically British, and that Antarctica isn’t a country, but the point of the project I set myself isn’t to be overly pedantic, but rather to gain insight into landscapes and ways of being beyond what I would normally be exposed to. From this perspective, it feels counter to the spirit of the project to exclude a film that is so totally an evocation of place and how its (temporary) human and (indigenous) animal inhabitants live simply because the large continent it depicts happens to be one of the few places on Earth that isn’t really a country. It also has in common with several of the films previously reviewed that it’s a damn good film and ought to be more widely viewed.

The Great White Silence

Scott’s tragic expedition looms large in the consciousness of New Zealanders, close as we are to that icy continent (indeed, it was from our shores that Scott’s icebreaker the Terra Nova set out). Thus, as an account of Scott’s expedition, The Great White Silence didn’t offer any narrative surprises. All the familiar elements were there: the spirit of adventure as Scott and his crew race to the South Pole, only to find themselves beaten by the Amundsen-led Norwegians; the self-sacrifice of Oates immortalised in a poignant and understated one-liner; and the devastating irony of Scott and his remaining companions’ eventual demise only a short trek from the supplies that would have saved them.

While the historical narrative itself is stirring stuff, the magic of the film is how much it adds to the familiar story. It’s both chilling and fascinating to see Scott and fellow expedition members in real time, their personalities, physicality, and interaction with their formiddable environment made real in a way that written accounts unavoidably fall short of. The viewer sees them preparing for their journey across the interior, handling their animals, playing football on the ice, and demonstrating their survival strategies. Somehow actually seeing those bundled-up people, in the middle of the endless icy expanse, makes it easier to understand the true extent of Antarctica’s inhospitality and the desperate, even idiotic nature of the endeavour.

It’s genuinely amazing that such a historical artefact as this film exists, and is accessible even today thanks to the British Film Institute’s careful preservation and excellent restoration. The moving images it contains would have been the first recorded in the Antarctic interior, and are astounding in terms of the practical difficulties involved in creating them but also in terms of their quality. I’ve seen March of the Pengiuns, and although made almost 100 years previously the Great White Silence is the better film. It is a testament to Ponting as a cinematographer, to both his artistic eye and his willingness to stand around forever in unimaginably cold temperatures in order to get the shots he wanted. Even if one weren’t interested in Scott or the history around him, the film would be well worth a watch simply for its haunting and achingly beautiful images – the drama of looming icebergs the size of cities, the unearthly patterns of young ice forming on the ocean, the volcanoes of Ross Island spewing ash, the hills of Aotearoa/New Zealand (the last green land Scott ever saw) fading into a misty dusk. These are highlighted by Ponting’s tints, preseved by the BFI, and aimed at evoking the experience of light and colour in that white expanse rather than precise verisimilitude.

The film is evidence of Ponting’s creative  and innovative approach to filming challenges. Never shy of turning the camera on himself, he is sensitive to viewer interest in the process of capturing the images. Just as I was marvell ing at the footage of the ship’s iron-clad hull carving through the pack ice and wondering ‘how did he film that?’, Ponting answers with a shot of himself tied to some kind of wooden spar sticking out from the side of the ship. Knowing that he would not be accompanying Scott’s smaller team to the Pole, Ponting also shot simulations of the Pole Team’s progress across the interior, which he was then able to put to poignant use once the tragic results of the expedition eventuated.

I liked too that the film wasn’t all pomp and tragic glory, even if those aspects are integral to the Scott narrative. Ponting’s humour shines through in the intercut title cards, as does his interest in animals. Not only do the expedition’s dogs and ponies feature as characters, but the habits of Weddell seals, orcas, skuas and Adélie penguins make up a significant portion of the film – an understandable decision given that Ponting’s film was the first cinematic documentation of these species. Although a friend of mine maintains that the film suffers from an excess of penguins, I tend to disagree. Ponting’s friendly, over-anthropomorphising, and close attention to the animals makes these sections feel like a 1920s David Attenborough documentary – cute and gently entertaining.

It must be said that the film is to some extent a product of its time, in a sense that goes beyond the genial narration through title cards. Scott’s expedition has been much mythologised, perhaps part because of its tragic conclusion, but the span of nearly a century also allows for a critical distance to the narrative presented in the film. Rather than accepting Scott and his crew as heroes who died for King and Country and the Good of Science, I couldn’t help but see the whole mission to be the first to the Pole as an exercise in senseless nationalism and suspect colonialism. Scientific expeditions in all honour, but was the chance to bag the Pole really worth the deaths of those men? According to the film the answer is presumably yes, but watching it I couldn’t shake the feeling that these football-playing self-sacrificing British gentlemen were hideously lost and never really should have been there, in an environment to which they were so ill-suited and had no place in. The fact that the expedition took along a cat mascot called ‘N****r’ seems a perfect symbol of the wrongness of that period’s British attitudes to exploration and ‘new’ horizons.

No account of the BFI’s release of the film would be complete without a mention of Simon Fisher Turner’s impeccable soundtrack. Turner’s modern contribution blends spare and subtle tones with eerie sound samples, perfectly complimenting the moody drama and hostility of the landscape. This is occasionally interrupted by more upbeat period music, including a recording of one of the gramophone records actually brought on the expedition. This dedication to mood and setting is surpassed only by the inclusion of silence recorded in Scott’s hut on Antarctica (which stands to this day).

Although praised by the King at the time, Ponting’s film did not achieve the success it deserved. The BFI’s re-release as part of the centenary of Scott’s expedition is a chance to remedy that. It’s an amazing film as a historical text, but it’s also enough of a good film to captivate modern audiences. Part epic drama, part cute animal documentary, part art film, part study in the weird extremes to which nationalism and the spirit of adventure can take a person, this film has a lot going on and a lot going for it. And unlike March of the Penguins, I felt like it really gave me a sense of what it might be like to visit Antarctica.

Special thanks to my dear friend Hayden who told me about this film. Read his review here, and check out the rest of his blog where he reviews all kinds of weird and wonderful films.

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