Caught by the River

The Great White Silence

Andy Childs | 31st October 2010

Film & event reviewed by Andy Childs.

At the very end of November 1910, nearly 100 years ago, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his British Antarctic Expedition set sail from New Zealand aboard the Terra Nova heading south to immortality in Antarctica. Whilst making it quite clear that “the main object of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of that achievement”, Scott’s expedition also undertook a formidable schedule of scientific, geographical, geological and artistic work that distinguished it from Amundsen’s more single-minded and ruthless mission. Much valuable information and data was gathered and brought back from that forbidding continent but perhaps the work that has resonated most through the ages is that of Herbert Ponting, the expedition’s official photographer or, as he liked to describe himself, ‘camera artist’. I wouldn’t for one instant begrudge him that portrayal and surely neither would anyone who has studied his beautiful and poignant photographs or seen his film footage from that ill-fated enterprise.

An Englishman, Ponting was born in 1870 and after rejecting a career in banking moved to California in 1893-94 where he discovered his passion for photography which became his profession. As a result he travelled for much of his life, covering the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-05 and working on assignments in India, Burma, Korea, Java, China and the USA. His growing reputation eventually brought him to the attention of Scott and after the two men met in 1909 Scott made the prescient decision to offer him the chance to join his expedition to Antarctica. As well as being a superb photographer Ponting was a popular, resourceful and resilient man. He endured great hardship and took severe risks to catch some of his outstanding images but there is an underlying sense of fun and adventure to a lot of his Antarctic work which radiates from his colleagues whom he captures in their everyday work and leisure. He took a great many memorable still images during the expedition’s first year at the Cape Evans camp but it is perhaps the film footage that he made during that period that has cemented his reputation and which now, thanks to the skill and efforts of the BFI National Archive, have re-surfaced in this wonderful restoration of Ponting’s original film of the expedition – The Great White Silence.

Scott and Ponting had sold the expedition film rights to Gaumont prior to heading south and this actually contributed substantially to the funding of the whole enterprise. In November 1911, over a year before news of Scott’s death had reached these shores, Gaumont released the first set of films sent back by Ponting as With Captain Scott To The South Pole and then later in 1913 re-released it, presumably with extra material, as The Undying Story Of Captain Scott. Neither film apparently met with Ponting’s approval and he eventually purchased the rights back from Gaumont and released the footage himself first as a series of episodes to accompany his inevitable lecture tour and then he subsequently compiled and re-issued it as a full-length, silent version in 1924 as The Great White Silence. Later, in 1933, Ponting used much of the same footage in preparing a new film, with spoken commentary by himself and suitably imperial music, entitled 90 Degrees South which has in recent times been issued on video and DVD. But it is the original The Great White Silence, without Ponting’s sometimes over-enthusiastic and jokey narration, that best captures the stunning alien-ness and harshness of the Antarctic landscape. There is footage on board the Terra Nova and at Cape Evans with the men at work building their camp and with their dogs and ponies, and there is a good deal of time spent observing the then novel and intriguing wildlife – killer whales, seals, penguins (rather too much time on the penguins I felt) and skua gulls. There are astounding shots of ice bergs, pack ice and other ice formations that make up the landscape and valiant attempts to capture some of the peculiar lighting effects that are common at the ends of the earth. What of course is missing though is any footage of the five-man polar party on the last leg of their fateful trek to the Pole. Ponting accompanied Scott’s party for the first two days of the march to the South Pole but turned back with one of the depot-laying teams. As a result, the part of the expedition that has most captured the imagination of the public and established Scott as an iconic if flawed character in exploration history is not documented, and to compensate Ponting used, understandably but unfortunately in my opinion, a rather crude and at times even comical device to illustrate their progress to the Pole – a basic model reconstruction of the polar landscape with a series of black rectangular blobs (meant to represent each of the four separate parties I presume) shuffling their way across the whiteness. Even this though somehow doesn’t diminish the still powerful emotions stirred by the printed narrative and Scott’s own diary entries detailing the devastating disappointment at being beaten to their goal by Amundsen and of the terrible conditions and agonising deaths they all subsequently suffered.

I was lucky enough to see this restored version of The Great White Silence at its recent premiere at the London Film Festival and on that occasion there was live musical accompaniment from Simon Fisher Turner playing with the Elysian Quartet; they provided an entirely appropriate backdrop of sound collages, eerie sound effects and quite beautiful, melodic passages that succeeded in highlighting and emphasising the feelings of isolation, desolation and historic enterprise that Ponting’s images represent. And included in the sound presentation was a five-minute sequence of an ambient recording made by sound maestro and CBTR hero Chris Watson inside Scott’s hut earlier this year which was almost heart-stopping.

Hopefully with a version of Simon Fisher Turner’s score included, The Great White Silence is due to be released in cinemas nationwide early next year and it will be screened on TV, on the Discovery Channel, next spring. Polar enthusiasts can’t afford to miss it and hopefully this valuable film, in all its modern glory, will also assume renewed significance with the general public as a result.

Click here to read previous articles by Andy Childs.