The Great White Silence (1924)

Director: Herbert Ponting

I’ve previously seen the 1933 sound version of this, 90° South, but this is the first I’ve seen the silent version. Indeed, I presume this BFI restoration is the first time most people will have seen it; the restoration featurette on the disc notes the film hasn’t been screened since the 1950s… and the actual restoration process seems to have been an adventure unto itself, with the only actual extant print of the original apparently being too poor to use as anything but a guide to reconstruct the film from other materials. However difficult the work, though, the end result wholly justifies the effort; it’s stunning to look at, especially with the colour tinting and toning restored to it. (Compare it with the unrestored 90° South, which is a handy DVD extra, and you see just how good it is.) The film footage itself was originally sold to Gaumont, to whom it was shipped from way down south for them to repackage for cinema release. (Apparently the copious amount of penguin footage was their particular demand.) Once the Terra Nova expedition ended in tragedy, of course, Ponting (the official cameraman) eventually went home and bought the footage back, which he then went on lecture tours with during WW1—about a thousand lectures or something—before assembling it into the film we now have back in our hands.

I was struck while watching it just how little foreshadowing of the eventual tragedy there is in the film; until the last third or so, the film is actually quite upbeat for the most part. After all, the Terra Nova expedition was a scientific venture as well as an attempt to get to the south pole before Roald Amundsen which surely no one expected would end as badly as it did. It’s also interesting is that Amundsen is never mentioned in the film until Scott gets to the pole and finds he’s been beaten. Indeed, that kind of points up what really makes The Great White Silence a historical artifact, i.e. the uncritical positing of Scott as an unambiguously heroic figure. In more recent decades, that reputation has fluctuated severely, and only relatively recently has it swung back to a more balanced position, though I gather there are still questions about how much Scott can/should be blamed for the debacle and just how good a leader he really was. The film won’t answer any of those questions, which it’s not interested in asking anyway; Ponting was in the business of printing the legend, and in that task I’m sure even Scott’s detractors must concede he did a pretty fair job. Whatever we may make of Scott these days, Ponting’s film has plenty of value of its own even now.

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