The Great White Silence
”The Great White Silence” is a film I have been looking forward to see ever since it was announced it had been included as one of the 1001 movies I had to see before I die. The subject of the film, the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13, is one of the most famous expeditions of all time and I had a period some 10 years ago where I was very much into everything Antarctic. I did not know (or had forgotten) that Scott brought with him a photographer who recorded the expedition for posterity. This was a very pleasant surprise.
Herbert Ponting filmed anything he could get his hands on on this expedition and that was quite a lot. Consider this is 1910, stock is expensive, equipment is primitive and conditions are often dismal. Yet Ponting had plenty to show for the expedition and in 1924 he released a silent edition almost two hours long. It is oddly disjointed as it tries to cover a lot of ground, yet it still works as a narrative for the expedition.
The film covers four subjects. The infrastructure of the expedition, life in camp, naturalism and the ill-fated expedition to the pole. What many people have misunderstood about the Terra Nova expedition is that it was a broad spectrum expedition. The pole mission was only a part of a much larger exploration effort. Ponting spends quite a while filming seals, penguins, whales and skuas to the extent that it almost overwhelms the film. This is partly because the public at home was screaming for footage of penguins but also because this was very much part of the mission.
The infrastructure part (the boat ride, setting camp, demonstrating equipment etc.) is told in an industrious can-do tone that leaves no-one in doubt that this is a competent and well equipped expedition. When focus shifts to life on the ship or in camp the tone is very relaxed and almost resembles home video from a vacation trip. People are dancing, playing football or petting the animals and this happy carefree mood almost spills over into the naturalist part. The wonders of the icebergs and floes, beautiful pancake ice sheets and the antics of the wildlife. There is an apparent enthusiasm and joy that make me want to go and see the same things. This is a photographer who clearly enjoyed what he was doing.
So much more brutal is the shift when we get to the pole expedition. Now the tone is serious and foreboding. Gone is the playfulness and instead we see hard men, long treks and intertitles full of gloom. Ponting has a lot of respect for them and worships his subjects as heroes. There can be no doubt that this film (also) stand as a memorial to the lost expedition members.
Four teams went out and one by one the supporting teams turned home after depositing their supplies as depots. Ponting takes a picture of the last of the supporting teams to return and though standing proud they look frostbitten and exhausted. The last team, Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans got to the pole only to find out that Amundsen had already been there. On the hellish return journey they succumb one by one; Evans on the Beardmore Glacier, Oates leaving the tent with his famous last words “I am just going outside and may be some time” and finally, 11 miles from the one-ton depot and salvation Scott, Bowers and Wilson die in their tent, stuck in a blizzard.
Ponting of course was not part of the expedition to the pole. Instead he arranged a demonstration of the trek as part of a rehearsal near base camp and filmed it. Although the teams had not been assigned yet the team he filmed happened to be almost exactly the polar team. Only Oates was missing. This is as authentic footage as is possible to get without going to the pole yourself!
Besides telling an interesting and compelling story this film also manages to portrait the great white silence which is Antarctica. With his long takes of ice and sea and sky Ponting nails it perfectly. The British Film Institute (BFI) has carefully restored this film, complete with original tinting and through some genius added an excellent soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner. I always thought that “Victorialand” by Cocteau Twins was the perfect soundtrack for Antarctica, but now I have to reconsider. Turner’s track fits Pontings pictures so well that the ambience is near perfect. It is a sublime experience to dive into this film with a headset on and just enjoy. Wow.
On the DVD from BFI is also included Pontings “final” edition from 1933 with his own narration. It is cut down to 72 minutes and tells a much tighter and more conventional narrative, which for the sake of the story is probably preferable, however it is entirely without the magic of “The Great White Silence”. I get fed up with Ponting droning on and it entirely misses the point of presenting this quiet land.
Definitely go for the silent version (with the music).
With its 104 minutes “The Great White Silence” really is full to the brim. However there is one story from the expedition that I really wished there had been space for. In 1911, in the middle of winter, three men, Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard, went on an expedition to Cape Crozier at the eastern tip of Ross Island. The hardship was insane and it was a miracle they survived, all for the purpose of bringing back some Emperor penguin eggs. Cherry-Garrard called it “The Worst Journey in the World” and that was also the title of his book about the Terra Nova expedition. I can highly recommend that book.
Hardships or not, Antarctica is a beautiful place and Ponting’s film is a captivating window to that magical and forbidding place. I would so much like to visit it someday. Yes, that is my dream.