When Robert Falcon Scott embarked on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole he made one particularly fore-sighted decision. He took along a photographer by the name of Herbert Ponting. The plan was to get photos and footage of the Antarctic and the initial journey. When the majority of the team returned, leaving the chosen four to make their lonely trek, the photographic material would be sold to newsreels and newspapers, helping to partially offset the cost of the expedition. Scott and his companions never came back, but all of Herbert Ponting’s record of the trip did. After touring a multimedia exhibit about the expedition, Ponting turned to the medium of the feature documentary to bring his story to a wider audience. He set about crafting his footage into a narrative of discovery, adventure, and inevitable tragedy. It was called The Great White Silence.
Since I first saw this film late last year, I have returned to it more than anything else in my collection. Numerous times I have slid the disc back into the player and re-watched moment after moment with astonishment and awe. Any time I had someone visiting, I would put in on and show them the moments that took my breath away. There really is nothing else like it in the history of moving images. Restored from the original nitrate camera negatives from 1910, the portrait it paints of the alien desolation of the Antarctic is unmatched by any other footage I’ve ever seen. It simply doesn’t seem real. But it is. And over a century after it was shot it is in remarkable condition. By today’s standards it is certainly quaint, so much information needs to be conveyed that inter-titles take up almost half the running time, but Ponting conveys a wonderful sense of personality through his writing. The film suffers slightly from the fascination with penguins audiences had at the time, the film stops dead half-way through to spend a good 20 minutes staring at the damn things, but the sheer range and beauty of the rest of the images on display more than make up for it. Ponting’s adeptness is evident in the final section, where he must show the journey to the pole and back without any actual footage of it. One of the most unexpectedly exciting moments of the film comes in the very first minutes, as it is revealed that the expedition ship, waiting to get underway, is docked in Lyttleton Harbour. As brief as it is, a pristine glimpse of New Zealand as it was 100 years ago was something I never thought I’d see.
Though the same could be said for the whole film. It is a genuine time machine, a detailed look at a portion of history I never thought I would see in motion. The BFI restoration is a miracle and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Buy the dual-format edition, watch it on DVD, then find someone with a Blu-Ray player and a nice TV and force them to let you watch the Blu-Ray on their system. There’s nothing else like it.
The release trailer is on Youtube here. I insist that you watch it.
(Watched via BFI Blu-Ray. Dual-format edition available from Amazon UK.)