Film Review - 'The Great White Silence'

Posted on: 17 May 2011 by Alexander Hay

The Antarctic's stark beauty and horror is captured in this re-released classic

Strangers in a strange land - The Great White Silence

The Great White SilenceHerbert Ponting's 1924 silent documentary on Scott's ill-fated 1911 expedition to the South Pole, is in fact three films in one.

Recently restored with a new soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner, it serves both as a timeless document in some ways and one that was very much of its time. This dislocation splits in several directions.

The first of these is as a sort of hamfisted dirge to the tragic deaths of Scott and his party. It drips with gauche sentimentality, crowned with an absurdly funny painting of Scott handing his testament to an angel.

Naturally, it says more about post-Great War Britain, still devastated and clawing desperately for any Edwardian nostalgia it could lay its hands on, than on Scott himself, whose excerpted diary has a sort of understated pain and decency the jingo drum bashing and bombast could never compare to.

The film needed to sing the praises of Empire and self-sacrifice right at the time when both had been proven outmoded. Scott's own words hinted at something deeper and more intense. His heroism had more in common with the men who would later fight in the trenches than those who waved the flag back at home.

The second film within a film is Ponting's own framing of his footage. It is, to put it simply, naff. The narration sounds trite and infantile ('oh look! A lady penguin has finally found a young gentleman!'), presaging the bland witterings of Youtube comments and Web 2.0 banality by almost a century.

Yet his footage, beautifully shot, sometimes staged, sometimes spontaneous, but always urgent and alive, tells a different story.

A scene where a seal tries desperately to save her pup from a pack of Orcas is rather dramatic, of course, but the odd mix of the everyday and trivial (like a back-flipping cat with a rather racist name or matelots clowning around in a 'boxing match') and the alien vastness of the Antarctic and its oceans, and vast icebergs, some bigger than whole cities, give the film its life.

Shot 13 years before its release and right up until Scott's expedition departed to its doom, the footage is allowed to be itself and, lacking any such purpose, has a spontaneity and rawness, even in the scenes that were plainly staged for the cameras (like the crew 'herding' penguins at one point). Dating before the language of visual news media and propaganda took full form, the footage has a naïve verity that our own cynical, over-mediated times could not easily copy.

The restoration is of a high standard, Ponting's footage restored to an almost diamond-sharp clarity, at times seeming like it was filmed yesterday, with his experiments in single tone colour - while odd-looking to a technicolour audience - nonetheless adding mood and depth to his footage.

Simon Fisher Turner's ambient soundtrack is wonderful too, evoking a grim, overwhelming alien vastness lurking behind Ponting's cheesy title cards, but also having fun at times, especially in the case of a surprisingly catchy banjo solo.

Towards the end, there is a haunting quality to the footage of Scott and his expedition, showing how they would set up their tents and go to sleep under many layers of clothing and fur. This was obviously shot before they set off into terra icognita and one disaster after another. By accident or design, Ponting catches these men smiling and alive, and in doing so, captures the true impact of their deaths.

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Alexander Hay

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