One hundred years on from his death, opinion remains sharply divided on the subject of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. But whatever view you take, it’s impossible not to be moved by the thought of the lonely, icy death that befell him and his men. This film gives the the doomed expedition a strangely contemporary feel, and gives us an extraordinary view of that beautiful, terrifying landscape.
Watching a shot of the men marching off into the great white, a hundred years later, it’s impossible to ignore the poignancy of their failure to return.
The Great White Silence serves as the official record of Captain Scott’s 1910 expedition to the South Pole. Herbert Ponting, a photographer and pioneering documentarian, had shot every aspect of the journey south from New Zealand on the Terra Nova, as well as the team’s initial explorations of Ross Island. Ponting returned to the UK in February 1912 in order to piece together a narrative from what he had captured to his nitrate negatives and glass plates, all intended to feed the newsreels and to accompany a subsequent lecture tour. When the expedition ended in tragedy, the footage offered something very different, and altogether more affecting. The British Film Institute (who restored Ponting’s film) described it thus:
The feature wasn’t completed until 1924, Ponting having spent the years following the tragedy touring filmed segments as part of a lecture which he delivered some 2000 times, and that served to cement Scott’s voyage, and the courage of his team, in British cultural memory. Blinded by snow and sun, suffering frostbite and enduring months of darkness as they waited out a winter during which the temperatures plummeted to 50 below, the film offered a portrait of endurance and courage, as the men prepared for their 800-mile march to the Pole. Bleak and touching in equal measure, it played out in a landscape simultaneously frightening in its scale and beautiful in its otherworldly geometry. Watching a shot of the men marching off into the great white, a hundred years later, it’s impossible to ignore the poignancy both of their failure to return, and the understanding that all five men attempted the long walk back to camp with the knowledge that they had been beaten in their task by Roald Amundson’s Norwegian team.
With no dialogue, the film is informed by Ponting’s extensive written notes, and the BFI restoration relies heavily on a score from Simon Fisher-Turner. Best known for his work with Derek Jarman, the composer avoids traditional orchestration in favour of a strange, otherworldly mixture of electronic ambience coupled with foley recordings and what sound designer Walter Murch has referred to as worldized sound – recordings of silence, from appropriate locations. This music supplements the film, without compromising the power of Pointing’s imagery.
Classic, Boy’s Own-style adventure may be hard to come by these days, but The Great White Silence offers a marvellous account of one of the greatest in history.