The Great White Silence
UK 1924 (restored 2010) 104 minutes Cert. U
Herbert Ponting was official photographer to the British Antarctic Expedition led by Captain Robert Scott 1910-12, tasked with keeping a detailed cinematic record. The resulting footage was shown in Britain in various different versions between 1911 and 1933 (the last with sound). The British Film Institute spent nearly 20 years restoring all of Ponting’s original footage, and this new film is the result, together with a music score by Simon Fisher Turner. Ponting was a stills photographer who had never previously used a cine camera, which makes the clarity and quality of the pictures all the more remarkable. He used toning and tinting to improve the depth and lustre of his images, and this has been faithfully reproduced digitally by the BFI’s restoration team.
Many of the images in the film are breathtaking and awe-inspiring. The passage of the expedition’s ship Terra Nova through the sea ice was captured by Ponting suspended precariously from two planks fixed over the ship’s bows. In addition to filming the voyage south and the Antarctic fauna, he took footage of the expedition’s scientific team, often engaged in day to day domestic activities. The effect of all this upon British audiences of the time, who were substantially unfamiliar with pictures of the Antarctic, can only be guessed at.
No footage exists of Scott’s ill-fated final journey to the South Pole, as Ponting did not accompany them. Consequently, the last half hour of the film consists of extracts from Scott’s diary, collated with stills and animated film of model figures in a blizzard. However, the telling quality of Scott’s prose and Ponting’s polished commentary in the intertitles combine to make this part of the film both haunting and poignant as it tracks the doomed party on their journey and relates the hardships they endured.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott – himself
Herbert G Ponting – himself
Director – Herbert G Ponting
Cinematography – Herbert G Ponting
Original Music – Simon Fisher Turner (for the 2011-released restoration)
Restoration – Kieron Webb, Angelo Lucatello, Peter Marshall and Dave Gurney. Lead curator: Bryony Dixon.
“Today, we are familiar with documentaries from inaccessible places, but here to some extent, is the mystery and majesty of the landscape restored”. Cath Clarke, The Guardian.