The Great White Silence (1924)

In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott embarked on an expedition from New Zealand to the very end of the Earth. The Antarctic was a blank slate for exploration, a canvas of uncertainty that Scott and his men decided to conquer by reaching the South Pole before the Norwegians.

Herbert Ponting serves as the Documenter of The Great White Silence, an epic piece at the heart of Britain’s beloved tradition of exploration. Ponting premiered his documentary before King George who stated ‘I wish that every British boy could see this film, for it would help foster the spirit of adventure on which the Empire was founded’. The sun never set on the Empire, but this piece follows Scott where the sun blinds or never rises. Ponting’s epic surges with the adventure, it is an exploration for him as much for the viewer and his camera work and storytelling exude this unbridled excitement of the unknown. Each moment is captured as the Terra Nova sails from tranquility, slices through pancake ice floes and begins adventure on the fresh continent. Ponting even demonstrates how he accomplished some of his wonderful images. Needless to say, documentary filmmakers have devised far more sophisticated and less dangerous methods than precariously dangling above freezing water.

Antartica is captured with fresh and enchanted eyes. The Great White Silence is abundant with beautiful images of ice caverns, floes and colossal cliffs appointed with mythical titles like Aladdin’s Cave and Ice Palace. Though Ponting writes ‘The Antarctic Continent is an ice clad wilderness of dazzling whiteness and appalling silence’, it is apparent he revels with us in a wonderment of a vast landscape and nature’s sculptures. It is a mutual investigation.

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Initially, the documentary exhibits some odd behaviour. The investigation into the wildlife is characterised by anthropomorphic titles, the crew lightheartedly play with animals from warmer shores and Ponting interferes with wildlife rather than remaining omniscient. In two particular scenes, Ponting runs amok alarmed Penguins ‘Chaplin’ waddling away and even harpooning a Killer Whale on the verge of a meal. From a modern perspective, it is unbelievable. However, this approach is understandable.

Ponting, like the rest of the crew, remained in the magnificent desolation for years at a time. The documentary is rather more telling than Ponting probably realised. This boyish exploration into the wildlife and documenting the crew always smiling or engaging in games is the reflection of the idiosyncratic British stiff upper lip. The Great White Silence is a testament to the strength and bravery of those in the unknown and horrendous conditions, none more so than Scott himself.

The latter half of the picture is Scott’s race to the pole. Ponting could not accompany the expedition but used diary extracts from Scott’s journal and miniatures to chart the gargantuan distances the crew made daily. This combination is a terrifying insight, clearly inflicting tension on the initial race to the pole and the gruelling hardship of the return home. Ponting’s finale is touching, using mainly Scott’s own words as a tribute and none are more fitting. The great explorer did not betray himself in sight of the end, he remained a courageous man as the sun finally set on the frozen cross bearing his illustrious name.

Classic Moment… 

The final words of Captain Lawrence Edward Grace ‘Titus’ Oates. ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’.

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