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The Great White Silence

Director: Herbert Ponting
Cast: Captain Robert Scott, Simon Fisher Turner

(BFI; UK DVD: 20 Jun 2011)

Released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the pioneering Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, The Great White Silence, consisting of footage filmed by Herbert Ponting (a cinematographer who joined the party for the majority of the fateful trip), is an extraordinary film, and one that’ll have film buffs, archivists and historians salivating.


There can be few unfamiliar with the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition. The expedition crew, led primarily by British Royal Navy members and headed by Captain Robert Scott, left New Zealand in an effort to be the first people ever to reach the South Pole (when they did finally arrive, it transpired a Norwegian team had beaten them to it by a month or so). On the return journey, the expedition got into trouble, and the majority of the key personnel – including Scott himself—were decimated by vicious weather and increasingly frail health, and they eventually succumbed to icy graves.


After their deaths, many personal effects, including journals, were recovered, and these offered a tantalising insight into the circumstances of their demise. By far the most significant artefact, however, was the huge film record shot by Ponting, who returned to England with his precious footage before the team perished.


His work is presented here on a special Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD, courtesy of the British Film Institute. The film has been beautifully restored, and possesses an astonishing clarity that belies its age. For a film so old, the restored image quality is now absolutely astounding, with barely any scratching, fogging or deterioration visible to the eye.


Rather presciently, Captain Scott appears to have been somewhat media literate (and in 1910, that was no mean feat), because he realised the importance of recording day-to-day history in the making, and decided to take a filmmaker on the trip.


I doubt Ponting had any idea at the time that the fruits of his labour would become a eulogy to his brave companions, and indeed so moved was he upon hearing of the tragedy, he spent the rest of his life ensuring the name of Scott and the Terra Nova team remained in the public consciousness (I suppose this DVD release represents something of a culmination of his efforts). Rather touchingly, Scott had expressed excitement to Ponting about seeing the finished film, and had he been able to, I’m sure he would have loved it, as I did.


Consisting of random material shot as the expedition progressed, The Great White Silence could have been relatively formless, a lost-at-sea series of musty scenes devoid of any linearity, but thankfully title cards (Ponting’s original ones) appear regularly onscreen to offer context, filling us in with both the finer details of what we’re seeing, and also updating us of the team’s progress with information about current geographical positions, climate conditions, the morale of the men, their recreational habits, and so on.


All the footage was obviously shot mute (Ponting himself added a voiceover for the cinema version of the film, which is added here in its entirety as an extra), so music was inevitably going to play a large part in creating an appropriate aural backdrop to the images. For this purpose, the BFI commissioned Simon Fisher Turner to compose a special score (something he described as ‘daunting’ after viewing the incredible document for the first time), and the results are not what you’d expect at all.


If you’re anticipating a grand, traditional orchestral score befitting such a major historical event – the type of thing that classical film and television composer Carl Davis often specialises in, for example—you’re way off the mark. Turner’s music for the film is actually more Eno than Elgar, and yet the stylistic juxtaposition of avant-garde electronica and old archive footage is very effective. Turner creates a sort of period schism between sound and image, and it adds a beautiful dreamlike quality to the film.


His score is sometimes faux-diegetic (prior to the ship’s departure, shipmates dance on the deck to the sound of a banjo, muffled and obscured by gramophone crackles), but mostly his compositions are ethereal, expansive and haunting, in keeping with the inhospitable and other-worldly environment. Rather than striving to enhance the dramatic aspects of the expedition by creating overtly suggestive and literal music, Turner has instead produced a strange, reflective soundscape using broad synthesiser sounds, faint blips, and what sounds like muffled Morse code (a great idea).


Much of the hypnotic music has a gently relentless, driving and pulsing quality, designed to mirror the constant movement and monotony the team faced as they forged ahead in the blinding white environment. Though most of the score is atmospheric, Turner allows himself the odd moment to directly embellish what we’re seeing onscreen, such as during a fascinating sequence showing penguins hatching their young (something the vast majority of the world had never seen in 1910), when he uses the faint, sweet sounds of a child’s music box.


As for the humans, it appears Turner wants us to see them as ghosts, as echoes from the past. Whilst the picture is so sharp that we feel we could be there in 1910 ourselves, the music is deliberately distancing, and reminds us that although we see all the visual details so clearly, what we’re watching are nevertheless long-dead memories.


Certain charming scenes bring much to the production, and these mainly consist of the good-natured crew smiling and larking around (getting haircuts; cooking hot soup; demonstrating the cat they’ve trained to do a trick, chasing gaggles of penguins and pretending to fall over and so on), and the frequent wildlife scenes are very engaging too. All manner of animals are focussed upon, including those taken on the trip as help, and those encountered en route. During one sad and extraordinary proto-David Attenborough sequence, Ponting films a mother seal’s tactical protection of her cub from a school of killer whales. Rather shockingly, the ship’s crew then shoot the whale with a harpoon in order to save the seals, and although it’s hard to watch this altruistic sign of the times, it’s nevertheless these sorts of strange moments that add flavour and oddity to the film.


As The Great White Silence reaches its inevitable conclusion (having got to know these people, how you wish things had turned out differently for them), it becomes very moving, and we come to truly appreciate the bravery and constitution that the men displayed during their endeavour. Turner’s music becomes less prevalent and quieter towards the end, too, setting a tone of increasing fragility that anticipates what is to come.


We are also reminded of the vulnerability of those poor souls, who were unable to rely on the benefits of modern technology (this makes their achievement all the more impressive). I couldn’t help but marvel at the basic and heavy clothing they wore, which would be considered totally archaic and unsuitable by today’s standards; at the sparse supplies and extremely austere living conditions they endured, and perhaps most movingly, at the image of each man sitting and smiling proudly in front of a small, inadequate tent, overwhelmed by the white nothingness that would soon claim them.


Make no mistake, these men were special, and each went to their deaths with dignity and fortitude. This indomitable spirit is perhaps best exemplified in the words of Scott’s injured and weakened right-hand man Captain Oates, who turned to his colleagues towards the end and uttered the words “I may be some time”, before leaving the tent and walking into a blizzard and certain death, all for the good of Terra Nova.


Charming, fascinating and ultimately heart-breaking, The Great White Silence is very highly recommended indeed, and once again represents the important role the BFI takes in ensuring British cinematic treasures are preserved and enhanced for future generations to enjoy.


Extras are plentiful, and include a detailed booklet with plenty of information about the film’s restoration, the composer Turner, and members of the expedition. There are also period newsreels, a modern audio recording made in Captain Scott’s genuine cabin, and the original cinema release version of Ponting’s film.

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