Doctober II #5 – The Great White Silence (1924)

the-great-white-silence-images-f58fc9a1-8e7a-4bde-bd6a-55ac4c79620The Great White Silence (1924)
Directed by: Herbert Ponting
Written by: Herbert Ponting
Starring: Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The history of the documentary stretches back as far as the dawn of film as a medium, giving audiences a look at everyday events, wars, medical breakthroughs, foreign cities and ways of life, and in the case of The Great White Silence, expeditions. Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary chronicles the infamous Terra Nova Expedition of Antarctica, which took place between 1910-1913, and led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.  Ponting is thought to be the first man to shoot motion photography on the frozen continent, making him a pioneer of both the film and journalism industries. Along with key moments of the expedition, Ponting became one of the first men in history to shoot footage of seals, killer whales, and penguins in their natural habitats.  Without men like Herbert Ponting, we probably wouldn’t have somebody like Sir David Attenborough and documentaries as epic in scope as Planet Earth.

The goal of the Terra Nova Expedition was simple: Captain Scott and his English crew were to plant a Union Jack flag on the South Pole, sailing to Antarctica from New Zealand.  Scott and his crew were to race a team of Norwegian’s to the destination, with the goal of both groups being the planting of their respective flag.  Along the way, Ponting documents the animals brought aboard the ship for the expedition (more than a dozen ponies, dogs, and a cat with a heck of a name), the massive glaciers and ice shelves along the way, and we get to know our crew by watching them celebrate, receive haircuts, and just generally take in the breathtaking scenery at the end of the earth.  Ponting gives the audience a sneak peak of the antiquated technologies used to travel, including primitive snowmobiles, and dog and pony-led sledges.  He carefully and comically chronicles his time spent with a large group of penguins, detailing their mating rituals, nesting habits, and other characteristics of the arctic birds.  Eventually Robert Scott and his four-man expedition team leave base camp for their ill-fated trip to the South Pole, leaving behind Ponting and smaller support teams to plant supplies for the journey back, and to document Antarctic life.  Captain Scott and his four crew mates would never be seen alive again, and Herbert Ponting and the support crew would travel back to England, with the film eventually being pieced together and released to the public.

The tragic story of the Terra Nova Expedition is one of the most famous stories of exploration in modern history, and watching it happen through the lens of Herbert Ponting in The Great White Silence is nothing short of extraordinary. Ponting’s camera captures sights and wonders that had never been seen by the common man at the time, and his attention to detail and appreciation for Antarctica’s desolate beauty is what makes The Great White Silence stand apart from almost any other documentary I’ve ever seen.  He gives equal weight to wildlife and to the continents many massive natural ice formations and glaciers, giving insightful and often very humorous commentary through the use of title cards between these scenes.  Ponting’s playful storytelling style works perfectly for the first two acts of the film, and then he switches to a much more serious and fact-driven tone when chronicling the tragic adventure of Robert Scott and company.  Even though he wasn’t actually with the five men at the time of their demise, he perfectly tells their story.  We find out how long it took the men to reach the South Pole, what exactly went wrong, when certain crew members were lost to the elements, and what led to the demise of the entire party. Ponting goes from playfully sly to dreadfully serious in his tribute to the five brave explorers, and it couldn’t have possibly been done better in my mind.  The Great White Silence truly is one of the greatest pieces of movie history that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, almost entirely due to the creative choices of its director. Ponting has an eye for scenery, and a knack for storytelling, and he uses them to craft what I consider to be one of the most perfect documentary films ever created.
the-great-white-silence-3
What I Liked:

  • The pacing is consistent and break-neck, even in the film’s more playful first acts.
  • Ponting spends just the right amount of time with his subjects (seals, penguins, killer whales, the crew), never stopping on any one subject for too long.  His camera respects all forms of life equally, and sees the value in all of their stories.
  • The framing of several shots was astounding, particularly when the Terra Nova first comes into contact with mountainous glacial ice shelves.  Another highlight is a naturally formed ice cave on the frozen continent.
  • Ponting’s inter-titles are hilarious, especially in his dealings with the crew and the colony of penguins.  His storytelling is unique and at times intentionally misleading for comedic effect.  My favorite example of this is “Soon after we had started on our way, an epidemic broke out aboard…of HAIRCUTTING!”
  • The director clearly had a great deal of respect for Captain Robert Falcon Scott, as his story is told with the utmost sincerity and gravity.  Herbert Ponting quotes from Scott’s journal, giving us a first-hand recollection of the events and letting us picture it for ourselves, since no real footage of the events exists.  
  • The BFI’s 2011 restoration of The Great White Silence features a haunting score by Simon Fisher Turner.  It suits the film perfectly, and compliments the visual storytelling.  They have also touched up the surviving sources, creating an incredible presentation for a film nearly 100 years old – and featuring footage from 1910-1913.

What I Didn’t:

  • Having been released in 1924, The Great White Silence is dated in its social conventions and in its science.  If you can’t handle the fact that Ponting’s views don’t match those of contemporary society’s, this film probably isn’t for you.  The primary example being the aforementioned cat with the peculiar name – the poor black cat’s name was literally the “N” word.  Despite this, the film has age remarkably well in other respects.

Herbert Ponting’s visual diary of the Terra Nova Expedition is truly something that must be seen to be believed.  It’s breathtaking in its beauty, incredibly funny and playful in some of its storytelling, and ultimately tragic and heartbreaking in the end.  The Great White Silence stands as one of the greatest achievements in documentary history, and has instantly become one of my all-time favorite films. The fact that it exists to this day is a blessing to moviegoers around the world.  I urge you to see this film at some point during your lifetime, there’s almost no chance you won’t be blown away.  The Great White Silence is a masterpiece, and gets my highest recommendation.

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