Saturday, 23 July 2011

Great Scott! The Great White Silence (1924)

Last Monday brought the extraordinary Great White Silence to Hertford's Castle Theatre...a small, remarkably well-informed and enlightened, audience sat slack-jawed (speaking personally) as Herbert Ponting's film of the fateful Terra Nova Expedition unfolded.

In my ignorance I'd never expected there to be a film of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's journey to the South Pole, that it was so skilfully assembled by Ponting was another surprise. But, I should know by now, don't ever take "silent film" for granted...

Ponting sailed out with the Terra Nova in 1910 and it was his job to record the expedition for scientific and commercial purposes. His photographs and film were to form the basis of Scott's lecture tours after the anticipated success of the mission. He was to record the unfamiliar wildlife and did this with much rigour. "I could have done without the seals and penguins..." was one comment I overheard from a jaded 21st century viewer but looking at them through the enthusiastic lens of Ponting you can understand why: he's loving his time with these strange and unfamiliar creatures.

But that's not the real story, it's Scott and his band of brave explorers man-hauling their sleds, joking around a frozen campfire, hanging out their socks to freeze-dry and, most poignantly of all, waving goodbye as their horses carry them away from the camera for the very last time.

Whatever the merits of the venture, their nationalistic motivations and organisational capabilities these were courageous men. As Scott wrote in his diary as they trudged towards death..."Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."

Seeing these men, hale and hearty, ready to take on the challenge when we know they will not succeed is very moving.
Ponting filmed them setting up camp, conducting research and preparing for the push to the pole. There are some haunting images of the forbidding landscape and the film is strikingly clean for a century old print. Ponting used an early portable camera and is shown balanced precariously on a wooden platform to film the Terra Nova crashing through the ice. He almost gets nailed by one of the seals and apparently nearly got toppled into the sea after getting too close to a pod of killer whales.
Mr Ponting was a pioneering and brave film maker in the truest sense. Never could those reviewer staples be more aptly applied.

After the shattering conclusion to the expedition Ponting's films were not used as anticipated but he came back to construct this film and tell the story of the journey. He used models shot in studio to show the progress of the journey as well as mixing his stills with the film of Scott's men rehearsing their routines for the trek. His witty intertitles underpin the images well and he quotes from Scott's fateful diary entries...I liked the penguin jokes: they were in the spirit of this bold adventure. Scott's team took the risks in good humour but they were fully aware of the dangers they faced.

The striking new score by Simon Fisher Turner should also be mentioned: it is stark and skilfully embelishes Ponting's images.
Scott's reputation has taken a pounding over recent years with arguments for and against...but as one commentator, Diana Preston, has said: "The point is not that they ultimately failed but that they so very nearly succeeded."

Ponting's film helps show us how great that feat was.

The BFI have this on DVD/BluRay.

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