The Great White Silence Review
The best remembered and most widely seen cinematic account of Captain Scott’s successful but ultimately ill-fated journey to the South Pole remains Ealing Studio’s 1948 Technicolor feature Scott of the Antarctic. A mainstay on British television schedules with a lifeline of numerous VHS and DVD incarnations, Charles Frend’s film has been continuous presence, no doubt abetted by its quintessentially English cast (from John Mills and Kenneth More to James Robertson Justice and Christopher Lee) and instantly recognisable score by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Yet look down the cast list beyond Mills, More, et al and you may remember another familiar face putting in an appearance, namely Clive Morton. He played Herbert Ponting, the Salisbury-born photographer affectionately nicknamed Ponko. Ponting and Scott became acquainted in 1909 and, thanks to his photographic records of such far-flung locales as India and China for British periodicals, was soon installed as a member of the Terra Nova Expedition, serving as its official photographer and cinematographer between 1910 and 1913. This being the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’ there was great interest in Ponting’s work and a deal was struck with Gaumont over the rights to any footage he recorded. In 1911 the first films were screened under the title of With Captain Scott to the South Pole, followed subsequently by two more in 1912 and again, this time entitled The Undying Story of Captain Scott, in 1914. Purchasing the rights back from Gaumont, Ponting later embarked on a massive touring show - an illustrated lecture adorned with slides and film ‘clips’ - which culminated in his putting together the 1924 feature The Great White Silence. He would return to the footage one more time, in the early thirties, to produce a significantly shorter sound version. Going by the name of 90° South, this particular incarnation has, until now, been the most easily available thanks, in part, to the BFI’s much earlier VHS release in the UK and Milestone’s DVD in the US.
Yet 90° South, whilst a stunning film in its own right, has always been the lesser offshoot from Ponting’s records of the journey, both shorter than The Great White Silence and arguably a little dated in its early use of sound technology and Ponting’s quickfire and mannered commentary (valuable record though it is). And so in 1993 restoration was begun on the 1924 feature by the BFI National Archive leading to its eventual unveiling at the 2011 London Film Festival. As custodian to the expedition’s negatives the BFI had full access to - and was able to go directly back to - the best possible materials and, as one of the accompanying special features makes clear, used both film and digital techniques to ensure the finest possible results. Work was carried out to ensure that ‘authentic’ 1920s fades and dissolves were faithfully recreated, whilst Ponting’s original tints and tones were similarly brought into play. Even the restored intertitles were processed in such a manner so that the film grain would be characteristic of the original. The Great White Silence, as we see it now on this Blu-ray disc, is as close to the equivalent of its 1924 premiere as we could ever hope (or have hoped) to get. One final addition was also introduced: a new score courtesy of Simon Fisher Turner, originally performed live at its initial London Film Festival screening and in place on this release. Gone are the scratchy tones of 90° South, tied to the choice of music that would befit a contemporary swashbuckler or barnstormer and Ponting’s very particular style of delivery; in their stead we find a composition more fantastical and befitting, fully doing justice to the wonders of this film.
During one of the featurettes Bryony Dixon describes The Great White Silence as “the most important film […] in the National Archive”. With over 120,000 non-fiction titles present in the Archive alone (accompanied by over 60,000 fiction films and an estimated 750,000 television titles) that’s quite some claim, yet also one that you feel can be justified. This is a film which stands out for both its documentary qualities and its cinematic qualities. It is, after all, the official document of Captain Scott’s final expedition; reason enough to mark it out as an important work. Similarly the insight it affords into that expedition is irreplaceable: from a personal standpoint as it records its subjects; from a historical standpoint as it charts the first successful British journey to the South Pole; from a natural history standpoint as it captures both the landscape and wildlife these men encountered, images which seem arguably all the more magical nowadays considering they are 100 years old. Furthermore Ponting, with his photographer’s eye and experience, is able to present all of this in a consistently remarkable fashion. Despite the conditions under which he was filming - and developing the film - he clearly had an instinct for exactly what his camera should record and where it should be placed. Time and again we sit in front of the screen in sheer awe of what flickers before us; Ponting has perfectly translated his own wonder at his surroundings as he and Scott’s men moved ever closer to the Pole.
If Ponting’s photographic experience produced such images, then it is fair to say that his experience on the lecture circuit undoubtedly aided his ability to shape them into a strong narrative form. He had, after all, effectively been ‘previewing’ the film to audiences for the best part of a decade and therefore been able to gauge a whole host of reactions. As a result The Great White Silence is structured as would any fictional film. An easy-going first act takes in the expedition’s various animal helpers, a bout of dancing, some comedic boxing and so on. As we progress the structure tightens so as to give a genuine sense of journey undertaken, yet also with the necessary areas of calm. Momentum slowly builds amongst the more educational and scientific elements before a shift into a necessarily poignant tone for the final stages, one that is tempered, much like Ealing’s Scott of the Antarctic, with Scott’s own words: “The hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of any English gentleman.”
Of course, Ponting unavoidably has to combine both the tale of Scott with the record of the more scientific aspects, but thankfully does so without one element overriding the other. Those who have seen Frank Hurley’s South, the 1919 film of Ernest Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic expedition, will be fully aware of how detours into the local wildlife - seals, penguins, etc. - can risk derailing any narrative momentum, especially to eyes no longer awed by the sight of such animals. Ponting’s take is arguably quite similar to Hurley’s, and governed by the same reasons inasmuch as this footage would have been included to astound those audiences of the early 20th century, yet its presence fits more easily into the overall structure. The sightings of whales and the like become part of the journey, not an adjunct to it, whilst Ponting’s intertitles firmly maintain cohesion into the whole. He does fall into the trap of going for cutesy anthropomorphism and indulges in some highly dated humour, especially when it comes to the penguins, although admittedly it’s not without its own retrospective charm and should raise a wry smile or two.
Elsewhere Ponting’s intertitles opt more for hype and astonishment. The Great White Silence is introduced as “a film epic” that will take us to “the uttermost end of the earth” where “the hurricane and blizzard are born” and where the ‘Great Ice Barrier’ is introduced as “the birth place of icebergs”. Incredibly it all lives up to hype and so whilst the modern viewer maybe somewhat jaded by the sight of a seal and its offspring or the appearance of a killer whale, it will no doubt remain truly astounded by the expansive landscapes captured in Ponting’s lens. Certain aspects - such as those formations Ponting dubs ‘ice pancakes’ or the ‘frost smoke’ to which he refers - remain as alien seeming today as they did when first caught on film in the early 1910s. Of course, the restoration aids no end in such matters and certain moments, such as those shots of freshly formed ice settling on top of the waters, look as though they could have been recorded yesterday.
The quality of the restoration is such that it also aids immensely to the more personal dimensions of The Great White Silence. The faces of each and every man are there in full detail, perfectly discernible and to the degree that become more than a collection of features. We, of course, know that some of them died during the expedition and it’s a strange sensation to realise that we are viewing their final ever on-camera moments. As with South and its reliance on stills, maps, illustrations and intertitles to relay the ‘second half’ of its tale - Shackleton’s remarkable rescue mission when his ship Endurance got trapped in the ice - so too Ponting was unable to record the final stages of Scott’s journey: the last trek to the Pole with three other men from the party and their subsequent death. In South’s case this produced a curious end result, a film that for all its remarkable imagery and other strengths couldn’t help but feel anti-climactic. (It would take another documentary, George Butler’s Endurance, and Charles Sturridge’s miniseries Shackleton, to truly exploit the narrative potential of that expedition.) Yet such feelings are absent for The Great White Silence, firstly because the end result was very different for Scott than it was for Shackleton’s ultimately heroic endeavours, and secondly because of our foreknowledge. We don’t feel cheated out of not making it exactly to the Pole, but rather note the moment when they finally leave the camera’s gaze with a certain quiet respect. Ponting has done enough to provide the requisite gravity, both to Scott’s exit and indeed the whole expedition.
The Great White Silence has been issued by the BFI as one of their ‘dual format’ editions encompassing both Blu-ray and DVD in the same package. The discs are encoded for all regions and contain both the main feature and relevant extras (certain additions are standard definition only and therefore appear simply on the DVD). Having already noted the quality of the restoration itself throughout the main bulk of this review it needs only be stated that the 1080p transfer does it full justice. As should be expected the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is maintained whilst the levels of clarity and contrast are superb and the colours as striking as they should be. Put simply, we are getting as good a restoration as could ever be hoped for, presented in sumptuous HD and for that the presentation easily earns a 10 out of 10 rating. Some may find it a little perverse considering the film was made in 1924, but under the circumstances it really doesn’t get better than this.
The Simon Fisher Turner soundtrack, having been newly composed, clearly needs to be judged by a different standard. Here we find it in PCM stereo on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital 2.0 on the DVD. Admittedly there is some disappointment in the lack of a 5.1 option (as was the case with the last Fisher Turner composition for a BFI disc, Un Chant d’amour), yet even in plain stereo this remains a remarkable listen. Fisher Turner’s take on The Great White Silence is an interesting one being very much a contemporary score without the usual silent movie reliance on piano and the like. Strings, musical saw and electronic tones combine to a strangely befitting accompaniment, ably matching the ‘alien’ expanses captured by Ponting’s camera. Occasionally he slips into ‘diegetic’ sounds such as a banjo during the dancing scenes or waves crashing against the Terra Nova; there is even some ambient sound of Scott’s hut as recorded in January of 2010. Plus we find interjections from a ghostly aria as the ship moves through the waters and, fittingly, music from Scott’s service (Abide with Me) as Ponting details his final moments. Such a mixture hopefully demonstrates how much work Fisher Turner has put into this piece; it is as much a narrative as Ponting’s own film and equally as cinematic. It’s hard to say whether it makes The Great White Silence a better experience, though I’d be hard pressed to imagine the film without it.
Extras amount to a weighty bunch. There is no audio commentary as perhaps may have been expected, though a pair of featurettes and one of those typically hefty BFI booklets provides more than enough background into the both The Great White Silence itself and its restoration. In lieu of a commentary the major addition is Ponting’s 1933 sound version of the film, 90° South, in HD. Understandably it is in a weaker condition than the main feature having not been treated to such a lavish restoration and as such both image and soundtrack demonstrate their own flaws owing to damage, age and (in the case of the soundtrack) the technology of the time. Yet it remains a fascinating record, both inasmuch as it allows Ponting himself to provide voice-over duties and for the manner in which it can be compared to The Great White Silence. At only 72 minutes in length it is a good 35 minutes shorter and, thanks also in part to Ponting’s quick patter, comes across as the much pacier of the two, at times dashing through the tale and the footage when the 1924 feature would be contemplative. It’s also in black and white making for an interesting contrast to the continual tints and tones of The Great White Silence. And, of course, it doesn’t have the benefit of Simon Fisher Turner composing, but rather the kind of dramatic accompaniment which instantly date it to the early thirties. The Great White Silence is the version to return to, but this is no mere ‘addition’ and more than stands up as a fine work in its own right.
Also present in HD are a pair of new featurettes detailing, respectively, the restoration and the soundtrack. The first was produced for the Discovery Channel to coincide with their screening of the film in 2010. Given its intended audience this 20-minute is arguably aimed at less-informed audience member as its discussion of nitrate film and its inflammable nature makes clear. Yet whilst the more knowledgeable viewer may declare such moments unnecessary (and perhaps also decry the continual background music) there is still a wealth of information contained in this piece to satisfy. The restoration phases are related stage-by-stage and with sufficient detail to ensure a reasonably full understanding of just how painstaking this whole process was. The other featurette, entitled The Sound of Silence and running for 13 minutes, has Simon Fisher Turner relating how the “terrifying task” of scoring a feature length silent film was carried out. He is joined by the BFI’s Bryony Dixon and Jane Giles who provide the background whilst he discusses how he hit upon certain ideas or came about certain sounds. Importantly, he also demonstrates just how enthusiastic he was about both The Great White Silence itself and the project at hand - as the end results clearly show. The January 2010 field recordings of Scott’s hut which Fisher Turner utilised are also present in HD, totalling four minutes and available in both stereo and 5.1 surround sound.
The final on-disc extras are on the DVD only, five newsreel items totalling five minutes which offer up some differing moments from before, during and after the expedition. The titles are generally self-explanatory so I will simply list them: Cardiff: the Terra Nova Leaving Harbour towards the South Pole (Pathé’s Animated Gazette, 1910); Captain Scott and Dr Wilson with ‘Nobby’ the Horse (Gaumont Graphic, 1912); Memorial Service at St Paul’s Cathedral to the Antarctic Heroes (Pathé’s Animated Gazette No. 206, 1913); The Terra Nova Returns Home (Topical Budget 95-1, 1913); and Nation’s Tribute to Captain Scott (Topical Budget 729-2, 1925). The brisk length of each - either just under or just over a minute - means it’s no great loss not to see them HD, whilst their presence is undoubtedly welcome for the additional context which they provide to the main feature.
Finally, the set also contains a 34-page booklet providing the now-standard BFI combination of essays, illustrations, film notes, credits and details on the transfer. The main essay is by Bryony Dixon and contains plenty of background on the expedition, the film and the restoration. We also get an extract from Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time, specifically a lengthy passage relating to Ponting, a bio for the film’s director and a brief one for Simon Fisher Turner, notes by Kieron Webb on the restoration as well as credits for the full restoration team, and notes on the five newsreels plus 90° South.