What a proper treat at the Curzon Chelsea at the weekend: The Great White Silence on the big screen. This is the 1924 film assembled from the pioneering footage and photographs taken by Herbert Ponting on the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition. Just as we must by law always refer to the expedition as “ill-fated”, so we must describe the BFI’s 2011 restoration of the film to full glory as “painstaking.”
According to a title card at the beginning of this graceful and affecting 108-minute silent epic, this is the film as it was originally intended for exhibition, including the coloured tints, which seem incredibly modern. I don’t know for a fact, but I imagine a decade passed between Ponting making his photographic record of the expedition’s first year and its theatrical debut because the tragic end of the adventure made it too raw for public consumption. Ponting spent 14 months with Captain Scott and his doughty, pipe-smoking, mostly ex-Navy crew – plus Siberian ponies, dogs and one ship’s cat, with the unfortunate name of “Nigger” – and returned to England on the ship Terra Nova while the exploration parties headed up the Beardmore Glacier, across the Ross ice shelf, and, in the case of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Captain Lawrence Oates (“I could be some time”), Lt. Henry Bowers, Edward Wilson and Edgar Evans, to their horrible, tented demise.
Although the whole enterprise whiffs of the glory of the Empire and a society hideously patriarchal enough for King George to urge “every British boy” to see Ponting’s film, the tang of the very early 20th Century gives The Great White Silence a personality that’s at once foreign, but no less endearing for that. The explorers’ apparently unflappable faith in God is quaint in itself; according to their letters and diaries (brilliantly brought to life by Dougray Scott, Max Irons, Alistair McGowan and others in ITV1’s Words of Captain Scott), every one of them felt that God was their protector, and this helped them through might have been an unbearably difficult time and gave them comfort in their final days and hours.
Ponting’s own narration – provided via intertitles as above – is alive with jolly, boys’-own derring-do, and although the tale has a tragic outcome, the first year is one of wide-eyed awe at the sight of penguins and seals and killer whales (none of which would have been seen moving about by most people in 1924, so you can easily share their wonder). There’s footage of the ship’s cat doing tricks on the ice, and more of the crew playfully chasing penguins around. Much of this mid-section is effectively a prototype nature documentary, and it’s astonishing how blase Ponting is in explaining that an Arctic skua has been chased off her nest so that he can get a close-up of her catching eggs. Never mind David Attenborough sneaking in footage of polar bears from a German zoo! If he’d been making the film in 1912 he could have shot the mother in order to get a decent view. (At one point, as a killer whale is about to eat a baby seal, the crew harpoon it in order to “save” the seal.)
The Great White Silence is available on DVD, and although I can’t recommend seeing it on a big screen highly enough (Chelsea were showing it to mark the expedition’s 100th anniversary). Details of the extras-packed DVD are here. I would also recommend last week’s excellent documentary on ITV1, Words Of Captain Scott, in which actors of the calibre of Dougray Scott, Max Irons, Alistair McGowan and The Killing‘s Lars Milkkelsen (guess who he plays) read from diaries and letters, intercut with some of Ponting’s footage and equally stunning footage of Amundsen’s luckier expedition. It’s still available on demand. I’d never expected to be so taken with this story, as familiar as it is, but thanks to this film and this programme, I am.