Great, Scott

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.

Arctic role

Eek. I know nature is red in tooth and claw, and I know nature documentaries are as much about death as they are about life, but this particular scene really upset me on Frozen Planet last night. What a hypocrite I am for printing this still. Having whined about the news media showing us Colonel Gaddafi’s final moments last week, BBC1 showed me the final moments of a Weddell seal, ingeniously rounded up by a pod of killer whales in the Antarctic, who broke up the ice floe it was basking on from beneath, then, in a coordinated attack, made waves to wash it off with pinpoint accuracy into the icy water. And I’m showing it to you. (Although out of context, it’s nothing like as sad.)

As with all dramatic vignettes captured, or created, for nature documentaries (the ultimate in “scripted reality”), this one was cleverly personalised – one seal versus about eight whales – and narrated, by the nation’s favourite, ancient, immortal David Attenborough, to accentuate the narrative, which was then underscored by accompanying music. We were led to believe that the seal was doomed, and then safe, and then doomed again, and then safe, until, exhausted and outnumbered by the chase, the poor animal seemed to submit to its fate and allow a whale to pull it down by its tail. It’s all in those eyes.

I’m an inveterate animal lover, as you well know. I am the kind of person who would give my last pound to a donkey sanctuary over a children’s home. I’m soppy as hell, and more likely to cry at the TV, or in the cinema, if a pet dies than if a man or lady dies. (Fuck me, the fictional character Oregon’s fictional horse, Roulette, had me blubbing on Fresh Meat last night, its acting almost as affecting as Jack Whitehall’s. If you didn’t see it, I won’t bother contextualising it, or indeed spoiling it. Just watch it will you?) But I accept that the natural world is a finely balance ecosystem based on one species eating another, and that species eating something smaller, and so on. I am a part of that ecosystem, and I don’t even have the nobility to catch and kill my own prey. It’s always tough to see death on the television, even in the broadest zoological, ecological and geophysical context.

The Antarctic, and the Arctic, may be in long-term, man-made trouble – something Attenborough’s series will not shy away from, you can be certain of that – but the Weddell seal is not endangered. It’s doing fine. Killer whales eat to live. They kill to eat (the clue’s in the name, although all carnivores should have killer before their name, strictly speaking). Earlier in the same edition of Frozen Planet, some wily Canadian wolves ate a young bison to live. Like the whales, they picked their prey off from the herd and brought it down. It is truly amazing to see animals do things like this, in the wild. It’s their gig.

When I interviewed Paul McCartney in 1997, as I am over-fond of relating, I spoke to him about his vegetarianism, which I admired. As a man who has lived in rural surrounds, he backed up his personal decision to not eat animals by conceding that other creatures ate other creatures. When, he said, a hawk swoops down to eat a bird, he doesn’t complain, adding. “It’s his gig.” I’ve always loved that attitude.

As long as the humans aren’t actually intervening and manipulating the drama as it unfolds, I don’t mind if they help dramatise it in the edit, and even though I have now watched a Weddell seal’s final moments in HD, you might say that it adds to my greater understanding of – and empathy for – the natural world, one for which I already have a hell of a lot of respect. It’s better, in many ways, to see a beautiful male polar bear covered in the blood and scratches and bite marks that are a part of his life cycle, as we did last night, than cling to a Fox’s Glacier Mint fantasy.

Rest in peace, Mr Weddell. You did no die in vain. As for the killer whales who still haunt my dreams, especially since shamefully and self-gratifyingly paying to see one in a swimming pool in Vallejo, California, in 1994, it’s their gig.