The Great White Silence DVD+Blu-ray
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Directed by Herbert Ponting
Produced in 1924
Main Language - Silent with English subtitles
Countries & Regions - British Film
With astonishing clarity, these legendary century-old images of Antarctic exploration take you to the heart of Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, says Michael Brooke.
When we think of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, the images that most readily spring to mind are probably those of Ealing’s 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, with a frozen-upper-lipped John Mills battling ultimately insuperable odds to the accompaniment of a haunting Vaughan Williams score.
But, much earlier, Herbert Ponting’s amazing footage of the actual expedition had also been widely screened, initially to illustrate Ponting’s own lectures – he gave over a thousand in the 1910s and 1920s. Ponting then refashioned the footage into two stand-alone feature-length documentaries, The Great White Silence (1924) and 90˚ South (1933). Both are included on this release, though it’s the earlier film that deserves the most attention, as it’s the end product of an extensive and award-winning restoration that was unveiled at last year’s London Film Festival to the live accompaniment of a new score by Simon Fisher Turner (featured here).
The quality of these legendary century-old images of exploration and adventure is absolutely astonishing, thanks to the original 35mm negatives not only surviving (highly unusual for a film of this vintage) but being donated to the BFI shortly after Ponting’s death, ensuring their proper preservation for future generations.
Although Scott’s decision to invite a professional cameraman had commercial motives (media rights to Ponting’s images made a significant contribution to the expedition’s fundraising), the historical importance of the footage is clear from the opening shots of the ship ‘Terra Nova’ negotiating pack ice, and the scientific aspects of the expedition are depicted in fascinating detail – penguin lovers in particular will be in seventh heaven.
For understandable practical reasons, Ponting did not accompany the Scott party on the final leg of their journey to the South Pole, but he was blessed with an extraordinary stroke of luck in that the four men he filmed demonstrating sledging and survival techniques comprised 80% of the final party. As a result, Ponting could intercut this footage with stills, maps, animated models and intertitles to recreate the full journey, giving an inescapably moving ‘you are there’ impression.
Michael Brooke on 24th May 2011
Author of 135 reviews
Herbert Ponting's official record of Captain Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, The Great White Silence was recently restored by the BFI National Archive from the original expedition negatives and has reintroduced the film's sophisticated use of colour. The alien beauty of the landscape is brought dramatically to life, showing the world of the expedition in brilliant detail.
Captain Robert Scott described Herbert Ponting as ‘an artist in love with his work’, and after the Antarctic expedition’s tragic outcome, Ponting devoted the rest of his life to ensuring that the grandeur of the Antarctic and of the expedition’s heroism would not be forgotten. The images that he captured have fired people's imaginations ever since.
Ponting’s footage begins in 1910 with the departure of the Terra Nova from New Zealand’s south island, for the Antarctic – a perilous journey during which animals and stores were lost overboard in a gale and the ship had to break through unusual amounts of pack ice for 400 miles to reach the Great Ice Barrier. Ponting took some of his most impressive footage – showing the ship breaking through the ice – from a makeshift platform over the side of the ship. Once arrived on Ross Island, Ponting filmed almost every aspect of the expedition: the scientific work, life in camp and the local wildlife – including killer whales, seals, Antarctic skuas and the characterful Adelie penguins. What he was unable to film, he boldly recreated back home. Most importantly, Ponting recorded the preparations for the assault on the Pole – from the trials of the caterpillar-track sledges to clothing and cooking equipment – giving us a real sense of the challenges faced by the expedition.
Length: 106 mins
Aspect ratio: 4:3
Cat No: BFIB1085
Format: DVD+Blu-ray Colour
- 2 discs
- 90 Degrees South (1933), Herbert Ponting’s final sound version of the legendary footage he shot in 1910–11
- The Great White Silence: How Did They Do It? - a new documentary about the restoration
- The Sound of Silence, a new documentary about Simon Fisher Turner’s score
- Location field recordings (2010, 4 mins): celebrated sound recordist Chris Watson’s audio document of the interior of Scott’s polar expedition hut, presented in both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround
- Archive newsreel items (1910-1925) - a selection of archival film extracts which capture the departure and return of the expedition party
- Illustrated booklet including an extract from Francis Spufford’s 'I May Be Some Time'.