Directed by: Herbert Ponting
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 106 mins
Region: Region B
Released: 20 June 2011
Cat No: BFIB1085
Screen ratio 1:1.33
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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.