Nothing can quite prepare you for the magical, strange and disorientating otherworldliness of The Great White Silence, a legendary documentary charting the initial stages of Captain Scott’s doomed attempt to navigate the South Pole, first released in 1924 and thoroughly deserving of big screen exhibition, not to mention a superb restoration effort by the BFI.
It is the thrilling cinematography, humorous editing and amiable narration of the pioneering Herbert Ponting, one of a select breed of devil-may-care adventurers and filmmakers who gives the likes of Werner Herzog a run for his money (Herzog included several clips from The Great White Silence in Encounters At The End Of The World, a film which owes a tremendous deal to Ponting’s work), that imbues The Great White Silence with its spirit and captivating oddness.
Displaying awe-inspiring technical ability for the age, Ponting captures everything from the mundane to the extraordinary, including a whale hunt and entrancing footage of seals. Seemingly an upbeat fellow, there is plenty of footage of shipmates boxing, sharing a joke, explorers tending to their dogs and the surreal mechanised snow tractors whose technical inferiority would eventually play a part in Scott and his team’s demise.
Combined with a sense of humour and the thrill of exploration, the Antarctic landscapes, extraterrestrial in their uninhabited bleakness, lend themselves marvellously to the pitch blackness of the cinema auditorium, creating the atmosphere of a nickelodeon or a ghoulish Victorian fairground attraction. I found myself constantly imagining the original audience’s reactions to these alien, foreign lands and peculiar creatures in their natural habitats, an unseen world brought to life in the unique way only cinema can.
A record of an expedition as famous for its ‘failure’ as it is for its profound symbolism of man’s endeavour to discover the unknown, The Great White Silence may test the patience of those unused or not so far persuaded by silent film. However, those willing to take the plunge will be rewarded with the majesty of its imagery and riveted by its subject matter. There are only a few films as unique as The Great White Silence and this is an excellent opportunity to see it as it was intended to be shown; I urge you to take the chance.