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Movie Crash Course: The Great White Silence

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We’re jumping back in time on the list a bit; I’ve only just now been able to find a copy of 1924’s The Great White Silence. It was made just about a decade before Bride of Frankenstein – and only about five years before Frankenstein proper, and the differences are a little staggering.

Then again, it was filmed much earlier.  Great White Silence is compiled from the footage captured by Herbert Ponting, the official chronicler of the United Kingdom’s doomed Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910.  The Terra Nova team, lead by Royal Navy Officer Robert Scott, set out on a quest to be the first to reach the South Pole.  After a year of training and preparation in their base camp in Antarctica, Scott set out with four teams of four men each; three of the four teams would be setting up supply depots for the polar team for their return trip.  Scott reached the South Pole with three other men in early January of 1912 – only to discover that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them all by about a month.  Severe storms slowed them on the return trip, and all four men who reached the pole eventually froze to death on the way back to base camp.

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Ponting managed to escape all of that.  He was some years older than the others in the expedition, and Scott therefore asked him to stay behind on base camp.  Ponting didn’t seem to mind; while the others had been preparing for the expedition, Ponting was filming absolutely everything he could – well aware that his footage would be the first glimpse of the Antarctic that anyone back in England would ever see.  In fact, most of the film is taken up with Ponting’s footage of seals, killer whales, and penguins.

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Ponting also got a lot of footage of the crew of the expedition proper, as they cared for the horses and sled dogs or practiced skiing.

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There are some lighthearted moments – like one of the men on the expedition showing off how he’s trained the crew’s pet cat to jump through a “hoop” made by his outstretched arms.

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(Fair warning to anyone tracking down the film: the name the Terra Nova crew chose for their all-black cat is one that we would consider wildly inappropriate today.)

Ponting even manages to get some behind-the-scenes shots – after some breathless footage of the ship plowing its way through pack ice in the Antarctic sea, Ponting’s narration cheefully adds: “And here’s how I took that picture!” before cutting a still photo someone took of him filming while lying precarioiusly on a plank.

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The bulk of the film is so happy-go-lucky, in fact, that I started wondering if Ponting was even going to address the death of Scott and his crew.  And in fact, he seems to have left Antarctica just before Scott’s body was found; he holed up in New Zealand, combining his footage with some still photos he’d taken of the crew that winter, like this photo he took of Scott, to turn the film into a fundraising campaign for future expeditions.

When he heard the news of Scott’s death, however, he quickly turned the last act of the film into a memorial, using dotted lines on a map to trace their steps and returning to capture a photo or two of the snow cairn covering Scott’s remains, erected when the rest of the crew finally found them.

The tone of the last reel is a little different from the rest of the film, as a result; instead of Ponting’s dazzling footage of natural wonders, and breathless excitement of hope, the last bits are understandably dour. The intertitles dwell on the nobility and bravery of Scott’s team and their acceptance of impending death; but it’s also where the wonder in Ponting’s narration turns to the danger of the Antarctic.  Instead of shots of the beauty of the surroundings, we get notes from Scott’s diary: “Great God! this is an awful place….”

As each member of the team dies on the return, Ponting follows up his account of their death with one of his portraits of each man.

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Most poignant is the story of Captain Lawrence Oates; I’d heard his story before. Oates was one of the four men to reach the Pole, but suffered severe frostbite in both feet.  His injuries slowed the team’s return considerably, and several times he asked the team to just leave him behind in a tent and go on without him.  But the others would have none of it.  Finally, one night, as the team was hunkered down during a heavy blizzard, Oates struggled to his feet and calmly told the others: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”  He then walked out into the storm, never to return.

Instead of raising funds for future expeditions, Ponting’s film became a tribute, used to drum up funding to support the widows and children of Scott’s team.


3 responses »

  1. Good review. Quite a fascinating story.

  2. Atwood named the character Oates in The Year of the Flood for him.

  3. Pingback: Movie Crash Course – The Projectionist’s Most Wanted | WadsWords

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