The Great White Silence (1924) Director: Herbert Ponting
The Great White Silence is an amazing silent documentary film that captures key segments of the ill-fated Terra Nova British Empire expedition to the South Pole, between 1910-1913. The goal of the expedition was to be the first to arrive at the South Pole, though when they arrived they found the Norwegians beat them by 34 days. On attempting to return, the entire British expedition starved and froze to death. The expedition was led by Robert Scott Falcon, a devout patriot and adventurer committed to the cause of the British empire. Simon Fisher Turner released a haunting score for the film during its re-release in 2011.
Throughout the film, we get a sense of the desolation of the icy tundra in Antarctica. The early parts of the film are hopeful, as the expedition embarks from the green hills of New Zealand, and we see pictures of penguins, whales, and seals playfully existing on the icebergs of Antarctica. However, the second part of the film displays sections of the recovered diary of Robert Scott Falcon and photographs of the adventurers. Perhaps the most haunting images are of the members of the trip to the South Pole as they disappear off into the deadly country of ice, with the audience knowing they will never return.
Ponting was a known photographer who had conducted work in Japan and China, and The Great White Silence was his first entry into cinema. He took some incredible photography while on the expedition. However, when the bodies of the men were discovered, it deeply affected Ponting until his death 1935. He went on the lecture circuit after the release of his film (he waited until after the war in 1921 to release the film) but it was never a major success.
The Great White Silence is a truly powerful film, one of the greats of early cinematic and human exploration. Surely, it is one of the greatest documentary films of all time, similar but far superior to the other notable silent film “documentary” Nanook of the North.