The Great White Silence (1924) Review

The Great White Silence (1924) Director: Herbert Ponting


I found The Great White Silence to be a surprisingly compelling silent documentary film. It captures key moments in the the ill-fated “Terra Nova” expedition from the British Empire to the South Pole, which occurred between 1910-1913. The goal of the expedition was to lead the first group to arrive at the South Pole, though when they arrived they found the Norwegians had beat them by 34 days. On attempting to return, the entire British expedition either 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.

The Great White Silence is a truly powerful film, one of the greats of early cinema. Surely, it is one of the best documentary films of all time, similar but far superior to another other notable silent “documentary” Nanook of the North.

Throughout the film, we get a sense of the desolation in the icy tundra of Antarctica. The early parts of the film are hopeful, as the expedition embarks from the green hills of New Zealand. We see images of penguins, whales and seals playfully dwelling 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 as they disappear off into the deadly country of ice in the South Pole, 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: