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 be the first to 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 or froze to death. The expedition was led by Robert Scott Falcon, a devout British patriot and adventurer committed to the cause of the British Empire. Simon Fisher Turner released a haunting score for this film during its re-release in 2011.
Throughout the film, we get a sense of the desolation in the icy tundra of Antarctica. The early parts of the film are hopeful and optimistic, 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 harrowing images are those that feature 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. Appropriately, a silent film only adds to the eerie mystique as we imagine the true madness and suffering of adventurers who died somewhere out there in “the great white silence.”
Ponting was a well-regarded photographer who had worked in Japan and China, but The Great White Silence was his first entry into cinema. He took some incredible photography while on the expedition. However, when the bodies of these men on the expedition were later discovered, it deeply affected Ponting until his death 1935. He went on the lecture circuit after the release of this film (he waited until after the war in 1921 to release the film) but it never became a major success. Thankfully, it has been reappraised and restored by the British Film Institute in recent years.