Photographer Herbert Ponting, in hindsight, captured some of the most important and crucial footage. History is a marvellous thing, and this BFI release of The Great White Silence should highlight its importance rather well. Setting off on the doomed voyage of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Ponting offers up swathes of incredible material that showcases the vast tundra of the South Pole. Although recorded in textbooks, documentaries and contemporary research, who better to turn to for a history of this great expedition than a key member of the crew? My knowledge of this journey to the South Pole is almost none, but that shouldn’t matter. Documentaries are crash courses in little pockets of history, throwing us through the cold, hard facts and experiences of a man heading through unexpected trials.
Not only is The Great White Silence an important collation of brilliant history, it works rather well as a piece of film. Ponting’s experimentation with the camera serves him well, adapting to this newfound breakthrough in the world of technology. Such a wonderful pairing of visually engaging moments and a soundtrack consisting of sound effects and orchestral beauty. We’re shown how Ponting delivered these photographs and videos, and the detail that goes into showcasing his innovation is just as interesting and important as the footage he himself captured. Thick blocks of text jot down our journey thus far, and they bring with it such splendid and enjoyable moments.
Inevitably, the penguins featured throughout do indeed steal the show. My personal love for those flightless souls eclipses just about anything factually riveting the documentary can provide me. The Great White Silence provides an abundance of footage that, with David Attenborough’s booming voice behind it, could well have featured in Planet Earth. We’re talking a level of quality here so surprising for the era it comes from. Only a handful of years after Charlie Chaplin pieced together The Kid. Amazingly adaptive, Ponting’s footage and shot composition is impressive, to say the least.
The Great White Silence sets out the path for future documentarians. A tremendous archive of footage shot by Ponting, with explanations of the trip intercut between transition shots and raw film of the voyage. Not just a sweeping, cold depiction of the South Pole, but a genuine article of emotion, showcasing the crew bold enough to explore. Kindling that age-old British spirit of conquering places far from our field of view and then getting quite upset that there’s nothing to do when we get there, this documentary sets itself out as a truly marvellous time capsule. Insightful footage and walls of text detailing the voyage of the Terra Nova.