January 27, 2023

‘The Great White Silence’ (1924) at the West End Odeon Leicester Square

Last year I had the honour and privilege of viewing Herbert Ponting’s infamous adventure documentary, The Great White Silence. Held in a gala at the West End Odeon in Leicester Square, the British Film Institute unveiled the result of a restoration project, which began in 1993. The documentary film, which has now been restored to its former glory and retained in line with Ponting’s original wishes, is phenomenal.

Herbert Ponting, a legendary photographer and cinematographer of his time, was asked by Captain Robert Falcon Scott to join his merry band of sailors and explorers on what was hoped to be the first successful mission to the South Pole. During the movie, we see Scott’s team board the Terra Nova, which leaves New Zealand and head towards the Antarctic.  Along the way, Ponting captures some astounding footage of ice-capped waters, huge icebergs, and fascinating wildlife.  Once at their base camp, Ponting films much of the local scenery, including a group of penguins, a family of seals, beautiful ice formations, and killer whales.  These breathtaking images are also coupled with shots of the team and their work: building camps, training the dogs and ponies for the arduous journey ahead, and all the tiresome labour the explorers undertook with strong enthusiasm.  The rest of the journey to the South Pole is made up of footage taken at the base camp, along with supporting extracts from Captain Scott’s journal, as it was too perilous for Ponting and all of the crew to embark on the journey together.

The documentary is an astounding piece of work. Images from another world were captured in such a hands-on manner, that the viewer cannot escape the danger that these adventurers faced. The use of tinting frames makes for a far more enjoyable viewing experience, and those with captions are often humorous, poignant and emotional. Last year, we were lucky enough last year to see the film accompanied by composer Simon Fisher Turner and a group of musicians, who played a mixture of live and recorded music over the documentary, which created an intense and effective atmosphere in the theatre. The DVD version is now available from major retailers.

As a silent documentary film, this is a national treasure. The history involved is exciting and perilous, the characters are interesting, and the locations are sensational. For those looking to be part of cinematic history, I ask you to view this film. If you are willing to embark on a journey that is at once exciting, dangerous, and unique, The Great White Silence can offer you an unforgettable adventure.

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