“The Great White Silence” (1924), a UK produced film that screened at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, contains wonderful footage from Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated attempt to reach and return from the South Pole. When Scott arrived at the South Pole, he found the Danish flag of Roald Amunson and his team, who beat Scott by thirty-five days.
The film, directed by Herbert G. Ponting, uses many title cards to dramatically tell the heartbreaking story of Scott’s failure to return. He starts off with scenes of provisioning the ship, shenanigans with the crew in New Zealand, and then the embarcation and travel south to Antarctica. Ponting, a wonderful naturalist photographer, not only films Scott’s activities on the continent — such as sorting out the dog sled teams and unloading the Siberian horses — but also the seals, penguins and other birds that would definitely be a curiosity in any travelogue.
The drama builds in The Great White Silence when Scott and his team takes off for the South Pole. The carefully crafted title cards tell us of Scott’s strategy, the arduous trek, the initial elation, and then the bitter disappointment. Even though Ponting and the Gaumont British Distributors studio released the film in 1924, Ponting actually shot this original footage during the Scott’s Terra Nova exposition in Antarctica between 1910 and 1911. It’s a riveting achievement in both storytelling and cinematography and it presents an unforgettable view of a stirring landscape.