The Great White Silence: In Search of Real Adventure with Captain Scott

Hollywood might be going apeshit over another installment of Captain Jack Sparrow, but here's why The Great White Silence's footage of the doomed expedition of Captain Scott is a real nautical adventure.
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Hollywood might be going apeshit over another installment of Captain Jack Sparrow, but here's why The Great White Silence's footage of the doomed expedition of Captain Scott is a real nautical adventure.

Who doesn’t love the smell of gunpowder and rum in the morning? The fourth outing of Captain Jack Sparrow certainly delivers both in equal measure as it sails into the cinema this week. Serving as an exemplar of the lengths that Hollywood goes to in order to summon up its summer blockbusters these days, the franchise – which has grossed close to an astonishing three billion dollars in the first three films alone – was borne of a theme park ride that made its debut in Disneyland way back in 1967. Director Gore Verbinski, replaced by Rob Marshall in the latest episode, had the Golden Age of Hollywood on his mind when he signed up, envisioning the pirate ships and swashbuckling of the era populated by the likes of Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster and the inimitable Robert Newton.

Cinema had found itself a little short of seafaring derring-do prior to the arrival of the Black Pearl and, though followed into theatres by Peter Weir’s nautical epic Master and Commander and Wes Anderson’s more playful The Life Aquatic, few movies have since troubled the inky depths of the cinema ocean.

Despite its best efforts, the most recent installment of Pirates of the Caribbean doesn’t come close to matching the far stranger tides of Antarctica. Currently circulating in a newly restored print from the BFI and due for release on DVD in June, The Great White Silence serves as the official record of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition to the South Pole. Herbert Ponting, a photographer and pioneering documentarian, had shot every aspect of the journey south from New Zealand on the Terra Nova, as well as the team’s initial explorations of Ross Island. Ponting returned to the UK in February 1912 in order to piece together a narrative from what he had captured to his nitrate negatives and glass plates, all intended to feed the newsreels and to accompany a subsequent lecture tour. When the expedition ended in tragedy, the footage offered something very different, and altogether more affecting.

Watching a shot of the men marching off into the great white, a hundred years later, it’s impossible to ignore the poignancy both of their failure to return.

The feature wasn’t completed until 1924, Ponting having spent the years following the tragedy touring filmed segments as part of a lecture which he delivered some 2000 times, and that served to cement Scott’s voyage, and the courage of his team, in British cultural memory. Blinded by snow and sun, suffering frostbite and enduring months of darkness as they waited out a winter during which the temperatures plummeted to 50 below, the film offered a portrait of endurance and courage, as the men prepared for their 800-mile march to the Pole. Bleak and touching in equal measure, it played out in a landscape simultaneously frightening in its scale and beautiful in its otherworldly geometry. Watching a shot of the men marching off into the great white, a hundred years later, it’s impossible to ignore the poignancy both of their failure to return, and the understanding that all five men attempted the long walk back to camp with the knowledge that they had been beaten in their task by Roald Amundson’s Norwegian team.

With no dialogue, the film is informed by Ponting’s many interstitials, and the BFI restoration relies heavily on a score from Simon Fisher-Turner. Best known for his work with Derek Jarman, the composer avoids traditional orchestration in favour of a strange, otherworldly mixture of electronic ambience coupled with foley recordings and what sound designer Walter Murch has referred to as worldized sound – recordings of silence, from appropriate locations. This music supplements the film, without cheapening it through syncresis or by denigrating the power of Pointing’s imagery.

Real adventure may be hard to come by, but The Great White Silence offers a vivid account of one of the greatest in history.

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