Friday, December 2, 2016

Before I Die #589: The Great White Silence (1924)

This was the 589th movie I've seen from the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Director: Herbert G. Ponting

Full disclosure right off the bat - technically, I didn't exactly watch the original 1924 version of this film, since I really couldn't track down a copy of it. The explanation is folded into the basic summary:

Way back in 1910 and 1911, famed English explorer Sir Walter Scott set out to lead the first team of humans to reach the South Pole. To document it, he hired film director Herbert G. Ponting to join the arduous journey, filming as much as he could for posterity. He tagged along with the team right from their departure from the shores of England, right on down to Antarctica and even a fair way into the mainland. During the final days, though, it was only six of the most seasoned explorers who would travel to the actual pole. Ponting and the rest of the support team saw them off and then returned to their headquarters on the Antarctic coast. They would later find out just how doomed Scott and his team were. While they did reach the pole, they discovered that they had been beaten by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen. Adding the ultimate injury to this insult, Scott's entire team was overtaken by the elements and all died on their return trip to their base camp.

When Ponting and the remainder of the failed expedition team returned to England, Ponting spent a few years editing all of the footage he had shot during the long and arduous journey. He first released his edits as short films to the British public. Then, in 1924, he released a 112-minute single silent film. After the advent of sound came around several years later, Ponting returned to the movie and added his voice-over narration. It is this latter version which I saw.

While the documentary can be a tad dry from time to time, it is fascinating as extant proof of one of the most daring and tragic attempts in human exploration history. Being able to see the men who tried, failed, and some of whom even died, has a power that no book or article can provide. For that alone, the film still has and will likely always have an irrevocable strength. And when the narration turns to reading Scott's final words, written in the journal he was keeping right up until his death, it has an effect which no dramatization could match.

That said, the dry or dull portions can tax one's patience. Having been released in a time when moving pictures still were relatively fresh, many scenes are merely of the crew doing mundane chores. I imagine that in the 1920s and '30s, the viewing public was still gripped by these, as they had never been seen before. For those of us in the 21st century now, in the wake of the amazing advances in nature and exploration cinematography, the images and scenes in The Great White Silence are unlikely to excite. As an example, there's a good five minutes spent just on showing penguins waddling around, with the narration adding very little to spice things up.

Hardly the most comfortable of conditions, to be sure. Such a
trek would be arduous with even 21st century equipment. I can
only imagine how tough and driven these guys were to try it
with the rudimentary tools they had.
I can't write about this film without bringing up a major point of discomfort of the type which is often a possibility with older films. During one scene, showing a few of the crewmen playing with their "mascot" black cat, Ponting's narration tells us the cat's name: Nigger, which Ponting himself cheerfully announces a couple of times. Ouch. It's never fun to get a full-on racist punch to the gut like that. Reminding yourself that "those were different times" really does nothing to take the sting out of hearing such backwards thinking about race. Blessedly, this is really the only instance of this in the film, and it is over very quickly.

This film was obviously a great step forward from films like Nanook of the North, which would later be discredited for manipulating the actions in ways that disqualify it from being considered a truthful "documentary." Ponting's film seemed to stay truer to a historian's goal of capturing rather than creating significant events. It's a worthwhile watch for anyone with a bit of interest in the history of documentaries or the history of exploration.

That's 589 movies down. Only 598 to go before I can die.