The Great White Silence - Blu-ray Review

'its historical significance is unparalleled'

Herbert Ponting's 1924 film of Captain Scott's tragic attempt to reach the South Pole in 1911, The Great White Silence is a marvel of technical achievements both old and new. Restored by the BFI to a brilliant new print, this Blu-ray outing of Ponting's silent film is presented by the institute with a new score by Simon Fisher Turner and a restoration of Ponting's original 'tinting', a process which gives the black and white negatives a semblance of colour.

That colour is used to stunning effect. Purples, blues, greens and yellows fill the screen in alternative scenes as Ponting uses the differing shades to reflect mood and content. The new soundtrack also adds multi-faceted layers to the on-screen narrative. Turner's score is a mixture of industrial clanking (representing 'soundless' on screen items, such as icebergs) and contextual sound effects (such as the ship's bell on the Terra Nova, the vessel used to ferry the explorers in to the Antarctic). Ponting's on-screen textual narration feels a little twee but it is also very well written and reflects the feelings of a man experiencing the awe of a little-seen part of the world.

The whole package feels like the 'definitive edition' the BFI really want it to be and the historical significance of Ponting's work is impossible to underestimate. That someone was there on the Antarctic shelf at all is remarkable, that someone managed to capture footage like this is incredible. Of particular poignancy is the recreation of Scott and his company's daily routine which gives a glimpse into the ordeal they must have faced during the several months of journeying from their camp to the pole itself and back.

It is tempting at this point to slap a reverent five-stars at the bottom of Ponting's film and label it a classic. It is of course. Such a film-making endeavour will never be repeated and its historical significance is unparalleled. For all that though, parts of it drag significantly. Ponting rather unnecessarily recreated sections of the journey in miniature format. Watching tiny sledges wander over fake polar ice caps at a benign rate is hardly intriguing, much less involving. The lagging run-time of one-hundred and ten minutes is a long time to sit through a silent documentary which, despite its remarkable footage, has been superseded by hundreds of nature and anthropological documentaries in the intervening years. It's a fine film and a fitting monument to the legacy of Scott and his endeavour but its perfection is of a flawed nature, even if this restoration is worthy of significant praise.

Look further...

'it struck me that it demonstrates that there is no need for 3D or any fancy gimmicks to convey drama. All that is required is a staggeringly good story' - Every Film In 2011, 8/10


  1. I never knew this existed. I have read a number of books on Scott and the ill-fated expedition. I was fortunate enough to see Shackleton's silent movie of his Endurance expedition almost 10 years ago on the big screen. Harrowing stuff and well worth reading about if it is your thing.
    I will be looking out for this, it may play in our coming Film Festival.

  2. It's well worth seeing if it does appear there. I imagine the sound would be great to experience on the big screen. Not without its problems but whilst watching it you do get *that* feeling of being in the presence of something absolutely momentous. Never heard of the Shackleton film. I'll have to look into it.

  3. It is called South. Shackelton wrote a memoir of the expedition and named it South as well! Can't re-call the film maker's name off hand but it shows the Endurance being crushed among other things.

  4. I had the opportunity to see this film at a Film Society screening a couple of weeks ago. However, I wasn't very well and the length of the film put me off so I didn't see it after all. Thanks for the review, interesting to read. One point I must make is that the word is superceded or alternatively superseded.

  5. Thanks for the correction Lynn! I imagine the experience in a cinema screening could have been great but the Blu-ray transfer is excellent (as, I imagine, is the DVD) so if you get chance definitely give it a go.