When it comes to the films of the silent era, especially the documentaries, there exists a divide of quality with that of reality. Because the films are so old, and shot with such inferior equipment, we can never really grasp how the world looked back then, though we can get a decent idea from watching said films. A true picture of how the world was, back in the dawning days of cinema, has rarely, if ever, come across the eyes of moviegoers and everyday film historians… until now. Until the absolutely breathtaking restoration by the British Film Institute of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence, the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ultimately doomed expedition to the South Pole. One might wonder why this restoration, released in 2011, was also put out on Blu-Ray in addition to standard DVD; surely such an old film couldn’t possibly benefit that much from a Blu-Ray release? Oh, how wrong you would be, dear reader. Oh, how wrong you would be.
While the film is the result of a videographer tagging along on the expedition, and thus the expedition itself is technically the main focus, the real draw and sell here is the continent of Antarctica itself, along with the many animals that make it their home. The film largely succeeds on the absolutely perfect quality of the restoration, which is really something, but the film wouldn’t really be a successful film if it were just a series of pictures. The documentary jumps from story to story, from the disembarking of the ship, the Terra Nova, from New Zealand, to the journey across the Southern Ocean, to their arrival in the Antarctic, and to the various segments detailing the various animals of the continent, before finally getting to the expedition itself; at least, as much of it as had been recorded. Frankly, I’m floored at some of the footage these guys got for the documentary, especially of the men making their way to the South Pole, though with some of the shots of the men returning from the Pole, I suspect that these were miniature recreations. The film is also helped along greatly by the fresh new score done for the restoration by Simon Fisher Turner; very dreamy, but always full of tension, zinging and booming with the appropriate images, and yet it still remained tranquil and quaintly beauteous, especially when regarding the landscape of the continent and its inhabitants.
History, well known history at that, has told us that Scott and the four men he took to the Pole never made it back, falling short 11 miles from a large supply depot, thanks to a blizzard that stopped the men’s progress. This film isn’t about the mystery of what happened to the men; this film isn’t about the destination, and really, it’s not even so much about the journey. It’s about the world the journey took place in; a rarely seen or explored world that is probably as close to an alien land as we are apt to get to on our planet. And still, there is a wondrous beauty to Antarctica that this film successfully captures; yes, I know that there have been several documentaries since that have done the same and better (in particular, a very picturesque one by Werner Herzog), but the fact that all of this was done in the 1910s is frankly astounding, and that the film holds up so well together is even more remarkable. I can see why this didn’t make the initial list; the restoration work is a good half of what made this one as great as it was, but I’m certain of this film’s placement on the list now. It deserves it, and it earned it, and it is one you should definitely make the time to see.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10