Monday, 30 May 2011

'The Great White Silence' review:

We British are very good at turning crushing defeat into heroic victory, whether it's at Dunkirk or the death of General Gordon in Khartoum. But no British colonial folly has ever been so celebrated as the 1910 journey of Captain Robert Falcon Scott - beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, before freezing to death on the trip back - Scott is seen as the very model of an English gentleman and his fate is held up as a fine example of the British character. It is in this tradition that photographer Herbert Ponting's celebratory and romanticised account of the badly managed expedition, the recently BFI-restored 1924 documentary 'The Great White Silence', is best understood.

Ponting was part of Scott's expedition as far as Ross Island, charged with taking the photographs that would then form the basis of a lucrative lecture tour for the explorer upon his return home. He was expected to capture the Captain's heroic return as conqueror of the Antarctic, though the documentary as exists takes a different and more tragic direction. The final third of the film is restricted to Scott's journal entries, as well as an inspired mix of rudimentary stop motion animation, model work and staged pre-enactments of Scott's expedition trudging to the South Pole (filmed before the party made the actual trip). This is a film which, from the off, nakedly hopes to capitalise on Scott as myth - with a telling opening inter-title declaring that the following is a tale of courage which should inspire boys around the Empire. And doubtless it would have done upon its original release, with Ponting's miraculous images rendering our most romantic ideal of the "Age of Exploration" palpable.

Doubtless the original run would have been accompanied by triumphant, patriotic music, but this 2011 restoration benefits from an eerie and atmospheric new score by Simon Fisher Turner. Turner's restrained and haunting soundscape lends the whole enterprise a sort of otherworldly quality - as if we are watching strange men from another planet. It puts a surreal, almost Herzogian slant on things which gives the hundred year old footage renewed vigour. It's also often quite funny. Ponting's film is already rich with comic moments - with shots of sailor's dancing, a performing cat and stills of bewildered looking penguins - but Turner's score gives them all a new lease of life. Turner proves that a silent movie well scored can be every bit as effective now as it was then - in fact I'd wager the film is better now.

Yet even Turner's majestic accompaniment would struggle to lift the material were it not for the fact that Ponting's film feels so very modern to begin with. The best part of the film - in terms of running time and enjoyment - takes the form of a wildlife documentary, which sees us observe penguins, gulls, seals and orcas in their natural habitat. And this is takes the form of something instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the work of David Attenborough. Ponting creates the same narrative as a modern wildlife documentary maker would, asking us to root for a hapless baby seal and its mother as a pod of killer whales closes in. He creates tension and prepares us for heartache as we see that infant struggle to come ashore as its mother frantically tries to push it up onto the ice.

The only anachronism that pulls us out of the moment, and reminds us we're watching antique footage, is the moment's resolution, as the crew of Scott's ship, the Terra Nova (a whaling vessel), harpoons one of the giant mammals and causes the attackers to break away. It's hard to imagine that happening in an episode of 'Planet Earth', but there are many details which flag up cultural changes (for instance, the ship's mascot, a black cat, is called "Nigger"). Also familiar to a modern audience will be Ponting's casting of the animals as little Christian families, with terms like "Mr & Mrs Penguin" or "the husband" used frequently, showing that there is nothing new about the anthropomorphism evident in films like 'March of the Penguins' (2005).

The most eye-catching, modern feature of the film however, is Ponting's frequent reference to the making of the film. He is sometimes seen on-camera himself, walking among the animals, and he often shows several takes of the same incident, allowing us to see how many times a particular set-up didn't go to plan. When watching a seal, he tells us how grateful he was that the "fellow" didn't keep him waiting long before performing the desired action. Better still, after inviting us to see a close-up of the bow of the ship breaking through the pack ice, he pulls back to show us how the shot was achieved - with the filmmaker perched atop a specially constructed wooden rig hanging precariously over the starboard side of the vessel. Ponting demonstrates himself to have been a very fine cameraman, with every frame of the film a beautiful photograph in its own right. His use of a handheld camera was pioneering and one panning shot, as the Terra Nova is buffeted by waves on the sea, sees him afford us an astounding view of the ocean filmed from somewhere up in the rigging.

The film ends with pages of Scott's immortal journal, telling us he and his comrades died like proper, stiff-upper lip Englishman and didn't grumble too much about their "unlucky" fate. Scott wrote that, whatever private misgivings they might have had, morale was always high among the men, who met their fate as esteemed examples of imperial valour. To my mind, these are the writings of a defeated man, once full of hubris, conscious of history and chiseling out his own legend. Even at the time of the film's release in 1924, the heroic ideal was being undermined by the senseless waste of life that was the 'Great War', and now those nineteenth century attitudes - which cast people as the expendable instruments of Empire - seem all the more alien to us. But set to a breathtaking new score and amongst Ponting's gloriously restored images, Scott's tale - and the dubious values of his age - are afforded a new lease of life.

'The Great White Silence' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and has been given a limited release in the UK.

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