Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Race to the Pole II: The Great White Silence

Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Gabriel Thibaudeau, 6 Oct 2011.

CARDIFF: THE SHIP “TERRA NOVA” LEAVING HARBOUR TOWARDS THE SOUTH POLE (Pathé Animated Gazette, GB 1912) DP: ?; 35 mm, 54 ft, 1' (18 fps); from: BFI National Archive, London. English intertitles.
AA: From a heavily used source.

DP: ?; 35 mm, 54 ft, 1' (18 fps); from: BFI National Archive, London. English intertitles.
AA: Good cinematography, from a duped source.

THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (Herbert Ponting, GB 1924) D, SC, DP, ED: Herbert Ponting. 35 mm, 2189 m, 106' (18 fps), col. (tinted and toned); from: BFI National Archive, London. English intertitles.
AA: Sampled this wonderful restoration. The account of the tragic voyage rises to a triumph of the British spirit that built the Empire.

Bryony Dixon (GCM Catalogue): "The race to the South Pole in 1910-12 is a nation-defining story – both for Great Britain and for the then-young Norwegian nation. It is well-known how Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions met their tragic end after being beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen. The subject has spawned a vast literature and has acquired considerable baggage over the hundred years since the events took place, so it comes as some relief to be able to return to the primary sources: the words of the men themselves, the tangible objects, and best of all, the actual film footage taken on the expedition."

"The centenary of the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition of 1910-13 has triggered a range of activities centred on just such authentic material. Essential to this reappraisal is the BFI National Archive’s restoration of another original artefact, The Great White Silence (1924), Herbert Ponting’s film record of the expedition. Scott’s decision to include a professional cameraman in his expedition team was remarkable for its time, and it is thanks to his vision – and to Ponting’s superb eye – that, a century later, we have this astonishing visual account of his tragic quest."

"The film captures the journey to Antarctica on the Terra Nova, the life in camp, the indigenous wildlife – seals, killer whales, and (of course) penguins – and the landscapes and ice formations. Most remarkably though, it captures the men themselves in their happiest moments, preparing for the journey to the Pole, showing how they would cook and eat and sleep in the tent on their three-month walk through the frozen wastes. In one remarkable scene Scott, Wilson, Bowers, and Evans sit around smiling and chatting over the pemmican “hoosh” and demonstrate their reindeer-hide sleeping bags. With the exception of Captain Oates, these were the very men who would form the polar party, and that very tent would become their tomb."

"Ponting of course could not have known this when he left the expedition, carrying his precious films just after the polar teams departed. It had been a remarkable achievement for the veteran photographer, considering the relative newness of cinematography and the intense sub-zero conditions in which he was working. The news of the death of Scott and his party two years later and the huge outpouring of national grief transformed the film from reportage into the document of a legend. After lecturing for many years using his still images and the films, Ponting re-edited the footage – probably inspired by Flaherty’s success with Nanook of the North (1922) – into a narrative of the tragic events, introducing titles as well as incorporating his own stills, maps, portraits, paintings, and animated models to complete the story of the epic journey of the polar team. The treatment of the tragic conclusion to the great venture is unashamedly sentimental, but it is worth remembering that to Ponting the dead men were friends."

"Ponting’s skill as a photographer produced what are, even now, some of the best images of Antarctica ever taken. The writer Francis Spufford imagined Ponting’s delight with the opportunities offered by that mesmerising landscape: “Ponting likes the brilliant, instantaneous smash of candlepower onto ice walls. Shadows flee into crevices, inking shapes far back for the lens. The fissured detail of the ice leaps out in deep relief.” He transferred these skills by steady application and experiment to cinematography. If the results of the BFI’s restoration are exceptional, it is in part because we were able to work from his original camera negatives; the details in the image, barely visible in earlier prints, are now clear and sharp. The individual members of the expedition are recognizable; you can even catch something of their character, which for polar enthusiasts will be a revelation. The constant aim of the BFI’s restoration team was to reproduce the breath-taking effect of Ponting’s carefully ordered tints and tones, with their simultaneously saturated and subtle translucence. Modern technology was made to work hard in order to match the achievements of 90 years ago." – Bryony Dixon

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