Sunday, October 02, 2011

Bryony Dixon & Jan Anders Diesen: The Race to the Pole (GCM Catalogue introduction)

Bryony Dixon & Jan Anders Diesen (GCM Catalogue): "The Heroic Era of polar exploration is filled with fascinating stories about remarkable men, and the race for the poles is richly described in hundreds of books. But the so-named “heroic era” – broadly from the 1890s to the death of Shackleton in the early 1920s – also coincided with the development of film technology and the rise of commercial cinema. Many polar explorers saw potential in using this new technology as a research tool, and their sponsors saw the huge entertainment value of such a record. As a result there exists a range of films from the polar expeditions of this era, but with the exception of some of the feature-length titles, such as Herbert Ponting’s 90° South (1933) or Frank Hurley’s South (1919), the polar films as a sub-genre have received little attention compared to the written accounts. The – as yet – unwritten story of these films is a rewarding one, with much to tell us not only about the extraordinary achievements of the first polar explorers and their pioneering cameramen, but also about the development of filmmaking and of the Cinema, and even the tastes of audiences and the fortunes of empires and nation states."

"A few years after the production of the first film cameras, the explorer Carsten Borchgrevink took one along on his British Antarctic Expedition in 1898. His main sponsor, a newspaper publisher, wanted to make news films, but the cinematograph, the film reel, and filming skills were not sufficiently developed to capture living images from the polar regions. Our record of this first attempt at making a polar film suggests that it was limited to one scene of the expedition leaving London. The first explorer to succeed in filming in the Antarctic was scientist William Speirs Bruce, leader of the Scottish Antarctic Expedition in 1902-04. Following Bruce’s breakthrough the cinematograph became standard scientific equipment on all polar expeditions, with varying degrees of success, for it was not easy to film in sub-zero temperatures, nor were the unique light conditions of the polar regions easy to capture."

"In 1907-09 Ernest Shackleton almost made it to the South Pole. In his book on the expedition he wrote that they took a moving picture camera “in order that we might place on record the curious movements and habits of the seals and penguins, and give the people at home a graphic idea of what it means to haul sledges over the ice and snow”. Shackleton later used these moving images as illustrations on his lecture tours, and his incorporation of film appears to have been popular: “It was my privilege recently to see these living pictures from Furthest South, and they served largely to intensify my interest in Lieutenant Shackleton’s story. I saw the men engaged at their work and recreations amidst the ice and snow, watched the strange antics of the penguins when disturbed by the whirr of the operator, and in short, enjoyed a brief tour to the Antarctic by cinematograph.” (The Bioscope, 25.11.1909)."

"The attention these animated illustrations received influenced Roald Amundsen to take a camera on his famous expedition to the South Pole, and he used a similar approach in his international multi-media lecture tours, incorporating film footage, music, still images, diagrams, and illustrations. Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the British Expedition, made a similar decision, based on what he had seen of Shackleton’s film, but determined to take a professional photographer and cameraman, which would ensure the highest-quality images and records and attract some much-needed sponsorship from the Gaumont Company, who were developing their newsreel business and had for some years specialized in exploration films."

"This year we are celebrating the centenary of the race between Amundsen and Scott to reach the South Pole. Amundsen won that race; he reached the Pole on 14 December 1911 – Scott arrived there one month later, and died on his return journey. Parts of both of these expeditions were filmed: Amundsen’s amateur footage showing scenes from his triumphant expedition, and Ponting’s record of the British Antarctic Expedition, remade into a milestone narrative documentary film telling the tragic story of Scott and his companions and showing the wildlife and magnificent landscape of Antarctica."

"This programme will screen film footage from the race to reach the South Pole, including the newly restored The Great White Silence from the BFI and Amundsen’s film from the National Library of Norway. We will also show other films from the “heroic age”, including those of the Scottish expedition of William Speirs Bruce, the Japanese Shirase expedition, Shackleton’s last voyage on the Quest, and of course the films of that other great photographer of Antarctica, Frank Hurley – South (1919) and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia’s work-in-progress of Hurley’s film footage from Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1913 Australian Antarctic Expedition (they hope to reconstruct Mawson’s original lecture, of which the film is just one element)."

"Many of the polar films in the programme were originally presented to the public in the form of a lecture with commentary, still images, maps and diagrams, music, film, and even audience interaction. It is the legacy of the lecture format that is the key to understanding the characteristic structure of the stand-alone film versions, and explains the challenges for archivists in restoring films for which there is sometimes no definitive “version”. It also goes some way to explaining why there are all those penguins: a prime requirement from sponsors was to bring back footage of these mysterious creatures. Ponting and Hurley were the first to film penguins in terms of their life-cycle – a small revolution in the form of natural-history filmmaking that we now take completely for granted."

"It is, however, the beauty of the images of Antarctica’s frozen landscapes in these films that lingers, as well as the stories of human courage (not to mention the heroism of the cameramen). On the release of The Great White Silence in 1924 The Times wrote: “One of the greatest achievements of the Kinematograph to-date has been to make Captain Scott’s Expedition imperishable. The story of Scott’s death will, of course, be told as long as the English language is spoken, but it is wonderful to think also that 100 or 500 years hence future generations will be able to see this pictorial record and gaze upon Scott and his comrades trudging over the ice to glorious death. It is to be hoped that Mr. Ponting’s own share in obtaining this record for posterity will not be overlooked.”"

"The restoration of Ponting’s silent film goes a long way to achieving that wish (appropriately, just as his original camera negatives head back to sub-zero temperatures in the BFI’s new vaults), but the great revelation of this programme will be other polar films from the less-well-known expeditions of the Scots, the Australians, and the Japanese, and most particularly the restoration by the film archive in Oslo of the almost-unknown footage of the Norwegian expedition and the man who first reached the Pole, Roald Amundsen."" - Bryony Dixon & Jan Anders Diesen

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