Sunday, 22 May 2011

the great white silence

I watched Herbert Ponting's film of the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-12 at the cinema today, where Capt. Robert Falcon Scott led the attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. Newly restored by the BFI, the film is certainly worth seeing if you have the chance. It's redolent with an outdated version of English patrioism and heroism, but that is probably to be expected considering this was the officially sanctioned document of the expedition.

But watching it in the light of more recent criticism of Scott's strategies, notably the excellent I may be some time by Frances Spufford, the expedition's use of Siberian ponies and a forerunner to the tank to haul loads looked foolish even before they set out on their journey across the empty continent. The dogs, however, look brilliantly adapted to the task, relishing the work in the way the horses never would. Had they used the dogs to pull the sleds, they'd likely have survived to tell the tale - though perhaps we'd not still be thinking of them had the story had such a banal ending - simply coming second to the Norwegians. Amundsen in many ways deserved to reach the pole first, being less arrogant that he might "conquor" the antarctic wilderness, and humble enough to employ the survival techniques of indigenous peoples of the polar regions, rather than bringing in European style expedition tactics.


One can't help but think, "these men would soon die" when watching the film. Like all old photographs, they're infused with a sense of mortality, but our knowledge of the outcome of the expedition makes the sense of pathos palpable. In the end, they would die stormbound in their tent a mere 11 miles from the safety of "one ton depot". At the beginning of the film as they set sail from New Zealand, they look so strong and potent that failure must have seemed inconceivable to those around them.

What perhaps surprised me more about the film though, was the use of colour filters (not unlike the gel overlays in the 1925 Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera), creating different atmospheres for time of year, quality of light, and location. Even more noteworthy, I think, are the little animated sequences that appear to, at first, be time lapse views from high up of the sleds being manhauled over the Beardmore Glacier, but which soon become clearly made in a studio once Ponting got back home. The're a little comic, with their jerky movements, looking like bizarre dolls house props, but I found them interesting all the same. I was strangely reminded of Sonja Braas' forces series, when looking at these sections.

Sonja Braas, Forces No 10, 2002, c-print behind diasec

I did find the extended footage of the penguins a little tiresome (Werner Herzog truly got it right in Encounters at the End of the World), and their anthropomorphism in Ponting's intercut text/narrative irked a little, but there's no doubting that this is an exceptionally privileged account of an adventure and tragedy made with great skill and beauty.

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