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The Great White Silence is a film from 1924 by Herbert Ponting.

It is a documentary of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, 1910-1912. The expedition, led by Royal Navy Captain Robert Falcon Scott, had hoped to be the first to reach the Pole. Cinematographer Ponting accompanied the expedition as it left New Zealand on board the Terra Nova, headed for the Ross Sea and the Antarctic continent. Ponting's camera documents the enormous glaciers that the ship passes as well as the ice fields that it hacks through, and is sometimes stuck in. There's a lot of attention to Antarctic wildlife, including scenes with seals and killer whales and, naturally, an extended sequence with penguins.

The expedition leaves the ship and unpacks their material for the journey to the Pole, including ponies, dog teams, and motorized sledges with caterpillar tracks that are said to be a forerunner to the tank (tanks being invented just a couple of years later for use in World War I). Ponting did not accompany the teams inland, so crude animation, still photos, and excerpts from Scott's diary are used to tell the terrifying end of the expedition. Scott and the four men who accompanied him reached the Pole only to find that rival explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. Then, on the way back, bad weather and insufficient supplies led to the deaths of all five men. The film ends with a photo of the cairn under which three of the men (two having died earlier) are buried.

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For a considerably more cynical take on Robert Scott, see the 1985 TV miniseries The Last Place on Earth (one scene in that series shows Herbert Ponting rolling his camera, taking this film).


Tropes:

  • All for Nothing: They weren't even the first men to reach the South Pole. Before the fatal journey back in which all five men of Scott's party die, they get to the pole only to discover that Amundsen beat them by a month.
  • Creator Cameo: Ponting obviously spends most of the time behind the camera but appears a couple of times, like in a still photo that shows him on a rig, holding his camera, filming the bow of the ship crashing through ice.
  • Cute Kitten: The Terra Nova had a black cat that the men had trained to jump through their arms. The cat was called, uh, "N***er."
  • Documentary: One of the first documentary features ever made, possibly only proceeded by South, a very similar documentary of Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition. One scene features the men of the polar party demonstrating man-hauling a sledge, pitching a tent, cooking the evening meal, and zipping up in sleeping backs for the night. All four of the people who performed this for Ponting's camera—Scott, Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson, and Edward Evans—died on the way back from the pole.
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  • Dated History: This film reflects the view of Scott and his expedition that held up for nearly 70 years, namely, that Scott was a brave and noble hero undone by bad weather and bad luck. That changed dramatically with the publication of a 1979 book called Scott and Amundsen (later re-titled The Last Place on Earth) which characterized Robert Scott as a bungler out of his depth. According to this view Scott made a series of blunders which led to the deaths of him and his party, including: using ponies that were ill-suited for polar conditions (and getting weak, poor-quality ponies at that) when he had been advised to use dogs, deciding to rely on man-hauling sledges to the Pole instead of using dogs, failing to insure that the motorized sledges would actually work, failing to lay enough fuel and supplies, choosing to take a fifth man to the Pole when they had rationed for four, and not issuing clear instructions for a dogsled party to come to his rescue. Full publication of Scott's diaries have also revealed some pretty unflattering passages, including what can only be described as irritation towards Edward Evans for dying. There has been pushback against this view since, with Scott defenders pointing out that he actually did leave orders for a relief party to come get him (although it was phrased to not be a priority), and Scott falling victim to what was, even for the Antarctic, a terrible blizzard. But even as the issue has continued to be debated, it's basically consensus that Scott's party met with failure and disaster, while Amundsen got to the Pole first and got back alive, because Amundsen's expedition was planned better and led better than Scott's.
  • Everything's Better with Penguins: A long sequence examines penguin life, including nest-building, egg-laying, care of chicks, and social habits. It's very anthropomorphized; one scene has the penguin "wives" calling to their husbands to come home.
  • Fight to Survive: At the end, and one which is eventually lost, as everyone in Scott's five-man polar party dies of exhaustion, starvation, and hypothermia.
  • Hemisphere Bias: A rare aversion. Contrary to most maps or globes that present the direction north as "up", Ponting's Travel Montage maps present south as "up". So the lines demonstrating the expedition's routes crawl up the screen at the beginning and down the screen at the end.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Possibly the most famous Real Life example in history. The film includes Scott's diary entry in which Lawrence Oates, who was too weak and ill and frostbitten to go any further, deliberately staggered out of the tent in the snow to die, in hopes that his sacrifice would enable the other men to make it to One Ton Depot.
    Oates: I am just going outside and I may be some time.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Ponting uses a scene introducing the expedition's Norwegian skis to make an amazingly lame pun about their lack of female companionship.
    "These Norwegian snowshoes, spelled SKI and pronounced SHE, were, alas! the only shes we saw for about two years."
  • Manipulative Editing: Part of the reason that the film comes off as a Sudden Downer Ending is that Ponting edited out or just didn't film all the problems that the expedition had, which finally accumulated to disaster. So no mention is given to how the ponies that are prominently featured were actually of poor quality and too weak, and were soon killed; and the motorized sledges are shown without mentioning that they didn't work in the Antarctic conditions and were soon abandoned. The last supply party of Lt. Evans, Crean, and Lashly is shown departing from the polar party, with no mention of how they nearly died as well, after Evans came down with scurvy.
  • Narrator: The silent version, as Ponting's narration is shown with title cards.
  • Nature Documentary: A good chunk of the film is a nature documentary showing penguins, sea gulls, sea lions, and killer whales, as well as the ice fields and icebergs of the Antarctic.
  • Predators Are Mean: Played out in Real Life in a sequence where the film shows some killer whales stalking a mother seal and its baby seals. It's framed and shot to be suspenseful, until the men of the Terra Nova intervene by shooting a killer whale with a harpoon. The killer whales take flight and the baby seals are saved.
  • Re-Cut: Herbert Ponting, struggling to make some more money from a film that wasn't profitable, eventually made a talkie version with his own narration, titled 90° South.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Baby seals nursing from their mothers, penguins waddling around and looking cute as they always do, and if that isn't enough, a scene showing two penguin eggs hatching, followed by two fuzzy penguin chicks cuddling up under mom.
  • Scenery Porn: Some absolutely amazing shots of giant icebergs drifting by, or Mt. Erebus belching smoke, or crystalline ice caves, or the vast snow-covered plains of the Antarctic.
  • Significant Haircut: The men of the Terra Nova are shown getting haircuts before the boat departs from New Zealand. It's a lighthearted moment but also demonstrates how they are getting serious and getting to work.
  • Snow Means Death: The entire ending sequence in which Scott's polar party is depicted in animation, as little black dots moving over a shot of a vast Antarctic wilderness. Most vivid in the artist's rendering of Lawrence Oates, bent over in the snow and wind, walking away from the tent to die in a Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: Anyone who watched this film when it was first released would have known the story as the Scott and Amundsen expeditions were huge news and Scott became a famous martyr. But a latter-day viewer who isn't familiar with the history may well be surprised. Most of the film is a nature documentary presented in a light, cheerful tone: the sailors marvel at icebergs, the sailors play with their cat, the sailors play soccer, a whole sequence shows cute penguins being cute, dogs romp, snow caves and Mt. Erebus the volcano look beautiful. There's no hint of the disaster to come until the point near the end where Scott's polar party reaches the Pole and finds that they have been beaten to it, as shown in recovered still photos and the famous excerpts from Scott's diary. Then things are very dark indeed over the last few minutes, as Ponting uses animation, artist's renderings, and more excerpts from Scott's journal to recount the suffering and death of the whole polar party. The film ends with a shot of the burial cairn and the memorial cross.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: Apparently British sailors can do it too, as one pretty darn talented seaman does an impressive dance that shows a lot of jumping and heel-clicking as well as the Russian squat dance maneuver.
  • Title Drop
    • A shot of Scott and Dr. Wilson leaving Ponting forever, headed south, is accompanied by a title card saying "Captain Scott and Dr. Wilson formed the rearguard of the long caravan that marched into the Great White Silence."
    • At the end a shot of the memorial cross comes with a title card saying "And this Cross in The Great White Silence is sacred to the memory of England's greatest Polar explorer and his four loyal comrades—whose heroism shall last in the annals of our Race for as long as time endures."
  • Travel Montage: The routes from New Zealand to Antarctica, from the base camp to the Pole, and the fatal journey back, are shown by lines slowly tracing across a map.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The expedition is shown unpacking and starting up the motorized sledges, which after that one scene, are never seen again. In Real Life Scott and his crew discovered that the sledges just didn't work, and quickly gave up on them.
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