by Allan Fish
Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the doomed team who tried to be first to the South Pole in 1912. In tribute, my piece on Herbert J.Ponting’s criminally little known documentary released to Blu Ray and DVD in the UK last year.
(UK 1924 108m) DVD2
Great God, this is an awful place
d/w/ph/ed Herbert J.Ponting m Simon Fisher Turner
I believe it was Woodrow Wilson who, upon seeing The Birth of a Nation for the first time, described it as like “history written with flashes of lightning.” Though one understood what he meant, not until now, upon seeing a film shot before Griffith’s film but not seen until nearly a decade after, did I feel something akin to the same genuinely ghostly sensation. The name of Herbert J.Ponting FRGS FRPS FZS is not one generally known today, but he was one of a heroic hardy bunch who trekked to the Antarctic in 1911 on a mission to try and reach the South Pole. Along with him were five fellows who were to make the final push to 90°S; Evans, Bowers, Wilson, Oates and their leader, Robert Falcon Scott.
The public image of Scott a century on has gone through a rollercoaster, from initial praise for his heroism as an embodiment of what made Britain great, to some denouncing him as a bungler who put his men’s fate in unnecessary danger by allowing himself to take such a fatally long route to and from the pole and leaving his rival Roald Amundsen the opportunity to blindside him from an easier starting point. Then there was the 1948 Ealing movie, with John Mills, James Robertson Justice et al allowing their upper lips to be frozen stiff.
And yet just as the expedition and its somewhat optimistically high expectations have to be put in the context of their day, so do Scott’s frailties. Those who criticised him many decades later were doing so with the same sense of inquiry as those who criticised the high command in the Great War, of the senseless sacrifices of the western front, where the elders and betters, as it were, were no longer put on a pedestal and never to be so again. What remains, as Scott himself testifies in his final fateful diary entries, were merely those self-same words and their bodies, testament to the ultimate sacrifice and the unbreakable sense of camaraderie and of the human spirit.
It’s therefore somewhat ironic that, just as Scott had been beaten to it by the Norwegian, so Ponting was beaten to it by Frank Hurley. In the intervening years from 1912 to 1924, Frank Hurley had accompanied Ernest Shackleton on his doomed trip to Antarctica, and the footage had been assembled and shown (as South) soon after Hurley came back from duty photographing the carnage of the Great War. By the time Ponting’s film came out, it seemed a relic of a bygone era, but it had that added touch of undeniable poignancy. While Shackleton himself was not feted to live a long life himself, he returned from the mission Hurley documented. Scott and his party didn’t, thus making the still photos of him and his party at the South Pole before their fatal trek home all the more poignant.
Given the title of the film, The Great White Silence, it may have seemed a propos to exclude a musical soundtrack altogether, but Simon Fisher Turner’s score is largely a success because it’s really a cacophony of sounds and silences punctuated by emotional surges of music, from fading wisps of Madame Butterfly, as if from the lips of a siren luring the explorers to their doom, to a truly tear-inducing use of ‘Abide With Me’ which sinks down into your very soul and tugs at the heart-strings like an accomplished harpist. If one had to concentrate on one aspect, however, it would be the absolutely astonishing visual achievement of Herbert Ponting. Hurley’s South was unquestionably a fantastic achievement, and probably works better as a narrative, but from a natural history stand-point alone, it’s a milestone of film. Here truly was the first forefather of the younger Attenborough, and it’s perhaps appropriate to remember that Scott was one of the great David’s childhood heroes, a pioneer who he would follow, most recently at the age of 83, to the South Pole. Scott would, with Shackleton, influence a generation of schoolboys weaned on tales of Empire. For Ponting, sadly, his footage was hardly seen by anyone, and his future photographic assignments would not be worthy of his talents. He died in 1935, his legacy seemingly forgotten. Thankfully, we can now pay posthumous homage.