The Great White Silence [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (21st March 2022).
The Film

"The Great White Silence" (1924)

The Terra Nova Expedition took place between 1910 and 1913, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the Royal Navy officer looking to observe and explore Antarctica with the challenge of becoming the first man to reach the South Pole. Being the leader of the the Discovery expedition of 1901–1904, Scott had knowledge and experience of the polar south and its conditions to fully equip the British expedition team on the second voyage, which would be a full three years of their lives in the frigid land. Part of its crew was nature photographer Herbert G. Ponting, who would serve as their official documentarian with still photographs as well as moving film, to capture Antarctica cinematically for the first time in history. During their long voyage, Ponting documented the expedition's many challenges and the team camaraderie, which would at times be sent back to Europe with returning supply ships, with the world being able to see what the explorers were doing in silent newsreels. One of the most important and fascinating documentary footage in the early history of cinema, Ponting was able to see and capture firsthand the power and awe of the brutal and desolate landscape, which met with a tragic end.

The ending to Captain Scott's expedition should come as no surprise to many, though it should be mentioned. Scott's team which consisted of five men did reach the South Pole but unfortunately, they were not the first to reach it. Rival explorer Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian expedition team reached the South Pole on December 14th, 1911, just a month before Scott's team arrived at the location on January 18th, 1912. But due to heavy blizzards, frostbite, and insufficient supplies, the five did not make it back. Scott's last diary entry read:

(March 29th, 1912) "Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. Last entry. For God's sake look after our people."

They knew how close they were to the main camp, but it was impossible for them to carry on the journey. Their frozen remains were discovered on November 12th, 1912. Though they were not able to claim to be the first men to reach the polar south, and they had perished in the process, the men became national martyrs and figures of historical exploration, which was also aided by the fact that their journey and their deeds were captured on celluloid and shown to the world. Amundsen may have been the first and he would have many more credits of exploration accolades at both south and north poles, it was the moving image and the mourning for those that perished that cemented Captain Scott and his team's reflection of human endurance for future generations.

Ponting's experience was a grueling one. Although he had gone to various places around the world, there was nothing that could be as challenging as the conditions of Antarctica. With a crew of sixty-five men, it consisted of various scientists, naval officers, so Ponting was quite an outsider, yet as seen in the footage shot, he was an integral part of the voyage and the men were able to cooperate with him and his tasks. There were certain shots in which the men had to properly stage their actions so it would be properly captured on film and look more enticing to viewers who would see it back in cinemas. Quite an accomplishment as in that era there was no way to quickly review the footage shot. He was also able to film the wildlife such as seals, penguins, killer whales and other local animals, in addition to animals that were brought by the expedition team, such as dogs, mules, and ponies that were conditioned to the snowy terrain. (In addition the film shows their pet mascot cat, which had a questionable name that won't be repeated here in writing, but is the reason why the Blu-ray starts off with a note about some of the language used in the film.) Ponting's eye was able to capture some incredible shots with both the moving film camera as well as with the stillframe camera, with everything from the ship on its voyage south to the vast and unexplored landscape. He was considered one of the finest photographers of the era, and all that was taken with the thousands of feet of film would be unlike anything the world had ever seen and is a testament to the importance of moving historical records which otherwise would be completely lost to time.

Ponting looked at the lengthy project as a surefire way to become rich, famous, and a way to invest in future explorations through documentary filmmaking. Unfortunately with the deaths of Scott and four other crewmen, it became a reminder of the dangers of exploring, and weary of future endeavors. In addition, Ponting promised the money generated from the film footage would help the families of Scott and the other men, so sales to news organizations, his lectures featuring clips of his works would mostly go to the families rather than for himself. After seeing documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty's 1922 film "Nanook of the North", it inspired Ponting to similarly create a feature length version of his documentary footage for a new cinematic audience in 1924, using a narrative structure and title cards to fully illustrate the journey, in addition to having some animated sequences near the end to illustrate the final journey of Scott, which was only documented with Scott's diary entries and a still camera they brought along. With the feature length silent film, newly entitled "The Great White Silence", Ponting was able to reach an even wider audience to showcase the footage he had shot over a decade ago with a narrative structure that paid great tribute to the men of the Terra Nova expedition. But again, the film didn't bring massive success, so Ponting did not find himself with major wealth. With the advent of synchronized sound for film in the later part of the decade, Ponting reworked the footage again for a new sound audience. "90 Degrees South" was made by Ponting nearly a decade later in 1933, with Ponting himself narrating over his footage from the expedition, with some rearranged footage, some new footage, and without the aid of intertitles. Side by side the films were completely different in editing but essentially told the same tale but through differing cinematic styles. Whether it was through silent shorts, a silent feature, or a talkie feature, Ponting was able to use the footage he shot himself to reach differing audiences over the past three decades, yet he was unable find financial stability or able to find continued work in documentary filmmaking. He died on February 7th, 1935 at the age of 64.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Terra Nova Expedition, the BFI took on the daunting task of restoring "The Great White Silence" for future audiences, but a major problem lied in the fact that there was no full length copy of the film in existence. The BFI had the original nitrate negatives, acquired in 1940 for preservation. With meticulous research of notes by Ponting and other reference materials, the film was reconstructed from scratch and brought back to new life using analog and digital restoration tools, a new score from composer Simon Fisher Turner, with a beautiful tinted print. With the restored reconstructed version, the BFI first released the film on a dual format Blu-ray and DVD release in 2011. Marking the centenary of the passing of the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in 2022, The BFI is commemorating the event with the release of South & the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration on Film, an incredible collection of early documentaries focusing on the exploration of Antarctica in the early twentieth century. In conjunction BFI has also re-released "The Great White Silence" on Blu-ray, which features the same restoration transfer from the 2011 Blu-ray with some changes in the extras and layout that are explained in detail below.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray


The BFI presents the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. There no longer exists a complete original copy of the film, so the film underwent an extensive reconstruction process by the BFI using materials from the original nitrate negatives more than 9,000ft in length, a low contrast positive print, and a nitrate print held by the EYE Film Institute of The Netherlands. Extensive research was done from Ponting's original notes and surviving film elements for the chronological structure. For the tinting, the original negatives had notes on the leaders of what colors to use for the sequences. For the intertitles, the best looking frames were taken from the original materials, then printed onto film, and then printed several times over to create movement and film grain structure for a "natural" look rather than a static image. With the combination of analog film and digital technology, a faithful reconstruction of the film was completed in 2010. As for the image quality, it is nothing more than stellar. Considering the film's age, the conditions they were filmed in, it's quite a miracle that the visuals look as good as they do. In addition, the film was cleaned and restored to remove damage marks, keep stability, and retain as much of the original image as possible. Film grain is kept and there are no traces of digital enhancement. To note, this is not a new HD or 4K transfer for the 2022 Blu-ray but the same HD transfer from the 2011 Blu-ray release. It looked amazing back then and the transfer still holds up today.

The reconstructed film's runtime is 107:04.


Music LPCM 2.0 stereo (Simon Fisher Turner score)
The original film was silent without a score, but for the 2010 reconstruction, composer Simon Fisher Turner was commissioned to create new musical accompaniment, presented here in uncompressed stereo. For the music, Turner looked to using sounds and instruments that were not in the traditional sense, as the Antarctic was a place where man had not inhabited and therefore would not have the familiar sounds of human inhabitance. There were some use of strings, saws, synthesizers, etc. for the music, as well as the use of ambient and collected sounds for the uniquely alien-like score. There were some use of elements of the era, such as the bell from the ship which is still preserved being rung, plus selections from the grammophone records the crew brought along with them on the journey near the beginning. The stereo track is excellent on the Blu-ray, featuring a spread out sound with depth for a haunting yet beautiful sound to accompany the film's images.


"90 Degrees South" (1933) bonus film (71:43)
With the advent of synchronized sound for film, Ponting created a new documentary film of the Terra Nova expedition by recycling his shot footage with an added introduction by Vice-Admiral Edward Evans and Ponting. In addition, the film features running narration by Ponting rather than intertitles which adds more detail to what was happening on screen as well as the hardships of the crew and the filming process. It may be considered the very first director's commentary track with this alternate version of the film that brought the story back for newer audiences. The image quality here is not as strong as the reconstructed "The Great White Silence". The print here is marred with scratches and speckles all over, with some minor stability issues but the black and white image is certainly sharp and on the watchable side. The sound is also crackly and hissy but thankfully, the BFI have included HoH subtitles for the first time here, as the bonus film was previously available on the 2011 Blu-ray/DVD release but without any subtitle options.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 1.0 with optional English HoH subtitles

Newsreel Items (with Play All) (4:25)
- Cardiff: The Terra Nova leaving harbour towards the South Pole (1910) (0:55)
- Captain Scott and Dr Wilson with 'Nobby' the pony (1912) (0:23)
- Memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral to the Antarctic heroes (1913) (1:27)
- The Terra Nova returns home (1913) (0:48)
- Nation's tribute to Captain Scott (1925) (0:51)

A series of vintage newsreel shorts are presented here from the BFI archives. From the start of the Terra Nova’s journey to its return home as well as the unveiling of the Scott Statue in Christchurch, New Zealand are presented here in silent form without music accompaniment. Note these were originally available on the 2011 BFI Blu-ray/DVD release but only on the DVD in standard definition. They have been transferred in HD for this new release. Some of the shorts have also been embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1

Cardiff: The Terra Nova leaving harbour towards the South Pole

Captain Scott and Dr Wilson with 'Nobby' the pony

Memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral to the Antarctic heroes

"The Sound of Silence" 2011 featurette (13:48)
Bryony Dixon, Jane Giles, and Simon Fisher Turner discuss the construction of the ambient score for the film, the challenges that it brought and the themes they wanted to emphasize using non-traditional instruments as well as using ambient sounds and real sounds from artifacts of the period and more. Note this was originally available on the 2011 BFI Blu-ray/DVD release. The featurette has also been embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1/1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

"The Great White Silence Panel Discussion" 2011 featurette (15:48)
In this on stage panel discussion from May 18th, 2011, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, Kieron Webb discuss the background of the film, about Ponting, and the difficult process of restoring the film. In addition, Simon Fisher Turner talks about how he approached the composing of the score for the film and the challenges in the process. This is an exclusive extra to the 2022 Blu-ray release.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

Location Field Recordings
- Audio Field Recording of Scott's Hut in 5.1 audio (4:40)
- Audio Field Recording of Scott's Hut in 2.0 audio (3:55)

Sound recordist Chris Watson traveled to Scott’s Hut, the expedition station located on Ross Island, Antarctica to record the ambient sound of the space inside, on January 10th, 2010. Two recordings were done, in both surround sound with four microphones as well as a stereo recording with two. Both are presented here, with a still image of Scott in his Den on screen. Parts of the ambient sound recordings were used in the score for the film. Note this was originally available on the 2011 BFI Blu-ray/DVD release.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English LPCM 2.0 stereo without subtitles

A 32 page booklet is included in the first pressing. First is the essay "The Great White Silence" by the BFI's Bryony Dixon, who discusses the history of the expedition and the film elements shot by Ponting and the aftermath. Next is an extract from the 1996 book "I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination" by writer Francis Spufford, which looks at the hearts and minds of the English explorers who risked everything to reach the ends of the world in the early twentieth century. A short biography of Ponting written by Dixon is next, plus restoration notes by the BFI's Kieron Webb, a biography of Simon Fisher Turner with music credits for the score, plus special features information, restoration credits, acknowledgements, and stills. To note, the booklet is nearly identical with the 2011 release, with some differences in the layout and order. In addition there are a few minor text changes, such as "the BFI’s new sub-zero vaults" updated as "the BFI’s sub-zero vaults", and Turner's score for "The Epic of Everest" being mentioned in the newer booklet.

The new 2022 upgraded Blu-ray has some upgrades compared to the 2011 release - the inclusion of HoH subtitles on "90 Degrees South", upgrading the vintage shorts to HD, and including a panel discussion not available on the previous release. The only sad omission is the Discovery Channel produced "Great White Silence - How Did They Do It?" featurette, which looks at the extensive restoration process. It was an excellent featurette and is sorely missed, so collectors would want to hold on to their older release for it.

Other notable extras:

Trailer promoting the BFI Blu-ray/DVD release from 2011

"Ask a Curator: Restoring The Great White Silence" featurette


"The Great White Silence" is a miracle of documentary filmmaking, looking at nature's extremes of the polar south with man's desire to conquer in a tragic yet inspiring outcome. The BFI's reissue is excellent, though it's not particularly an upgrade compared to the 2011 release by including the same transfer and mostly the same extras, though there are some differences here and either release is highly recommended.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A


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