#22. The Great White Silence (1924)

The Great White Silence is just short of two hours long but it took me four days to watch because it’s so boring. Painfully boring. I’m not prepared to totally dismiss it on the basis of its tedium, however, because the last fifteen minutes (a slideshow of excerpts from the diary of a doomed explorer) are disturbing and heartbreaking and inspiring and several other adjectives, they don’t all come to mind, but I’m pretty sure I’ll remember the movie fondly on the basis of that ending alone.

We see in The Great White Silence some beautiful and daring footage of the south pole, a lot of which was probably stunning to an audience of the early 1920s (or maybe not, since the film was a box office failure), but literally none of it even rivals the sort of photography we can pull up on our phones right now. Does this render the footage in The Great White Silence uninteresting? I feel like it’ll sound naive or mean to say yes, but I’m leaning toward yes. Although I guess if you’re looking at all of these images within the context of its time, the reality of these guys’ limitations and the nobility of their intentions and the limits of their experience, then yeah it’s pretty crazy. Otherwise…

Whatever the case: the movie is edited with such obliviousness toward pacing, a total discord between the director’s sense of what’s interesting and the audience’s, that I think the movie is basically a failure. It’s a good story, in parts, but way overstretched, and I don’t think it’s very well-told. For the most part. It’s weird and interesting in that respect, though, because it’s got these flourishes of greatness amid the murk, and so it raises the question of how much greatness needs to reside in an otherwise shitty movie in order for it to be worth your while. Like if a three-hour movie is, for the first two hours, a long chain of poorly-executed clichés, with one hour of pure genius at the end, is it worth your ten dollars? Is a heap of boring shit validated by a kernel of beauty at the bottom?

A lot of the movie feels like a slideshow from an old man's vacation, with commentary. Lots of cutesy by-golly-ain't-it-strange remarks about penguins and shit.
A lot of the movie feels like a slideshow from an old man’s vacation, with commentary. Lots of cutesy by-golly-ain’t-it-strange remarks about penguins and shit.

Honor is a compelling idea at the end of the movie. When the credits roll after that last shot of the cross that marks our explorers’ burial site, I did feel like I had paid homage to these really brave guys by sitting through all that boring filler in the first hour. That said: it could easily be trimmed down to forty minutes. Maybe less. You can tell from the exuberance of the intertitles that the director, Herbert Ponting, is so in love with his footage that, like the parent of a shitty kid, he’s got clouded judgment about how to present it to the world.

But while we’re on the subject of honor, which feels antiquated to discuss, I was drawing a loose comparison, while watching the movie, between what the explorers were doing out in the ice and what I’m doing here, in the Thousand Movie Project – which of course there’s a huge difference in scale, I’m not saying that I’m a fucking Master Explorer, risking my life for science, just that it’s a story about some guys going on a big adventure and, yeah, even though I’m embarking on this Project from the comfort of home and bars and coffeeshops there’s a sense of adventure to it.

Elvis Mitchell's a film, what?, scholar or historian, I don't how those credentials are earned, but he's got a great radio show. Click here to check it out.
Elvis Mitchell’s got a great film show on KCRW. Click here to check it out.

Earlier this week I listened to an episode of KCRW’s The Treatment wherein Jason Segel, in talking to Elvis Mitchell about creativity, says that he often hears people talk about having a great idea for a screenplay like it’s their key to success. Then he downplays the importance of those ideas by saying that the hard part isn’t getting the idea, which can come and greet you on the couch, but rather it’s the act of sitting alone and doing the work. That being discipline is the challenge. Turning down dinner and drink invitations because you need to sit by yourself and write. And people embark on these projects, Segel says, with nothing to buoy their spirits along through the process save for the hope that everything will come together and make sense in the end, that the work will be coherent, and that people will wanna give their time and attention to it. Maybe even their money.

Nice little monologue that captures the wonder and the terror of creative projects. I’m frankly a little nervous about how much time and effort I’ve committed to this Project. It’s been really fun, and I’m sure it’ll continue to be a good time and that I’ll learn a lot in the process, but I haven’t even launched the website yet, at the time of this writing, and I’ve written over twenty essays.

I've at this point written a couple hundred pages for the Project that look just like this.
I’ve at this point written a couple hundred pages for the Project that look just like this.

What if, upon launching it, I accrue no audience after twenty-odd posts? How much of the pleasure that I take from writing is contingent on the idea that an audience will someday read and enjoy it? Shit, how much of it is contingent on an audience just showing up? I’m not sure. I’m working in the White here.


  • The thing about the first 2/3 of the movie being so different is that the filmmaker was working on it before the expedition was over. When Scott and the away team set off for the Pole, they thought everything was going to be just fine – so Scott also told the filmmaker to stay back, because a) he was older and they didn’t think he could hack the trip and b) this way, he could get a head start on editing the film. The whole thing was supposed to be a victorious “hooray for us” kind of thing, and Ponting was going to tack that happy ending on at the end when Scott got home so they could roll it out to celebrate “yay the English were first to the South Pole!”

    Except it didn’t happen that way. When everyone discovered that the mission failed, they decided to release the film anyway, to raise money for the widows and orphans of the people from the mission who died. For whatever reason they decided not to go back and re-edit what came before, and instead just tacked the somber ending onto the existing version.

    I wasn’t as bothered by the slow pace; there was a lot of “Nature documentary beauty shots,” and I just tried to remind myself that “this was the first that many people in England would ever have seen this stuff”. It’s old hat to us, but it would have been fascinating in its day. (Another difference between then and today was with the name they chose for the pet cat – it would have been no big deal back then, but it’s REALLY an issue today….)


    • I was warring the whole time with that idea you mention of how this movie’s intended audience had never seen images like this. Tried to appreciate it on the basis of that, and I definitely admire the accomplishment, but I just couldn’t get my attention totally on board. Kinda like Man with a Movie Camera. Had to watch it twice in order to realize this isn’t ABOUT anything so much as it’s the machinations of a playful guy’s brain as he sets his hand on a new toy. He’s playing with the medium.

      It’s definitely one of those movies, like several from the ’20s and ’30s, where you’ve gotta temper your appraisal with an appreciation for the circumstances of its release, what its audience had seen before and what they were experiencing.

      I hadn’t heard the narrative of its production put so clearly before, though, so thank you for that! Kind of adds to the beauty of the last section that it was totally unplanned. A sudden turn they were forced to take.


  • In addition I should mention that the actual shots were made more than a decade before release, we are talking pre-Birth of a Nation, and then these shots become very impressive.
    I take it you not that much into the old Antarctica expeditions and given that your reluctance is understandable. I had a period where I went into it big time and was deeply fascinated by the drama and the hardships. Sort of an early twentieth century mission to Mars epic. In that light Ponting’s documentary is a very interesting eye witness.


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