It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, and now my carefully planned schedule has gone completely out of the window, so you’ll have to bear with me until I get myself sorted out again!
Anyway, last week, I went to my first event at the very friendly and welcoming Wakefield Film Society. They screen a variety of (mostly independent) films at the West Yorkshire Police Training Academy, which is where I found myself on Tuesday night. It’s very like a normal college campus except there are car-parking spaces reserved for people with job titles like ‘Head of Fingerprinting’ which made me chuckle.
The film we went to see was Herbert Ponting’s film of the 1912 expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott to reach the South Pole; ‘A Great White Silence’. Those of you who have been here before will recall that my family have something of an obsession with Scott, and up until this point I have resisted being drawn into discussions about it.
(I should perhaps point out that this might contain some spoilers, depending on what you already know about the story of Scott!)
That is, up until Tuesday. The film, silent, but with a music score somewhere between eerie and impossible to listen to, has haunted me for days. It begins in New Zealand, as the ship ‘Terra Nova’, sets off with Scott and his men. There is plenty of footage of dancing and surprising silliness from the crew. The horses, dogs, and supplies are all lifted onto the ship, and we see them leave, waved off by hordes of people along the shoreline.
The footage continues with more filming of the crew, the sea, and as it gets closer to Antarctica, the prow of the ship breaking up the ice on the surface of the water. Upon arrival, filming is split into two main parts. The first is slightly dull footage of penguins and seals, with very anthropomorphised text accompanying it. Lots of ‘Mr Penguin and his wife’ type stuff. I had to keep reminding myself that this was the first ever footage of these animals. We are so fortunate with nature documentaries using cutting edge media to supply us with astonishing images, it is easy to forget both that Ponting was not only the first to film there, but that he paved the way for what is happening in documentary film-making today.
The other part of the footage is far more interesting. This is of the men. We see them going about their duties, collecting scientific samples, training and exercising the ponies and dogs. It has such an air of poignancy and intimacy about it, especially footage inside a tent, of some of the team changing their socks, preparing their pemmican and getting into fur sleeping bags. Later on we see the depot laying parties set off, together with what would become the polar party of Scott, Oates, Bowers, Evans and Wilson. The final footage is of their departure and the musical score is ‘Abide with Me’ as the accompanying text tells their tragic tale.
The story of Scott is well-known. As they reached the Pole, they found that the rival explorer Amundsen had got there first. Although Scott’s expedition was never about a race to the South Pole, it became one in the eyes of the media, and we cannot imagine how they felt upon their arrival to see the abandoned tent of the other party.
It was on the return journey that they all met their end. Evans had an accident and died of a head injury and Oates, succumbing to the effects of frostbite and feeling a burden on the party, walked out of the tent off into the ice, never to be seen again. Bowers, Wilson and Scott himself died in their tent of starvation, exhaustion and cold a mere 11 miles from the depot of stores that would have saved them, after walking (and man-hauling their equipment) for over 800 miles in the coldest place on Earth…
2012 marks the Centenary of this expedition. Over the past hundred years, Scott has been the subject of much criticism and ridicule for his leadership and decision making. Now, it is realised that he was a true hero. The contribution made by this team to scientific exploration is huge, not to mention that of Ponting, whose eleven months spent as part of the team led to the incredible images of this film and over a thousand ground-breaking still photographs taken using glass plates.
Like I said, I have avoided being drawn into the hero-worship of Scott. No longer.