|The classic era of the exploration of the North and South Pole was one which caught the imaginations of the world, which is saying something for in those early years of the 20th Century news did not travel fast, especially not from those extremely hostile locations. Indeed, for many of these excursions the outside world would not know if they had been a success or failure for months, maybe over a year after they had started, either in tragedy or triumph. The most famous of these explorers was the British Captain Robert Falcon Scott, but he was famous not because he beat the odds, but because the odds beat him and he and his men perished.
Indeed, ask who was the first man to reach the South Pole and not everyone will know it was Roald Amundsen, the brave Norwegian who claimed the achievement in 1911, and even fewer know that the Poles were to finally better him when he went missing on a rescue flight in the Arctic in 1928 - to this day, no trace of him has ever been found. Brit Sir Ernest Shackleton, the third of that great trio of explorers, took a different tack, after Amundsen made it to the Southernmost point of the planet, he made up his mind to traverse the entire Antarctic continent, an area bigger than Europe, let's not forget, starting at the "Top" and journeying across the Pole to reach the other end. That he didn't succeed either has given him a curious legend too.
Maybe it is the fact he survived his three expeditions that caused so many to admire him, although admittedly he did pass away onboard ship in 1922 after one mission became too much for him. Nevertheless, one reason these men so obsessed the global public was that they were savvy enough to self-mythologise, and did so by studiously keeping journals and taking a camera crew along with them, knowing the cinemas would be packed out with audiences fascinated by their adventures and, if you watch them, feeling a great draw towards the wildlife. Now, there's not much wildlife in the Antarctic interior, but on the coast there were seals, walruses, seabirds and the all-important penguins, a bird that still exerts a huge interest over a hundred years later.
Therefore quite a lot of the footage on the two BFI sets of South Pole expeditions is taken up with penguins, and the impression is that had they been given the opportunity, the adventurers would have happily given up the chance to risk life and limb going to the Pole, and instead spend their time there with the penguins. This has the effect of humanising these crews, knowing they were as charmed by the cuteness of a penguin as we are today, though in South, the film of Shackleton's expedition in 1919, even cuteness can be overshadowed by the awesome power of nature devouring the Endurance with its unstoppable jaws of ice. The sight of the proud vessel being chewed up by the elements is sobering, and probably only palatable because we are aware the party made it back alive.
In The Great White Silence, the record of Scott's expedition, there is no such comfort. They may start the journey in high spirits, stopping off inevitably to play with those ubiquitous penguins but you will be well aware of how it ended, and anticipating the tragedy throughout. The cameras did not follow Scott and his men to the Pole itself, though they did reach it, beaten by Amundsen into second place a few weeks earlier, but we do see their last moments caught on camera, and we do see the tent Scott and his dying men shared, perfectly preserved in the sub-zero temperatures. Interestingly, this film, which was shown around the world, does quote from Scott's journal and his apologetic words are the epitome of putting a brave face on things, but the film leaves off his most famous quote: "Great God! This is an awful place".
Here are the films and clips on the BFI Blu-ray of South & the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration on Film, which includes a booklet:
Antarctic Expedition: Sir George Newnes' Farewell to Officers and Crew (1998, 1 min) - basically him shaking hands with a bunch of explorers at the dock.
Departure of Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttelton, New Zealand, 1908 (1908, 8 mins) - early footage of New Zealand, concentrating on its trams, and some very posh hats on the ladies.
Nihon nankyoku tanken (1912, 19 mins) - the international version of the Japanese expedition along the coastline of Antarctica, in pretty bad shape but historically important.
Fram's South Polar Expedition (22 mins) - Amundsen's successful mission, where on this evidence everyone had a whale of a time, playing with penguins and seals, and eating the dogs (that isn't included). We have to take it as read the clip of the South Pole wasn’t simply taken slightly inland. But they did make it, there's no doubt of that.
Australasian Antarctic Expedition Films aka The Home of the Blizzard (c1916, 68 mins) - an early international effort, the earliest Australian feature film in existence.
Pathé's Animated Gazette No. 140 (extract, 1911, 45 secs)
South - Sir Ernest Shackleton's Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (Frank Hurley, 1919, 81 mins) - the main feature, with its precious footage that had quite the trip to reach civilisation.
Topical Budget - Dogs for the Antarctic (extract, 1914, 1 min)
Dogs for the Antarctic - Sir Ernest Shackleton's dogs in quarantine at Beddington (extract, 1914, 1 min)
Australasion Gazette - Captain Davis returns to Sydney... (extract, 1917, 30 secs)
The Late Sir Ernest Shackleton Bathing Query (extract, 1922, 2 mins) - Query was a dog, rather than a question.
El Homenaje Del Uruguay A Los Restos De Sir Ernest Shackleton (1922, 11 mins)
Shackleton's Funeral (extract, 1922, 5 mins)
Shackleton South Georgia Birds (1920, 13 mins)
A BFI re-release of The Great White Silence is also available on Blu-ray.