Silent cinema was uniquely suited to shooting in extreme conditions. Without worries of sound recording, cameras could be taken almost anywhere a person could, especially in the twenties, as equipment became more portable. But even in the early days of silent cinema, cameras were being hauled all over the world to capture parts of the world most American audiences had never seen and likely never would, except through the cinema eye. It began with the Lumiere “actuality” programs, which took the travel lecture slideshow and transformed them into packages of moving picture postcards and sent them to theaters where everyone could see them. (See Kino’s Lumiere Brothers First Films for a well curated selection of these early travel films.) But that was only a hint at the wonders to come.
That’s a grand introduction to a pair of films that share little more than extreme snowy climes (Antarctica and the wilds of Northern Sweden) and a determination to film in the extreme conditions of said locations, but I use it as a reminder that the silent cinema was far more adventurous in taking cameras to otherwise inhospitable and difficult locations than the subsequent sound era, when the machinery of moviemaking became much more cumbersome. Of course, things changed when lightweight news cameras and, more recently, digital video made it easier to carry cameras into difficult situations, but that was years later. Until then, films like The Blizzard (1923) and The Great White Silence (1924) were the great true-life adventure cinema of the 20th century.
The Great White Silence was completed and released by photographer and cameraman Herbert Ponting in 1924, years after South (1920, documenting the Shackleton expedition), and Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), but the footage itself was shot over a decade before. Ponting was the unit photographer of Captain Scott’s British expedition to the South Pole, a journey that began in 1910 and ended in tragedy. Ponting was a photographer by trade and brought the heavy and cumbersome glass plate system rather than the new film stock, but he also learned to use a movie camera specifically for this project and he brought a documentarian’s eye to the still relatively new format.