The March of the Penguins

Directed by Luc Jacquet | Warner Independent Studios | 80 minutes
Narrator: Morgan Freeman

Lachrymae rerum: tears in the nature of things. Why is it that nature films almost always depress me? Am I alone in this or is there something inherently melancholy about these natural chronicles? On the one hand, the viewer admires and is even awestruck by the splendour of the universe, the patience and ingenuity of the photographers, and the revelation of events he would otherwise never see. But on the other hand, the film, if it is any good at all, invariably serves as a reminder of mortality — of the fragility of life, of the terror of predation, of what seems a meaningless cycle of birth and death, as the sun rises and sets on an indifferent universe. A devout or scientific soul will no doubt see the hand of Providence or Nature in these spectacles of life surviving and triumphing, sometimes against all odds, but a less well formed imagination will recoil against what the Hindus call himsa, the law of tooth and claw, where every creature lives by feeding on another.

I sometimes suspect that the radical decline of the birth rate in Western countries results not from consumerism and selfishness, not from the sexual revolution and feminism, not from Malthusian anxieties about war, famine, and plague, not even from electric lights and TV in the bedroom, but from nature films. For these aim at younger viewers: no danger here of R or X-rated material; you can let the kids watch them and feel you are participating in their education. But what they learn, in addition to the life cycle of animal X, is that “man” threatens the life of all earth’s species, that people not only pollute but are themselves pollution. If you love animals — and what kids do not? — and if you love life, if you love the earth, then at best you can avoid having children and second best have very few. Otherwise you sin against nature. That may be a false reading of the films, but does anyone come away from them inspired to be fruitful and multiply?

This much said, one can only praise Luc Jacquet and the team that made March of the Penguins. Actually, I prefer the original French title, La Marche de l’Empereur, for not all penguins breed this way, only the Emperor, the largest of the family, the most majestic in its struggle to survive. The film depicts a year in their lives. It gets off to a rocky start when Morgan Freeman, the narrator, informs us that this is a story of love. One fears some early Disneyesque sentimentality, some anthropomorphic nonsense synchronised to dippy music that will falsely mask the truth of the events. But on the whole, despite a few such lapses, the script settles down to the events. And these are indeed extraordinary, for this species of penguin, in order to breed, marches seventy miles from the shores of Antarctica to an interior breeding ground where it mates, and then, at 40 below, transfers the single egg from the female to the male. At this point the female marches seventy miles back to open waters and leaves the male incubating the egg through the long night of the Antarctic winter, amidst blizzards and temperatures of 80 below, returning months later, belly full of food, just as the male and the newborn chick are about to starve. She then takes over feeding the chick, while the male, half the weight of what he was when he arrived, commences his round trip to bring more food to the mother and chick. Needless to say, the film ends in triumph, as the still fluffy chicks, just half grown, dive for the first time into the sea. If all this effort isn’t love, then it will have to do until the real thing comes along.

What at first sight seems an insane way to keep the species going, turns out to be extremely practical. Although the film does not explicitly state this, the march takes place over ice, not land. If the penguins did not go so far back on the ice pack, the melting and thinning of the pack in the spring and summer would put the chicks at risk of falling through before they could survive in the water. As it is, the open water comes to the chicks, which by the time they are ready for the first plunge find the open sea nearby, no seventy-mile march for them. Of course, how the penguins unerringly find this breeding ground each year; how a new couple figure out the intricate moves of transferring the egg from the feet of the female, less than an inch above the ice, to the male; how the returning females can find their mates amidst the hundreds of massed birds; and how the returning males can distinguish the calls of their particular chicks — all these phenomena remain among the many mysteries of avian life and the miracles of nature.

Death of course stalks the species. Older penguins die on the trek. Some couples bungle the transfer of the egg. Ferocious leopard seals kill some of the mothers, dooming their awaiting chicks. Other chicks expire before the mother shows up. Then as light and some warmth return to the breeding grounds, a skua arrives, lands near the brood, and starts to feed on the defenceless chicks, the parents seemingly incapable of interfering in the slaughter. As much as we would like to protect the young birds, we must sit there and watch the himsa, trying to remind ourselves that skuas too must live.

Yet I cannot watch this spectacle with indifference, and though I complain about films that anthropomorphise a natural cycle, I naturally anthropomorphise it in my head anyway. I don’t want the egg to freeze; I want Mom to return on time; I want to chase away the Skua and shoot the Leopard Seal. There’s a Frank Capra movie in my head, complete with good guys and bad guys, that I project onto Antarctica. At least in this film, the humans are not the villains. The entire drama takes place apart from human influence, so far apart that the penguins remain indifferent to the cameramen in their midst, none of whom we see until the final credits.

Like last year’s Winged Migration, The March of the Penguins – also a French production – offers more in the way of visual style than scientific information. I would like to know how long emperor penguins live, how often they mate, how many chances they get to beat the odds. But one should not quibble in the face of such extraordinary cinematography under the worst possible conditions. So the tears in the nature of things get stanched somewhat by pride in the human achievement that not only enables us to witness these faraway events in such an anti-human environment but to turn them into objects of beauty.

Apart from being a veteran film reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly praised verse history of American cinema, William Park is an enthusiastic bird watcher.