Cry of the Penguins (1971)
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Richard Forbush, played by John Hurt, is first shown as a very talented and capable biology student who also happens to be an immature high society philanderer, cad, and a snazzy dresser. He reluctantly accepts a post graduate field assignment to observe the population of Adelie penguins in the Antarctic partly to fulfill his 'debt to science' but more so to impress a beautiful aspiring biology student, Tara, played by Hayley Mills.
After a half hour preamble set in London, we are transported, Lawrence of Arabia style, to the Great White Silence where Forbush sets himself up in a dilapidated scientific outpost built by famed arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton decades earlier. As he waits several days for the penguins to arrive, Forbush yearns for the high life of home, and expresses disdain for the penguins and his miserable plight in the frozen wasteland on their behalf. His attitude changes almost immediately upon sighting the very first lone penguin ambling down the side of a snowy slope. Hundreds of penguins quickly join them, and as the rookery grows Forbush gets down to business and performs all his assigned scientific tasks in a somewhat professional if eccentric manner. The scenes of the penguins and their occasional interaction with Forbush lead to some very endearing and humorous moments.
As time transpires, Forbush finds himself increasingly involved emotionally with the penguins, marveling at their will to survive, watching them care for the eggs and the eventual birth of the chicks. He seems to forget his own self, undergoing a Londonesque transition into an unkempt and disheveled figure among his tuxedoed subjects. His haggard appearance is a marked contrast to the fresh faced chopper pilots who stop by and his college buddy Starshot who visits during Christmas, all of whom fear Forbush is taking the penguins much too seriously for his own good.
Eventually, Forbush's obsession with the penguins' welfare, coupled with the madness brought on by months of isolation, lead him astray. After weeks of watching helplessly as the skuas attack the rookery, destroying hundreds of eggs and killing many chicks, he discards the scientific creed of strict neutral observation and takes action against the predatory birds. His plan, while carefully conceived and exhaustingly executed, is almost laughable and fails miserably. He soon regains his senses, he realizes he was foolish to try and interfere with the pattern of nature that has been going on for thousands of years. His last taped messages to Tara raise questions about his very soul and about humanity's relationship with nature which are relevant even today. By listening to these tapes during Forbush's six month tenure in the wild, Tara keenly senses his maturity as a scientist and as a man.
The documentary aspects of COTP are interspersed throughout the film in the form of lectures at the university and narrations of Forbush's audio tapes and written letters to Tara. These are accompanied nicely by veteran wildlife videographer Arne Sucksdorff's film footage illustrating the concepts being described, somewhat in the style of National Geographic. While not as deeply probing into the penguins' lives as MOTP, viewers of COTP will definitely carry away something educational if they have never seen either movie before (differences in species notwithstanding). The DVD could definitely use a cleanup and better transfer of the source material. With the recent popularity of penguin themed movies in the last 3 years, Cry of the Penguins has sadly been overlooked and forgotten. Penguin lovers owe it to themselves to watch this one.
The title may confuse, but yes they are real penguins!
I suspect that this is one of those films that gave the deskbound money men at the studio many nightmares.
When the producers saw the finished material, it was decided that the opening in London should be completely re-shot, with a different director - Roy Boulting instead of Alfred Viola - and a different leading lady - Hayley Mills (Boulting's wife at the time), instead of an unnamed RADA actress who reportedly did not photograph well. According to Boulting, the reason was that "It presented a ridiculous picture of a character who lived in a swinging London that never ever existed and who was totally artificial, totally unreal and totally unsympathetic." Even though Hurt seems to have agreed at least in part, he was very unhappy about the prospect - understandably so, after the ordeal of the long and difficult location shooting in the Antarctica. Producer Bryan Forbes persuaded him not to quit.
Hurt's feelings about the animals were quite different from his character's. "The penguins were a real pain in the arse. They have all the faults of the human race without the redeeming gift of occasional intelligence. I preferred the predators, greatly admired the skuas. They farm the penguins, taking only a certain percentage of the eggs. The other skuas fish and battle for existence on the mountains in extreme conditions. If you killed off the predators the penguin colonies would become so huge they would probably become extinct. That would be a bad thing for the skuas. There's only one good thing to say about penguins and that is that they taste delicious - fishy, but nice." The film team actually had a few penguins for dinner - with HP sauce.
Several years later, Richard Burton happened to see this film, and it motivated him to suggest Hurt for 1984.
I enjoyed the film more than I expected. I am not a sentimental animal lover, and for scientific subjects, I prefer to watch a documentary or read a book. What I enjoyed about this film is Hurt's tour de force performance, the great location footage (by Arne Sucksdorff), but also the humour and style of the opening (as a fan of British swinging sixties films in general). The machine Forbush builds for his futile fight against the skuas reminded me of the Acme contraptions in the COYOTE AND ROADRUNNER cartoons.
I find it interesting that - probably male - commentators write that Hurt is not convincing as a ladies' man. Judging from the number of - probably female - commentators who fell in love with him in this film (and others such as IN SEARCH OF GREGORY), Hurt's quirky sex appeal seems to have been underused. Pity, but typical, because most of the decision makers in the industry are male.
First of all, the picture and sound quality on this DVD are terrible. While the movie is filmed in color, the part set in Antarctica is just gray, with no blue skies or water even on sunny days. The script is predictable and cliché, too. It is quite interesting to see John Hurt as a young swinger if you've only seen him as old Mr. Ollivander from the "Harry Potter" films, but he's hardly convincing as a lady-killer. Thankfully he does mature as he endures the rigors of Antarctica and falls in love with the penguins.
The second half of the movie is semi-documentary with Forbush's dry, sarcastic commentary adding some humor, but the focus is on him, not nature. We never spend time with or really engage with the penguins because the photography is jerky and rushed. This movie doesn't hold a candle to more beautiful and emotionally-compelling movies like "March of the Penguins;" it's just a low-budget story of a self-centered man who grows up while living among the penguins.