Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Mr. Forbush and the Penguins ( 1971 )

Richard Forbush is a rich young philanderer. He likes to woo girls and wear smart-looking clothes to college. His professor considers him to be one of the most academically brilliant students in his class with "the potential to be an outstanding biologist" but Forbush has little interest in biology, only mating. 

One day, he meets Tara ( Hayley Mills ), the new waitress at his local pub, and, smitten with her, attempts to impress her with tales of how he will go "down the Amazon" and be one of the last men to undertake a great scientific adventure. When his professor offers him the opportunity to live the great adventure by spending six months in Antarctica tracking the population and habits of a penguin colony, he turns it down....until a casual remark made by Tara changes his mind. 

"That's all you are. Wind. Empty wind."

He is aghast that Tara does not succumb to his charms and is downright offended when she calls him "empty wind". He decides to accept the position after all but begins to regret it soon after. 

"It's a grim prospect, all that ice. I don't know how I am going to get back in one piece. I feel rather like poor Captain Oates. Remember what he said when he walked into the blizzard to die,'I'm just going outside and may be some time'"

Within a few weeks, Forbush is dropped off at Shackleton's Hut at Cape Royds with a two-way radio being his only link to the outside world. He is told not to interfere with nature but he grows attached to the penguins he is studying and their plight to survive. After months of watching skuas steal the penguins' eggs, he attempts to destroy them by building a catapult to hurl rocks at them. All is in vain and Forbush comes home realizing that every living creature depends in some way upon every other.

Mr. Forbush and the Penguins, also released as Cry of the Penguins, is not your typical arctic adventure film. Instead of the man-battling-the-elements plot line, this film focuses on how six months spent alone with penguins can change a man. It does indeed transforms Mr. Forbush dramatically. 

John Hurt gives a wonderful sensitive portrayal of the young playboy turned penguin fancier. It is hard to imagine that the man throwing rocks at the invading skuas at the end of the film is the same Mr. Forbush who showed little to no interest in arctic birds at the beginning of the picture. Hurt has such a marvelously silky voice that it is a pleasure to hear him narrate the penguin sequences. Hayley Mills also gives a good performance in what is strangely listed on the credits as a guest appearance. Also in the cast is Tony Britton as Forbush's professor, Dudley Sutton, Thorley Walters, and Judy Campbell.

The production for Mr. Forbush and the Penguins was rather rocky. Alfred Viola, a commercial director, was making his directorial debut when he signed on for the production but mid-way through was dismissed by producer Roy Boulting, who took over directing himself. Boulting also put his wife Hayley Mills in the role of Tara, in place of Susan Fleetwood. Swedish director Arne Sucksdorff flew to the Arctic for location filming and captured some beautiful footage of the penguins in their natural habitat while John Addison ( Tom Jones ) created a compelling score for the film. 

Unfortunately, after all that effort ( and a nearly £600,000 investment ), Mr. Forbush and the Penguins tanked at the box office.  The publicity department mistakenly tried to publicize the movie as a comedy, plastering the posters with corny taglines like "It's not often that 740,000 penguins can help a love affair!" and "the zaniest bunch of birds on the South Pole!". 

If one is looking for comedy, then this film would fall short. In fact, the first 15 minutes are rather a drag. But after the professor hands Forbush his opportunity to become an explorer of old, the film becomes an absorbing blend of documentary and drama. A look into the life of one man and over half-a-million tuxedo-clad arctic birds....quite a novel idea for a film. And speaking of novels, if you want to enjoy this story in print, read Graham Billing's original 1965 novel "Forbush and the Penguins". 

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