March of the Penguins

A mere 100 million years ago, in the mid-Cretaceous era, Antarctica was a tropical paradise, teeming with life. When things changed and ice covered everything (eventually to a depth of 13,000 feet), every single terrestrial life form died out or departed for better climates, except for one. Yes, the huge, fashionable emperor penguins are alone in truckin’ on, disregarding dark winter nights of ice storms and temperatures permanently way below zero.

So how do they spend their time there, these lovable, dim-witted creatures? The ads for Luc Jacquet’s justly acclaimed new documentary, March of the Penguins, claim it’s "one of the most beautiful love stories on Earth." In fact, however, this stunning film only shows how inefficient and downright stupid Mother Nature can be.

Penguins are cute, they are fun, and entertaining to watch, but when it comes to brains, they are all dressed up in their tuxes with no place to go, intellectually speaking. The march of the film’s title takes place over a 70-mile shuttle between their feeding places and their mating/breeding/nursing ground. The former has thin ice and holes to access fish – absolutely the only food available. The latter has thick, stable ice, all the better for vigorous mating (which they don’t), producing the eggs, and then carrying and keeping the eggs warm – for months.

Now penguins are great swimmers, but as pedestrians, they are only comical, not efficient. Walking over the ice, during the worst of the Antarctic winter, takes many days, and saps their energy. But here’s the main problem: when they are at the mating ground, there is no food there, so after weeks of courting, mating, producing the eggs, all the penguins are close to being starved to death.

The gallant males take charge of the eggs, balancing them on the top of their feet (a pouch would have been too much to ask from the divine design?), and the females make their reverse march, to the fishing holes, spending weeks there. When the females return, the males go on their icy Bataan march to feed. And then this happens again and again and again. For nine months. During storms, the only source of heat for the penguins is each other, as hundreds of them circle the wagons, as it were, covered with snow and ice.

To watch this incredibly masochistic urge to assure the survival of the species in action is both astonishing and rather painful. When the chicks are born, right off the bat, they have to deal with 100 mph winds, sub-zero temperatures, and giant petrels feeding on them. You watch their plight, heart breaking, and hear the cold (yes) statistics: in some years, 80% of the chicks perish before the whole tribe goes on the season’s final march back to the swim holes. Even Morgan Freeman’s superb narration cannot help making this tragic struggle easier to take.

The "love story" designation is prompted by the fact that the penguins are monogamous, although as you watch their romance, it’s hard-to-impossible to recognize individuals. The viewer cannot vouch for the claim that Penguin X is sticking with Penguin Y as they both look exactly like Penguin Z. The surviving chicks, apparently, turn teenagers almost instantly, and ignore or abandon their parents once they get their own fish.

Other than Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration, there has never been a more unusual documentary about animals. Perrin had the advantage of robot craft to provide close-ups of the birds. In the Antarctic, there was no choice but to have (super)humans run cameras, live with the penguins through the winter, for nine months, and yet there is never any sign of life in the film other than the penguins. It’s only during the credits that the film-makers show a few amazing shots of the crew and how they did their work. That story would make a far more exciting and heartening film, perhaps leaving the penguins for credit background shots.

– Janos Gereben


Janos Gereben Janos Gereben From refugee scholarship in Helena, MT, and Atchison, KS, Janos worked his way up from copy boy to the copy desk at the NY Herald-Tribune of blessed memory. When the Trib went under, he worked for TIME-LIFE, UPI Audio, then switched coasts, published the Kona Torch, was a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and taught journalism at UH-Manoa. He received an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, reported from the European political and cultural scene for a year. In the S.F. Bay Area, he worked as arts editor of the Post Newspaper Group/East Bay for 20 years, writes about performing arts and films for the S.F. Examiner, continues writing for the S.F. Classical Voice which he joined when Robert Commanday established this first professional online publication about music and dance. He also participated in the work of CultureVulture in the publication's first years.