Fourth Way Perspectives

Film Review
The March of the Penguins

Directed by Luc Jacquet

March of the Penguins, Morgan Freeeman, global warming, Gurdjieff, Fourth Way

Over the millennia, every five years in Antarctica the instinct-driven, three-foot-high emperor penguins, which have the most ancient lineage of living penguins, leave their ocean home and, shuffling on small feet or flopping on their bellies for greater speed, wend their way some 70 miles inland through blinding blizzards, gale force winds and temperatures of 70 degrees below zero to their age-old breeding ground. While the destination is known, the constantly shifting ice floes and blizzards make every journey original; new paths must be found continually.

Partners for a Season

At the breeding grounds matchmaking begins, fights ensue, and ritual courtship of dance and song begins. A partner found, the male and female penguin stand silently before one another, their heads bowed in what appears to be mutual adoration, and then mate. When the egg is laid the female transfers it to the male who guards the precious egg and keeps it warm by cradling it on top of his feet. Two months after conception the chick emerges and the male feeds it what he can from his dwindling stomach food supply. Meanwhile, the female makes the return journey to the ocean where she feeds, plumps up, and again makes the 70-mile return journey to feed the new chick. The starving male, who has not eaten for months, now returns to the ocean. With the weather beginning to "warm" and the ice floes cracking and melting, the baby penguin, if it has not become a meal for huge flying petrels or succumbed to the sub-zero temperatures, follows its mother to the ocean where it dives into a watery world it has never known. Should it escape rapacious leopard seals, it, too, will in five years make the journey inland.

The French director Luc Jacquet's March of the Penguins (originally titled March of the Emperor), the second highest grossing documentary film of all time, is a mortality and morality play that stills the mind and opens the heart in a way that even exceeds in wonder and natural spectacle the glorious documentary Winged Migration. To witness these small, black and white two-centered beings pitting themselves against all the great forces of Nature in their drive to preserve their species—the struggle of instinct against the planetary and cosmological laws of Nature—brings an awe capable of evoking a deep religious sentiment in those so disposed.

So it is no surprise to learn that the conservative film critic and radio host Michael Medved sees the documentary as "The Passion of the Penguins." He says the film is "the motion picture this summer which most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing." Others, like Andrew Coffin of the widely circulated Christian publication World Magazine, see it as an argument for intelligent design, the theory claiming that not Darwinian natural selection but a Supreme Intelligence created the Universe. "That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat—and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design."

But director Jacquet says that while "my intention was to tell the story in the most simple and profound way and to leave it open to any reading," he also says, "much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming [and so] we have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them."

Exercising Virtue

Still, the film with its survival story set, as its narrator Morgan Freeman says, in "the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on Earth," and shot amid searing whites of landscape, translucent blues of sky and clarity of air, does readily open to the religious, or the religious gloss as Darwinians would argue. Richard A. Blake, co-director of the film studies program at Boston College and the author of The Lutheran Milieu of the Films of Ingmar Bergman, heartily agrees to a religious interpretation: "You get the sense that these animals—following their natural instincts—are really exercising virtue that for humans would be quite admirable."

Virtue. The word and concept stretch all the way to 500 B.C.E. with Plato and Aristotle and likely before. To live a virtuous life has been a fundamental human aim since the intensification of thought and feeling allowed man to rise above instinctual concerns. Many who attempted to follow a path of virtue soon found themselves floundering on the dilemma of existing, as Mr. Gurdjieff said, as "a two-natured being." As humans we have both a psychic and spiritual nature but also an instinctual sexual nature. The contending of both is the deep subject of human life and drama.

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