La marche de l'empereur

Birds are amazing. They seem ubiquitous: everywhere I go, there they are. Even in the desert where I can see nothing but a lizard and dusty tumbleweeds, even there, one or two avian lifeforms will be twittering about. Many birds migrate incredible distances to mate and lay eggs, making even extreme athletes look wimpy by comparison. But the march of the emperor penguins, celebrated in this incredible film, surely ranks among the most extreme feats of all, taking place as it does in the Antarctic winter in an environment so harshly, bitterly cold that there is no other life at all.

The emperor penguins' natural habitat is the icy ocean, and in that watery medium they swim and swoop like torpedoes, swift and deadly as they hunt the small aquatic lifeforms that sustain them, while trying to avoid being eaten in turn by seals and other predators. But annually, from their fifth year of life on, the penguins leave the ocean and march over 100 kilometres inland, onto ice so thick it will never thaw, to mate and lay their eggs.

Now the penguin, as you know, is a rather comical creature, short and stout of body and wing, sporting a smart tuxedo; even this, the largest of the penguins, retains an amusing air. To propel itself on land it has two modes: an ungainly upright waddle on its very short legs, and an ignoble belly-slide, pushed along by claws and flipper-like wings. Thousands of penguins strung out in a long long line utilize both these methods to make their slow but unerring way, over the course of a week, through a constantly shifting terrain back to their traditional breeding grounds. Once there, the huge crowd of birds engages in a cacophonous mating dance, punctuated by much shoving, slapping, and squawking, at the end of which they miraculously emerge standing in pairs, monogamous for the season, intent upon their task of reproduction.

If all goes well, the female lays a single egg. Both sexes have small flap of skin at the base of the belly just above the claws that functions as a kind of pouch in which to shelter an egg. Soon after the female lays one, the male prepares to receive it from her and relieve her of her parental responsibilities for a time, for she has lost much of her body weight and must make the long trek back to the sea to feed if she is to survive.

But this is Antarctica, remember, and the temperatures are horrifyingly, mind-numbingly cold. The egg must be passed quickly between the two; more than a few seconds on the ice and it will freeze, killing the tiny embryo within. And this happens, often enough: we see it in the movie, the egg freezing solid and cracking before the camera's eye. But we also see a successful transfer, the male settling down on the egg perched on his claws, the females setting off in another long line back to the sea.

The males spend months guarding their precious charges in unbelievably severe conditions, huddled together for warmth through the sunless days of deep winter as blizzards rage over them. (A "making of" featurette on the DVD reveals that the filmmakers suffered frostbite after venturing out to film during one memorable storm; they struggled for six hours to return to their home base at the French camp less a kilometre away, and only made it back thanks to a search party sent out to find them.) There is no other life in this harsh environment, and the males do not eat at all as they wait for the chicks to hatch. Once the tiny bodies emerge from their eggs, the chicks remain huddled in the makeshift pouch, taking but one small meal of regurgitated food from their fathers as the small family waits for the return of the now-fattened females. If the female makes it back, she will relieve her mate, who in turn will make his long trudge back to the ocean for food; if she does not return, he will be forced to abandon the chick to its death.

As the little birds grow, the parents take turns watching over them and going for food, until the babies are able to live on their own, huddled together in a grey fuzzy mass as the parents waddle back to the ocean, now thankfully closer because of the spring thaw. Eventually the chicks work up their courage to plunge into the sea in turn; they will live there for four years before they too make the long journey inland to mate, just as the emperor penguins have done for thousands of years.

There is an intimacy and immediacy to this wonderful film that comes in part from the penguins' utter lack of fear of humans, which allowed the filmmakers to get very near the birds. (The featurette shows the filmmakers setting up on the first day about a half a kilometre away from the breeding ground, only to quickly find themselves surrounded by curious birds, come over to check out the new arrivals.) The viewer feels very close to the birds as they sit companionably in pairs, mate, huddle together for warmth as the wind rages, and tend their tiny fluffy charges. Inevitably, this being nature, there is death: older adults faltering alone, unable to withstand another harsh winter; frozen babies still perched on fathers' claws; lifeless young bodies on the snow, distraught parents squawking and poking above. We expect these things in a film like this. Overall, though, the viewer is left with a sense of awe at the perseverance of these amazing creatures, and at the perversity of an evolutionary process that leads to such an extreme mode of adaptation.

This 2005 film was directed by Luc Jaquet. The original French version was narrated by Jordan Roberts, the English version by Morgan Freeman. It won an Academy Award for best documentary feature. Highly recommended.

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