Sunday 22 September 2013

Mr. Forbush And The Penguins (Cry Of The Penguins)


Mr. Forbush And The Penguins (Cry Of The Penguins)
1971 UK
Directed by Alfred Viola
Network DVD Region 2

Warning: Sorry for the long lead in to get to the actual review 
on this one, but I had to get this stuff out of my system.

Mr. Forbush And The Penguins is written by the famous Anthony Shaffer (identical twin of Peter Shaffer, apparently) and based on a novel by Graham Billing.

Cry Of The Penguins is what this movie was known as in America... and even then it didn’t get a release over there until a full ten years later than the UK got it (which is why some of the actors and actresses involved have this listed in their IMDB filmographies as coming out in 1981, although one look at just five minutes of it should be able to signal it as a product of the late sixties/early seventies to anyone half interested in the short history of cinema).

I didn’t know about the American title and release date until today... but I did know of the film because it’s always been a lurking presence in my mind since I used to catch snatches of it on television in my pre-teen years throughout the seventies. Back in the dark ages, that is... before the commercial release of video recorders, when you caught what you could catch at whatever time the TV channel in question decided you were going to have the opportunity to watch it... and even then in the wrong aspect ratio.

It’s a film I’ve always had a vague memory of being very impressed with as a child, but one which I have never been able to catch up with properly until now. The timing of which was a bit of a tiny miracle in itself seeing as it was obviously bubbling up in my mind again. I used to check out the listings on Amazon regularly for a while to see if it would ever turn up some day. Maybe I should have been looking for Cry Of The Penguins after all, eh?

The story of this review, though, starts just a few short weeks ago, on Saturday 7th September 2013, at a celebration screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law to mark the completion of a film called Noirish Project, to which I have done the promotional campaign and provided opening credit cards for. After the screening I got together with a bunch of people in a restaurant/bar thingy and had, what I worryingly call in my fear of such incidents... a social situation.

It was a strange day because I had been angry with one of my best friends, Chris B, for about four years now. Four years where I hadn’t been able to forgive him something he’d done to me and, consequently, hadn’t seen him or talked to him for all that time. This was partially my fault too, though, because of being in a bad and suicidal headspace when he did what he did, so it took me four years to cool down again and contact him. Which I did, and I arranged to meet him on a Saturday... forgetting that I had already committed to the director of Noirish Project to go to the aforementioned Down By Law screening. So I met with Chris in a pub for two hours before, so we could hopefully forgive each other, and then I took him along with me to this screening where we met a bunch of cool people at the aforementioned restaurant/bar thingy and had a thoroughly good time. I don’t do well in social situations and tend to stay quiet and characteristically dumb under such cordial hostilities, but the people at this thing were all pretty bubbly and so the “Talky Tawny” part of my personality came out to play and regale everyone with complete nonsense at a substantially energetic rate.

At least that’s how I felt about it anyway.

Present at the event, who I actually talked to, were the great writer/director and co-starring actor of Noirish Project... James Devereaux, the astonishingly lovely, actress extraordinaire Lian-Rose Bunce, who also has a role in the film, the incredible soundscape composer Jay Harris, expressive character actor John Giles and, last but not least, the film's other main co-star, the always hat-worthy thespian and Carry On expert, Mr. Alfie Black. 

Oh, there was also another sexy goddess woman there with fair hair on our table who was properly interested in world cinema, sitting to the right of me, but I never caught her name and so she will have to remain, sadly, un-highlighted in this article.

So there we all were and my friend, Chris B, was regaling a few of these people of the story of the day he met John Hurt at a signing... well met may be the wrong word but it’s good enough for this already interminably long blog post, at least. I chipped in with my... “Oh. I’d love to see Mr. Forbush And The Penguins again but, sadly, it’s never been released on home video, from what I can tell.” Everyone, and when I say everyone I mean, not everyone... just a few people, looked at me blankly. “You know.” I went on, “The one where it’s just John Hurt and a load of penguins.” Glazed eyes and the thoughtful looks of people trying to sugar coat an answer met my outburst. Finally, my mate Chris, being as he’s lost none of the definite lack of panache which has rubbed off from me like an acid eating away at ones subtlety, chimes in with... “Hmm. Yes. Well there’s a reason these films don’t get released, you know.” Which everyone laughed at, including me, because, ha, it was good to see Chris again and be with all these wonderful people. Plus, I always give him an equally hard time about a multitude of minor sins whenever we’re in the same room together.

So that was that evening which was, frankly, one of the better “talking with real people” evenings I’ve had in a very long time when, less than 48 hours later, midway through the following Monday morning, I got a mailshot from Network video telling me that this weeks new release was, yeah you guessed it, Mr. Forbush And The Penguins. I leapt into action immediately and ordered it from Amazon that very evening.

And yesterday it arrived.

As I slowly started to watch it, the film felt odd at first. I can’t remember if I ever, before, saw it all the way through or not. I suspect I had, but even if that was the case, I certainly couldn’t remember the beginning of the movie. Which is a shame because it sets up the arrogance of John Hurt’s rich and privileged title character immediately, by showing him failing to show up for his graduation ceremony because he has been in bed with a gal all night. The cross cutting between the two situations, John Hurt in his apartment and his awaiting graduation ceremony, are used to both highlight his main concerns while also proving you with a name check with who he is. It’s quite nicely done and, although this kind of thing was done a lot more in this era of cinema, it’s not so common these days when big movie studios don’t trust their younger audience to make even the faintest leap in their brains from two sequences without some kind of over defined establishing shot thrown into the mix.

We then go through a nice, comedic half an hour which establishes three very important things about Mr. Forbush. One is that he has a very brilliant mind. Two is he is very rich, spoiled and ultimately rarely interested in anything outside of his fairly small and narcissistic world. Three, the only thing he is interested in is sleeping with a number of attractive young women and this is what gives the movie its thrust. When one of these young maidens, played by Hayley Mills, says “No” in many ways and in no uncertain terms to him, it suddenly becomes very important to him to do something big enough to impress her and attempt to win her heart. Being as he is seen as something of an embarrassing and unmanageable prodigy, he is offered the job of spending 6 months in Antarctica* in Shakleton’s old hut to observe and research the penguins when they arrive back, give birth and attempt to fend off attacks by hostile birds, called skuas, before they leave their cold stomping ground until the next time.

Much to Forbush’s surprise, he ends up accepting the job role, stocking up on Beluga caviar, champagne and the like, just to help get him through those cold, Antarctic days and nights. He says good bye to his friends and relatives, including such character actors as Thorley Waters, Joss Ackland and Dudley Sutton, and its off to the cold climate for him. The fact that he has a girl who is now interested in him is a shrewd move because when he writes letters to her or tapes recordings of himself to send to her in her flat in London, we get to hear his inner thoughts about his lonely life with the penguins and we get to see how he changes.

Yeah, I know. He changes.

Changed by the things he sees in the Antarctic into a more humble and generally warm blooded human being while he is away... a cliche, to be sure, but it’s all done quite well and young John Hurt is a wonder to watch and listen to as the tale plays out and we start to sympathise with the plight of him and his, now beloved penguins. We  see him slowly go mad and when human interaction takes him by surprise, like when Dudley Sutton’s Starshot character, who is entrenched in a similar job somewhere not too far away, in husky and sled terms, drops in for a Christmas celebration (Forbush is unaware, even, that it Christmas)... he almost rejects human company and has to remind himself what it is to be in the land of the living again.

The movie is more than competently filmed, with long looks at the landscape which make up in sheer beauty and desolation what they might lack in shot design. Being as it is, at least on some level, a silent movie for much of it’s last hour (not literally, but certainly metaphorically), it does tend to rely on a lot of montage sequences to get its message across, which is fine actually.... it doesn’t feel too overdone and it’s the best way to solve certain situations and get the right kind of tone across, I think.

Two scenes which stood out in my memory and which I relived again in the movie yesterday were the sequence where John Hurt battles a blizzard (and barely wins, it has to be said) and the ‘almost climax’ of the movie where he builds some kind of elasticated trebuchet device to attack the ‘headquarters’ of the skuas, before sanity finally catches up with him and he once again remembers his place in the great scheme of mother nature, and all who sadly sail in her. Unfortunately, when John Hurt is shouting his heart out at said birds and yelling at them to die, his voice does sound a lot like a Dalek and you can certainly imagine him replacing that word with “Exterminate!” quite easily. Ah well, maybe that may serve him well in the upcoming Doctor Who 50th Anniversary story being broadcast on November 23rd, later this year, in which he plays a “dark incarnation” of The Doctor.

It was great seeing this movie again. I even remembered bits of John Addison’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes irritating, score for the picture, a 40 minute suite of which is included as a maddeningly unsearchable or in any way wind-able/rewind-able extra on the new Network DVD. I can appreciate that anyone who didn’t grow up seeing bits of this on TV back in the seventies may find it a bit clunky and unwatchable in places, but personally I found it a joy to behold and it’s a film which is definitely all about performance. Thankfully, when you get an actor like John Hurt in a role like this, even in his early thirties, before he was properly internationally famous, you really cant go wrong. An actor’s film perhaps... but one which everyone can enjoy, I think.

*I recently found out that Antarctica is the only place on Earth that doesn't have ants. I find this very strange, given its name.

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