La Marche de L’Empereur (‘March of the Penguins’, Luc Jacquet, 2005)

But I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more

There is a profound cruelty to nature. Even humans, though we might bethink ourselves free and independent, are slaves to certain instincts. As usual, animals have it much worse. Take for instance the emperor penguin, who is driven yearly to undertake a grueling march over ice-capped Antarctica to spawn new life.

La Marche de L’Empereur chronicles this journey. Big is the surprise when the trip is undertaken not once, not twice, but many times. It is an elaborate relay race in which the mother and father take turns caring for their newborn on the breeding grounds, while the other journeys back to the ocean to bulk up on food. Then they quickly return to feed their starving family. The trek takes weeks and spans over a hundred kilometers. Many die from exhaustion, starvation, the blistering cold, or because a leopard seal got the better of them. The whole ordeal takes nine months, after which the winter cold makes way for a quick summer of joy and relief. After three months, it’s back to work.

The documentary captures this amazing journey with wonderful footage and a pleasant narration. I watched the Belgian version with comedian Urbanus doing the telling. His voice is full of childlike wonder at the sights, making for a good fit. In the English version it’s Morgan Freeman lending credibility to the proceedings. Despite the beautiful images, the film leaves many questions unanswered. What is the cause for the emperor penguin’s behavior? Why do they do it? The only explanation given is that it’s ‘too dangerous’ to breed near the ocean. But surely this doesn’t necessitate going hundreds of kilometers into the land? The documentary is satisfied merely registering these sights, instead of exploring them. That might be good enough for the children watching, but as an inquisitive adult I felt an opportunity having gone to waste.

My own idea is that it’s a cruel trick of nature. The breeding grounds, which have been used for thousands of years, might once have been relatively close to the ocean. But centuries of shifting land could have pushed it further and further into the continent. Since the instinct to return there is hardwired, the penguins had no choice but to evolve to endure longer and longer journeys, thus eventually creating this bizarre dance of death. Of course, I’m no biologist and it’s just an amateur’s speculation. I wish there was some documentary about penguins that could explain it to me.

Regardless, this is a most pleasant tale of animal survival. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting to see the struggles of this colony of birds. It’s equally soothing to be surrounded by wintry landscapes and beautiful skies. It’s life and nature, in all their beauty and cruelty.

Roderick Leeuwenhart