Film review: “Winged Migration”

Winged Migration

Winged Migration is an incredible film. It is still available online.

Published Oct. 16, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Filmmaker catches magic of migration.”

2014 Update: People still talk about this movie. It’s still available, online.

By Barb Gorges

Last week, “Winged Migration” made a one-night stopover at the Lincoln Movie Palace.

The film, by French director Jacques Perrin, released in 2001 and then in the United States in 2002, features a cast of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and cranes filmed up close as they make their way through spring and fall migration. Cameras were so close, viewers are able to overhear the birds’ every utterance, as though listening in on airline pilots’ communications.

This was not a documentary explaining migration. In fact, with its occasional subtitles and the ambiance of its cinema club showing here in Cheyenne, it reminded me of watching other foreign films, especially since a majority of the birds featured were not North American.

You know how it is when you watch a foreign film. The subtitles at least give you the gist of the story line, but you know that if the characters were from your neighborhood, speaking your language, you’d get all the inside jokes.

Some of the jokes in this film, for instance the elegant crane that kept slipping and landing on its chin, were broad enough humor to transcend cultural — and species differences.

One of the disconcerting things about foreign films though, is when they portray Americans. The accent never seems to ring quite right. In this case, the flock of Canada geese traversing what looked like Monument Valley desert left us birders in the audience scratching our heads. However, the footage of sandhill cranes along the Platte River was exactly my experience there.

Though I knew I wanted to review the movie, pencil and paper were left at home on purpose. And, as much as possible, I shut down the analytical part of my brain that was looking for information about unfamiliar birds.

This was a movie to enjoy for its ballet of avian performance. One difference between this and TV wildlife documentaries was the relief from constant narration. It was almost all close-ups of beautiful birds in flight moving over (mostly) beautiful landscapes, with occasional touches of ethereal music.

There was a plot. Birds fly north in spring. Then they nest. Later, the narrator, in his thick French accent, explained simply that birds fly south for the winter, to where food sources are still available.

There were the antagonists, the obstacles to success: the hunters, the predators, the fatal accidents and the tar pit in the nightmarish industrial zone. But there was also the deus ex machina, the boy who frees the trapped goose.

“Winged Migration” is by no means a complete exploration of the phenomenon. The movie focused entirely on large species, ducks, geese, cranes and large seabirds, probably because they are easier to find with the camera than a four-inch kinglet.

It did not explain that not all bird species migrate nor even all individuals in migratory species (witness the comfortable geese on our local ponds). The details of migration are not cut and dried, north and south.

If watching the movie has piqued your interest in migration, let me recommend one of my favorite books, “Living on the Wind, Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds,” by Scott Weidensaul, a satisfying piece of literature.

Paul Kerlinger’s book, “How Birds Migrate,” is a very useful and readable reference. You may also enjoy the lengthy review of “Winged Migration” in the October 2003 issue of “Birding,” the American Birding Association’s publication.

What is needed is one of those accompanying coffee table books that give the background on how the film was made and the life history and conservation status of the avian stars. I’m sure, as this becomes a cult classic for birdwatchers, someone will publish one.

Then we’ll learn more about bar-headed and red-breasted geese, and about the gliders, balloons and Ultra Light Motorized aircraft that were used over all seven continents, and the hundreds of people listed in the credits. If you want to film a particular migration between Europe and Greenland, you have to contact the locals to know when and where to find the birds.

Perhaps the DVD version has all that extra information. Sony Pictures has also made “Winged Migration” available on VHS, but really, you can’t fully enjoy the amazing cinematography on any small screen, including the usual cinema multi-plexes. The Lincoln’s huge screen was perfect.

Whichever way you can find it, this is a fabulous 89 minutes of birdwatching. Forget the field guides. Just fly along for the ride.