At the movies with a birdwatcher

Birds are some of the natural planet’s most watchable creatures. But when was the last time you saw a movie, besides the ornithophobic Birds (1963), that prominently featured them? There have been few and far between. Perhaps it is a good sign. No other species is cruelly collaborative for the sake of art like humans are. If Hitchcock’s absurd premise ever came true, it will be a Jacobian tragedy.

Leaving that aside, let us celebrate the roles they have played in cinema. To kick off this three-part series, here are the strongest performances by various birds of prey.

Kes (1969)

Based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, Ken Loach directed this terrific drama about a kid, who befriends an American kestrel. Set in a Yorkshire mining community, Kes introduces you to the world of Billy Casper (David Bradley).

After encountering a kestrel in the countryside, a tormented teen discovers a passion for falconry. As they grow more trusting of each other, Billy draws the strength from their relationship to find his place as a social animal. It is gut-wrenching to watch because it begins to creep on how fragile their ecosystem can be.

The American kestrel, like Billy, is an underdog. Falconers rely on them to snare smaller birds such as sparrows and starlings. In American Kestrels in Modern Falconry, Matthew Mullenix writes:

“Kestrels are thin-winged, flat-chested, under-powered and lack acceleration compared to Merlins. I say that with much affection for them and with thousands of kestrel kills to prove these are not necessarily damning differences”

Billy does not give a damn about what his family members, teachers and bullies think of him either. David Bradley, das wunderkind, delivers a compelling debut performance as a witty and vulnerable lad. Now, at the age 66, David shows up at public screenings of Kes. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he said, “Please excuse me if you see this shadow walking out at the end”.

Ken Loach has carved a niche for himself by capturing the unflinching perspectives of small-town Britain’s blue-collar workers. His movies are hard-hitting case studies of class politics. In that sense, Kes may not be very different. But its treatment of the bond between boy and bird makes it soar high.

Dharam Veer (1977)

Directed by Manmohan Desai, the boy-meets-girl plot in Dharam Veer is bonkers. A boy (Pran Krishan as Jwala, a jungle warrior) saves a girl (Indrani Mukherjee as Maharani, a princess) from mercenaries during a tiger hunt. She grants him a wish. He asks for her hand in marriage. She agrees and spends the night with him. But an avenging tiger has other plans. The boy ends up grappling with the tiger. They fall off a cliff. The girl returns home. She gives birth to twins. One grows up to be a sociopathic prince (Jeetendra); the other a blacksmith (Dharmendra), who dresses like a dominatrix

The rest of Dharam Veer makes even less sense. However, there is a subplot that may pique the interest of birdwatchers. It involves Sheroo – Jwala’s pet and protector.

Sheroo is a Peregrine Falcon. This bird is reputed to be the fastest raptor, and a loyal steed of human beings. Its prominent role in falconry has its roots all over the globe. During World War II, it was deployed to obstruct homing pigeons. Airport authorities have also used it to scare away problematic birds.

In Dharam Veer, the peregrine falcon is a faithful sidekick of Jwala. It stands by his side when he fights the bad guys. It protects his wife/children when he is not around. There is a scene that needs to be YouTubed to be believed, in which Sheroo rescues Jwala’s baby from the hospital.

If you observe closely, the falcon’s expressions, throughout the movie, indicate a great deal of confusion over the actions of its human associates.

In many scenes, the bird looks angry and bewildered. It looks at Jwala with sort of amazement that is reserved for parents when their kids do something extremely dangerous and stupid.


Maybe the onsite wrangler broke the human-bird communication barrier and explained the storyline to Sheroo.

Ladyhawke (1985)

Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke is an 80s romantic fantasy movie about a cursed therianthropic couple. Etienne (Rutger Hauer) turns into a black-morphed grey wolf by dusk. Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) morphs into a Red-Tailed Hawk at dawn. They team up with Phillippe (Mathew Broderick), a pickpocket, to fight an evil Bishop (John Wood) and end the curse.

It is odd to see Etienne turn into a shaggy black wolf. He has dollish hair. His eyes are bluer than the Adige river where the movie was filmed. Having said that, turning him into a Lhasa Apso would have been the wrong move. When Isabeau transitions into the red-tailed hawk, it seems synchronous. But the close-up shots are so lazy and jarring that its elegance is unrecognizable.

Once the transformation is complete, the hawk looks magnificent. The cinnamon tail-feathers, reddish-brown wings, and speckled breast pop out. Flapping its wings, it embarks on a slow descent. Its natural movements mesh well with Michelle Pfeiffer’s elegant performance.

The hawk was christened ‘Gift’ in the real world. It also made cameos in the TV show – Dr. Quinn before spending the rest of its life at a wildlife rehab center. In 2014, Gift passed away.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Filmmaker Wes Anderson writes beautiful and sad fairy tales about people, who fall in and out of love with each other. In The Royal Tenenbaums, a family tries to be greater than the sum of its peaks and valleys. Among its many colorful characters is Richie (Luke Wilson) – the tennis prodigy and artist.

A heartbroken Richie is in love with Margo (Gwyneth Paltrow) – his step sister. Unable to act on it, he self-destructs. A stone-faced Wilson plays him to perfection. You are convinced this man has nothing to lose. When he says, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow”, you know he is not kidding.

Mordecai is Richie’s pet Saker Falcon. It symbolizes his urge to fly the coop and search for meaning. But it is a one-sided relationship. The bird seems to get nothing out of it. So, once Richie sets him free, the falcon disappears. Midway, it makes a crafty phantom appearance before a noticeable comeback towards the end.

In the director’s commentary, Wes talks on out how this falcon was stolen while shooting. They had to use another bird until they got it back.

The Saker Falcon is a highly skilled hunter. Unlike its Gyrfalcon relatives, it does not stoop from a great height to hunt. Instead, it gives chase through a high-speed horizontal flight. That is pretty much how the Tenenbaums act as a family. They run, head-first, into each other’s problems. But it is their best chance of getting along. After all, a family that preys together stays together.

The Hawk Is Dying (2006)

Paul Giamatti has played a broken man more times than Liam Neeson has played a husband, who gets his family into trouble. Movies like Cold Souls, Sideways, Barney’s Version, and All Is Bright have him moping his heart out. It never gets tedious because Giamatti is a talented actor. He does little things that trick you into emotionally investing in his journey. In Harry Crews’ The Hawk Is Dying, he is George Gattling – the Humpty Dumpty of broken men.

After playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s flightier half in Ladyhawke, the Red-Tailed Hawk returns for a meatier role.

An auto upholsterer by trade, George tries to put together the broken pieces of his life. You do not feel sorry for him because he barely tries. You wonder if he chooses to stay at the bottom of the barrel. His life may suck, but you criticize George for having a bad attitude. His autistic nephew and an injured red-tailed hawk are the only creatures he shows any affection towards.

Following a tragedy, the hawk becomes George’s obsession. Anxious and hopeful, they claw and shriek their way out of darkness. The absence of subtlety in The Hawk Is Dying is off-putting. Its only excuse may be that emo was the new indie in 2006. It also accrues points for giving a bird of prey a more layered character than all the Albanians in Taken trilogy

It cannot be excused, though, for calling its protagonist a red-tailed hawk. The hawk in question is a jackal buzzard – an African species from the same genus. It can only be assumed it was because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the US, which was proposed in 2005 and later came into fruition in 2008.

It said, “You may not use falconry raptors to make movies, commercials, or in other commercial ventures that are not related to falconry”. Non-native birds are not covered. Whether this is a reflection of the American government’s current stance on immigration is anybody’s guess.

The Big Year (2011)

David Frankel’s The Big Year is Hollywood’s take on bird watching. It follows Brad (Jack Black), Kenny (Owen Wilson) and Stu (Steve Martin) as they compete for bragging rights as the birdwatcher of the year. The movie was panned by critics for its weak narrative and ripped apart by birdwatchers for its inaccuracies. The pink-footed geese sighting, in specific, had ornithologists crying foul.

To make it worse, it is hard to shake off the feeling that you are watching the dudes from School of Rock, Wedding Crashers and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The saving grace is the father-son dynamics between Brad and Raymond (Brian Dennehy). Their conversation about the golden plover is a heartfelt call for the undemocratization of beauty.

Dennehy, in particular, is a treat to watch. When Raymond spots a Great Grey Owl, you are happy for him. A man of few words, he puts his arm around his son and chuckles. It is a solid emotional payoff. More importantly, it is a rare flash of authenticity.

The moment is ruined when the computer-generated owl turns its head awkwardly. But you get to experience a little bit of the magic of birding through Raymond’s eyes.

This owl is the largest of its kind. It is tough to see one in the wild. Hence, the nickname – Phantom of the North. But it can locate prey moving two feet below the snow. Basically, you do not find the owl. It finds you. Same goes for The Big Year‘s silver linings.

Birdshot (2016)

Mikhail Red’s Birdshot, in his own words, is about “the pecking order of Philippine society”. His socio-political commentary never outstays its welcome. There are two stories unfolding. The first is based on a true story. It follows a teenager called Maya, who gets into trouble by killing an endangered Philippine Eagle. The second features Domingo, a rookie cop, dealing with a crooked system.

Mary Joy Apostol, as Maya, is a joy to watch. She switches directions whenever you attempt to walk in her shoes. She perplexes you. But you give her a shot because you are willing to bet that deep down she is a good person.

Arnold Reyes (Domingo), and John Arcilla, who plays Mendoza – his corrupt partner, are compelling. They are caught in the undertow of the law. Their relationship is similar to countless others in buddy cop movies. What sets it apart is the triangulation of intensity in their characters. Reyes is in blistering form. He breaks bad with the best of them.

The Philippine eagle itself is a sight to behold. It is the largest living eagle, and a critically endangered bird. As per law, killing it can lead to 12 years of imprisonment.

It is surprising that Maya, a local, was not kept informed by her father, who otherwise seems keen to teach her the art of self-sufficiency. Did Maya shoot the bird despite knowing the consequences? It remains unclear. But one thing is for sure. It could not have happened to a more handsome bird of prey.

Dishonorable Mentions

I have not seen these movies yet. If you have, please drop a comment!

Allah Rakah – the Peregrine Falcon in Coolie (1983)

Fawker – the Peregrine Falcon in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)

Jareth the Barn Owl in Labyrinth (1986)

Hedwig – the Snowy Owl, Errol – the Great Gray Owl, Pigwidgeon – the Common Scops Owl, Draco Malfoy’s Eagle Owl and Percy’s Screech Owl in the Harry Potter (2001 – 2011) franchise

Burrowing Owls in Hoot (2006)

Golden Eagles in The Eagle Hunter’s Son (2009)

Peregrine Falcon in Aloft (2015)

Animated movies

Vultures in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The friendly Owl in Bambi I (1942) and II (2006), and Goliath II (1960)

The Organ Owl and the Umbrella Vultures in Alice In Wonderland (1951)

The cheerful Owl in Sleeping Beauty (1957)

Archimedes – the Screech Owl and the Hawk in The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy, and Dizzythe Vultures in Jungle Book (1967)

Trigger and Nutsy – the Vultures in Robin Hood (1973)

The wise Owl in Winnie the Pooh franchise (1977 – 2018)

Big Mama – the Great Horned Owl in The Fox and the Hound (1981)

Golden Eagle in The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

Hayabusa – the Falcon in Mulan (1998)

Bald Eagle in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

The Owls in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

Red-Tailed Hawk in Rango (2011)

Kai and Tendai – the Peregrine Falcons, Zoe – the Black-Winged Kite, Chief Sekhuru – the African Fish-Eagle and Ajax – the Lammergeier in Zambezia (2012)

Come back for part 2 and 3, and if you like birds as much as I do.

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