Saturday, April 12, 2008

Last of the Curlews

Here is a legendary Reed family story about one of my childhood traumas.

It was the early '70s, and I was six years old or so. I sat down to watch an animated TV movie called "The Last of the Curlews," which as I recall was broadcast with sponsorship by Burger King. My mom sat down to watch it with me.

The movie was about an endangered species of bird, the Eskimo curlew. It told the story of one particular curlew who thought he was the last of his kind - until he found a mate. Then, in the movie's climactic scene, a hunter kills the mate. The curlew is left alone again, his species facing extinction.

My mom remembers watching this with me and thinking, as the movie's final scenes began: "Oh no!"

Sure enough, I burst into tears and still remember, to this day, how gut-wrenching that movie was. I've read more about it since then and learned that it was produced as ABC's very first "After School Special" in 1972. (I seem to remember it airing in prime time, but maybe I'm wrong, or maybe I saw a rebroadcast.) It won an Emmy the following year.

You know what, though? I wouldn't wish that movie on my worst boyhood enemy. It may have been realistic, but it was also way too harsh for many kids - definitely way too harsh for me. I think it's telling that I don't ever remember seeing it air again.

Does anyone else remember this movie?

(Photo: Anteaters, Brooklyn, March 2008)


  1. I'm SO GLAD I never saw it. Just reading about it makes me want to burst into tears.

    All the species centered self loathing that's a part of so many nature shows really bothers me. They show animals, make you just love them, then the other shoe drops - the music gets dark and the narrator begins to talk about how awful human beings are, how all these species are going extinct because we're so selfish, etc.

    You're right! Who needs to reinforce self hatred? Jeez.

  2. Even thinking about it now chokes me up. I remember exactly how the female bird looked, lying on the ground with blood on her breast. What a thing to show kids!

    I have to concede that this movie definitely strengthened my nascent environmentalism. I was already really into nature, a faithful reader of "Ranger Rick" and all that.

    But still. Wow. Harsh.

  3. I agree with both of you - there's a sick undertow to most of the nature films that makes you want to stop watching them about twenty minutes before the horrible ending descends on you like doomsday.
    Which is why I love Jacques Perrin's Microcosmos and Le Peuple Migrateur so much. Perrin says: you protect what you love and makes films that make you love nature. No need for the self-flagellation stuff.
    trailer for microcosmos here:
    for Le peuple migrateur here:

  4. Dennis cried a lot when he saw Bambi.

  5. never saw it, never heard of it and can say after reading this I never WILL see it.

    bambi - I still won't go there, I'm traumatized thinking of the impact that film had on me....

    old yeller was another movie that totally did me in as a child

    oh gosh, I'm weepy now!

  6. Oh yeah, both Old Yeller and Bambi were rough for me, too. And Dumbo! And "The Yearling"!

    Gosh, now that I think about it, harsh kids movies are kind of the norm, aren't they?

  7. old yeller, gosh i remember that......


  8. My name is Ricardo - I am an American Citizen but I was born in Brazil where I saw this movie in 1972/73. Today I came back to live in Brazil and I remember well this movie. This is a very sad movie that I saw with my sister when I was 10. It really touched me. This movie is all about the truth. It was rash for kids like me and my sister, but it seems that worked, because we loved animals and after that movie we really became even more animal lovers. Sad for the end. I hope humanity learns from this movie . That farmer had more than one shot to get that bird, we just one shot to save the planet or we'll be the ones to have a movie about...

  9. I, for one, wish I saw it as a kid, but I was way too young to even remember it if I did. I don't think it was any more harsh or graphic than, say, Bambi or Kimba the White Lion of which I thoroughly enjoyed as a child.

    Yes, it's extremely sad, but it was a great movie that I don't think should be missed by anyone. Perhaps, before watching it with your kids, you can prepare them for the sad ending. The only thing I didn't like was that abrupt ending. I wish they would have, at least, left us hopeful that he wasn't really the last and there were other females out there.

  10. I saw the movie and was approx 14 at the time and in the last 8 years I have periodically tried to locate the movie to show some people I know. Too many people go thru life taking everything for granted and masking their feelings. A movie of this nature would wake a lot of people up. If I had my way this movie would be a requirement for everyone because it would definitely touch their emotions in some way that they might strive to do the right thing in their decision making. If anyone knows if this movie is available then please post a followup.

  11. I remember this Afterschool Special all too well as though it just aired yesterday (I was 9 or 10 and am 51 now). I remember completely breaking down at the end. I felt so bad for the male all the way through the film only to get my hopes up when he found the female. I was devastated at the end. I think this movie contributed to my not being able to watch any nature shows as I get very distraught when any animal dies.

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm glad this post reached so many people, and so many remember this film. Even though it was traumatic for me, it was undoubtedly an important message!

    I've never seen it since it aired on TV, and I've never found it available for rent or purchase.

  13. Someone put up the movie on YouTube but it is in 10 minute sections. I viewed recently and it was freaky seeing it over 40 years later. It was really tough seeing that bird die again. Even though you knew the outcome it would still tear you up. How could the individuals responsible for wiping out this species do something like that? Were these birds interfering w/their livelihood?

  14. Ha! Just after I posted that last comment I found the YouTube videos. I wrote about watching the movie again here:

    Thanks for prompting me to look for it again!

  15. Sure do. Started watching a PBS documentary on Ireland tonite & while they were talking about different birds, the curlew was mentioned & "the last of" immediately came to mind. I had forgotten it, but that goes to show how deep an impression it made so many years ago. Horribly heartbreaking, but maybe something more children should have to ponder before they become callus adults. I donno. Harsh, painful, but true & too easy to ignore as an adult.

  16. I remember watching this as a kid on October 4, 1972. The ending was very emotional and sad. By Gregg L. Friedman MD