Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Life of Mammals

(UK, 2002)

What are you gonna say about a guy like David Attenborough? What a scamp! He has to be the most egregious camera hog in the world except for Geraldo Rivera, but unlike Geraldo, he’s a class act. He will do anything to get in the shot. We have seen him riding a swimming elephant, squeezing himself into the basement of a gigantic termite mound in Africa, riding a snowmobile above the Arctic Circle in search of polar bears, bouncing along in a zodiac with a blue whale breaching a few feet off the starboard side. He has sat quietly in his own back yard in England to await the arrival of his neighborhood hedgehog, and paddled down the Congo looking for hippopotami and crocodiles big enough to eat a full-grown water buffalo. He has been hoisted high into the jungle canopy in Brazil through the habitats of big creepy-crawlies I don’t even like to think about. At least once in every episode of his nature documentaries he will quietly sneak into an uncomfortable position, whispering to us as the infrared camera records it all, and say something like “Now if we wait awhile, perhaps we’ll see something interesting.” Then he sits there. Fade out; fade in. Maybe it will get dark while he’s sitting. Then some interesting small animal or insect will emerge from its burrow. You half expect to see moss growing on David’s head, or maybe a light dusting of snow. He’ll do anything!

And I’ve come to believe that’s part of the power of his series. Other people have gotten footage as good as his. (In fact, other people find this stuff for him and tell him where to go. Other people bore into hillsides to insert tiny cameras to witness the birth of a platypus.) But it’s that personal touch. Of course, Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin does the same thing, catching and toying with the world’s most venomous snakes, for instance, but Steve Irwin is an asshole. Sir David is an enthusiast, and his brand of breathless excitement has no element of hype in it. He’s civilized, authoritative, and you just immediately like him.

He began with the epic Life on Earth in 1979. It’s wonderful, but he soon seemed to have realized that maybe it was a bit too broad a subject for a series, and since then he’s been breaking life down into its constituent families and doing a series about each of them. We’ve seen The Living Planet (1984) and The Trials of Life (1990) and The Blue Planet (2001) and (I’m pretty sure) The Life of Birds (1998). The Private Life of Plants (1995) is not yet available on DVD in the USA, nor is Life in the Undergrowth (2005), which explores insects, and I’m dying to see it. He has said that the one he’s working on now, Life in Cold Blood, about reptiles and amphibians and due to be completed in 2009, will be his last (he’s 80 now).

The Life of Mammals lives up to the high standards of his work. We all like warm fuzzy things, since we are warm fuzzy things ourselves, and he covers them from the shrew to the blue whale. As usual, he features some things that have never been filmed before, and some things that weren’t even known before, things that have often been discovered as a result of the work of his dedicated teams of photographers. There are wonderful DVD extras about this, about the sort of horrible work that often went into the capturing of these images, with interviews with the photographers, many of whom are women. Their dedication and bravery has to be seen to be believed. Would you go into a pitch-black cave, home of 10 million bats, wade through knee-deep guano, brave ammonia poisoning and histoplasmosis, flesh-eating worms, rabies and a smell that would stun a pig, and do it for ten nights in a row, just to get some footage of skunks groping around, as blind as you are, finding and eating baby bats? Not me.

The last episode was particularly well-done. He has worked his way up to the monkeys and great apes (including homo sapiens, and shows us that they are a lot smarter than we knew even 10 years ago, and their societies are incredibly complex. We’re learning more about them every day, and, to my amazement, they are learning more about us!