Mr Forbush (John Hurt) is a wealthy university student who cares more for the ladies than he does his studies. He doesn't show up to collect an academic award, instead preferring to spend the evening with his latest conquest; the next morning he goes to his usual haunt for a cup of coffee, and meets yet another young woman, student and waitress Tara (Hayley Mills), who he takes an instant liking to. Unfortunately for Mr Forbush, the feeling isn't mutual and Tara shuns his advances no matter how much he pursues her, so what will make her change her mind? Forbush completes his course soon and will be heading off to study animals, but has not settled on where, until his professor (Tony Britton) suggests he head south - almost as far south as it's possible to go...
Written by Anthony Shaffer from Graham Billing's novel, Mr Forbush and the Penguins capitalises on the theory that there's no bird quite as loveable as the penguin, for that is the animal Forbush decides to study. If you have doubts when the professor says that his pupil is an excellent biologist despite his womanising ways, there's a reason for that: all that stuff about life in England was added later to increase the film's appeal, and not even directed by Alfred Viola, who had handled the Antarctic scenes (it was directed by Mills' husband Roy Boulting instead, here uncredited). The outcome of this is that it's a story very much of two halves and you can qute clearly see the join, but the addition of a character building plotline that sees Forbush change his ways is not necessarily the disaster that it might have been.
Forbush realises that his shallow manner is not going to make a good impression on Tara, which is the main reason he agrees to spend most of the year alone with the penguins. He bids farewell to his disinterested parents, tells his friend Star (Dudley Sutton), who is also headed down that way, that he'll see him at Christmas, and is given a St Christopher's medal by a now sympathetic Tara who he plans to see when he gets back, and will send tape recordings of his thoughts to her. And so it's off to the Antarctic, filmed on location amid the bleakly beautiful scenery (with the assistance of documentary maker Arne Sucksdorff), to wait for the birds to arrive. This takes some time, but there's a nice instant when he spots the first penguin appearing out of the whiteness like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.
Around two thousand birds follow and Forbush has company at last, the study becoming his all-consuming obsession as he tags and observes the creatures going about their daily business of making more penguins. He resents having to dissect the odd bird for research purposes, but resents even more the predators that attack the colony, especially the skewers, a type of gull that feasts on the eggs and later the helpless chicks. So involved with his work is Forbush that when a U.S. Navy helicopter arrives to see how he's getting on, he shouts at them for scaring the birds, and you do feel his sense of intrusion. All the while he sends tapes to Tara and she occasionally writes back, not mentioning she has a boyfriend now.
In fact, so obsessed with the penguins does Mr Forbush become that he actually turns into a penguin. Well, not exactly, but he feels like a protective father to the animals and ridding their world of the skewers is his new mission. Having to contend with blizzards that nearly kill him is nothing compared to saving the chicks, and when Star does arrive Forbush doesn't know that it's Christmas already and yells at him for joking that he would serve a penguin or two to his huskies. The isolation of the place deeply affects Forbush, so much so that he forgets his scientific impartiality and even builds a catapult to destroy the attacking gulls. But because of the love story from back home, the plot pulls in different directions which is not altogether unsatisfying but makes you think they'd be better off as two separate films as Forbush effectively redeems himself twice. Hurt remains convincingly dedicated once he reaches the snowy wastes, however. Music by John Addison.