Tarka the Otter is one of the best nature films ever made. It is essentially an animal biopic that uses actual footage of wild otters in the English county of Devon. Gerald Durrell wrote the screenplay, but it includes a lot of unscripted natural otter behavior– which really makes the film work. Gerald Durrell was, of course, the noted naturalist, author, conservationist, and zookeeper who founded the Jersey Zoo, which became rather well-known for breeding endangered species. The zoo is now called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. This film really sticks to letting the otters be otters– as well as incorporating the natural behavior of other species as they deal with challenges from nature, men, and dogs.
And although Gerald Durrell and others associated with the film were certainly beyond reproach, it should be noted that this film based upon a novel by Henry Williamson, whose skill as a nature writer was unfortunately tainted by his unorthodox and quite controversial political views. He was a veteran of the First World War, who was able to find himself again in the English countryside, first in Devon and then at a farm in Norfolk. He became deeply upset that the United Kingdom and the German Empire had been at war and spent much of his energy campaigning against another war with the Germans. Unfortunately, this propert distaste for war clouded his judgment, and he came to admire Adolf Hitler and National Socialism, even joining Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. He never quite changed his mind about Hitler, even when the Third Reich’s crimes became well-known.
Despite this little aside, which I felt needed to be mentioned, the film is truly remarkable.
It is more like an historical narrative about a Eurasian otter that lives in Devon in 1920′s. Many of the threats that Tarka faces in the film are currently illegal in Britain. He has to worry about otterhounds chasing him, but pack-hunting with hounds is currently banned. Otters are currently a protected species, so no gamekeeper in England can legally shoot otters to protect salmon, which was what happened to Tarka’s mother. Futher, steel leghold traps are banned throughout the country, so no otter, fox, or other predator has to worry about being snared as happened to Tarka when he tried to break into the duck coop.
The ceremony and tradition of the otter hunt at the end is also worth noting. There is a strong sense of sportsmanship with the otter hunters, who, ironically, are the only people who actively support the existence of otters in British rivers in the 1920′s. The hunters give Tarka a headstart when tears off down the shallow river– and the hounds obey the whip. The whip is the person who keeps the hounds in line, which is also where we get that same title in congress and in state legislature. Just as the whip keeps all the hounds in line, the party whips in the legislative bodies keep the party members on the party line as best as possible.
The physical endurance of the otterhounds is also on display in the film. They have to be able to run hard up and down shallow rivers and then run long and hard across the countryside. They also have to be very strong swimmers, and they have to be tough enough to put up with an aggressive otter, which has very sharp teeth– you have to have them to catch slippery fish– and is much more maneuverable in the water.
The otterhounds have to be almost like a combination of big game hounds and retrievers. They must have all the traits of a big game hound– good nose, good voice, and very high levels of endurance– and they must be as at home in the water as any retriever or water spaniel. The also have to be fairly hard dogs when they catch their prey, and as we see in the final scene, otters are not the easiest prey for a even a large dog to catch.
A terrier is used to bolt Tarka from a holt. That’s about all a terrier could ever be used for, and as one observes, the terriers follow the hunt. They are used only when the quarry goes to ground. A terrier would have a very hard time killing an otter–unless we’re talking about using Airedales, which are partially derived from otterhounds.
Now, we all knew that otterhounds were used to trail otters and catch them on the run, and we knew that terriers were used to drive them from their holts.
However, the gamekeeper who kills Tarka’s mother has a Labrador at his heels. The film doesn’t show it, but one assumes that the Labrador retrieved the otter after she was killed. Many gamekeepers and rustic sportsmen types used retrievers to hunt otters, even though not all retrievers have the courage to hunt an otter. In the Dutch province of Friesland, a dog similar to the retrievers is the wetterhoun, which is sometimes called an “otterhoun.” Yes, the dogs, which can retrieve shot birds, are also used to hunt otters. And as a result, they are more independent and pluckier than the British retrievers.
This film is part natural history and part human history. The nature cinematography is quite elegant, and the director is able to bring out the characters of the various woodland creatures in a way that allows the audience to relate to them. However, the film still allows the animal to hold onto its basic animality. Tarka is not a human in otter clothing, but he is not the creature that would be portrayed in a natural history film. In those portrayals, the wild creature is presented in a detached manner. Its instincts and life cycle are described; the implications of its individuality are ignored. Such portrayals have their place, of course, but with a creature as intelligent as an otter, it might not truly capture its essence. Those portrayals merely catch its shadows. This film is able to present the otter as a being of the river and sea– a creature that is not human but not solely driven by instinct and its own evolutionary history.
And in the skill in which this film is able to present the Eurasian otter in this fashion, it truly shows its greatness. I saw this many years ago as a child, but watching it now– with all my supposedly adult sensibilities– I now see this film in a different light. I don’t know what the impact of this film was in the United Kingdom, but it makes me feel for the otter in the same way that Farley Mowat made me feel about wolves after watching Never Cry Wolf. It is well-established that Mowat’s work changed the way people all over the world felt about wolves– even if the film and novel are largely fiction.
I know that the wolf has had a better go of it since Mowat’s work ventured into the population, but I am also aware that the Eurasian otter is also on the rebound. It was recently determined that every county in England now has an otter population. Although this film implies that hunting and persecution are the main cause for the otter’s demise in the British Isle, pollution also played an important role in destroying otter populations. Williamson lived before we began to understand that pollution was an important issue. He could see only man’s desire to kill them to protect salmon rivers and trout streams as the main culprit for their demise. Otter hunting could easily be banned in the United Kingdom, but coming up with ways to make the rivers, streams, and coastal waters more pristine requires more thought and more long-term planning. I don’t know if this film had any effect on bringing about the policies that allowed the British otter to rebound, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
I am intentionally not embedding the video of the film, which is currently available on Youtube. I don’t think it will stay up for very long, so I am going link to it in the text at several places. I am closing this post by telling you that this film is worth your time, and here is a final link to Tarka the Otter.