Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Chris Palmer has been involved in producing nature documentaries since the early 80s. In his history of the genre Disney’s wildlife films come in for praise and criticism. I know I saw Disney stuff growing up, some of the movies staples of the classroom. My mother’s criticism: Disney cuted up the animals, making up stories and putting words in the animals’ mouths. Palmer agrees with that. He also discusses instances where the Disney filmmakers forced or tricked animals into performing for the camera.

The most infamous example of misleading information in a Disney film involves that scene from White Wilderness in which the lemmings jump off a cliff en masse – or so it appears. … So memorable were these images that even today many people believe that lemmings engage in blindly self-destructive behavior. But the whole scene was fabricated. A 1982 investigation by reporter Brian Vallee of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that Disney filmmakers had forced a few dozen lemmings to run on a snow-covered turntable and even threw some into the sea to create the dramatic scene. … Some species of lemmings do become overpopulated, do migrate in swarms, and sometimes do drown crossing streams, but they never jump off cliffs suicidally.

Lemmings. The narrator of White Wilderness claims that there has long been a legend of suicidal lemmings. Having read the debunking of the Disney version of the “truth,” I wonder how ancient this legend is. Did the Disney filmmakers create it out of whole cloth?

The Urban Dictionary includes a very contemporary definition of lemming, “A lemming refers to a purchase/wished-for-item which results from reading an enthusiastic post about a new fabulous product. Overcome by compulsion, readers follow like lemmings diving off a cliff.”

That gibes with other definitions. Lemmings are creatures who, without thought for themselves, will follow a leader right over the cliff. It ain’t true?

There’s also a Snopes article on White Wilderness, which backs up Chris Palmer and adds a few details. The film’s narration claims the rodents are swimming out to sea, for instance. Snopes says no, the footage was grabbed “in Alberta, Canada, which … has no outlet to the sea. Lemmings were imported …” The water the poor wee critters are bobbing in? A river.

You can watch (or rewatch for the umpteenth time), the lemmings snippet from White Wilderness on youtube.

Let me conclude with a couple lines from a poem I wrote in high school:

Where did you go?
The edge of the world where the sea falls off and the lemmings stop to ponder their fate before plunging.

source: Shooting in the Wild: an insider’s account of making movies in the animal kingdom by Chris Palmer


David Lee Ingersoll said...

I remember that Disney movie. I can't remember if I believed what I watched or not. I'd like to think I didn't but I may be giving the younger me too much credit.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Watch the clip. Believe the Disney!