Recently on the social media I received a clip showing as to how an eagle blinks. Eagles as well as certain other birds like vultures, hawks, falcons, robins etc. have three eyelids. The inner or third eyelid is not visible from outside and is the called the ‘nictitating membrane.‘ This thin and translucent membrane is drawn across the eye for protection and to moisten it while maintaining vision. It also functions like a windshield wiper, sweeping across the bird’s eye from side to side. This keeps any particles from being lodged in the sensitive tissue.
On watching the clip about the eagle’s eyelids, I was reminded of my first movie at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Thamizh Nadu in July 1971. It was Mackenna’s Gold, a 1969 Hollywood film directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif. It was photographed in Super Panavision and in Technicolor by Joseph MacDonald. This movie was the last one to be filmed by him and was released in 1969 after MacDonald’s death on December 15, 1968 at the age of 62.
During our school days, a movie was screened every Saturday. The swimming pool doubled up as an open-air movie theatre with the viewers sitting on the stadium steps, and the screen was placed on the opposite side of the swimming pool.
As a nine-year-old watching an English movie while not knowing the English language at all, you can well imagine my plight. There had been much gossip amongst us cadets about the movie, mainly originated by those who had already watched it. The pre-screening hype was very high and I was anticipating a thrilling experience, though I was a bit scared.
After night fell on the open air theatre, the movie commenced with its opening song – Old Turkey Buzzard – as depicted on the video clip above. The song sequence was shot at Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border. The shot of the vulture’s head and its winking eye scared the hell out of me. I got so scared that I closed my eyes with both hands and placed my head between my knees. When I look back now, it is difficult to define the fear of the nine-year-old and nor could I assign an exact reason for it.
Here the skill of the cinematographer needs to be appreciated. Remember the movie was shot in 1968 with the cameras available then. To capture a vulture’s eyelid with such a precision with those cameras would indeed have been a herculean task. No wonder Joseph MacDonald was the most sought after cinematographer with 20th Century Fox and he filmed over 50 movies with them from 1941 to 1959. It is sad that he never won an Oscar Award though he was nominated thrice.
(Illustration by Sherrin Koduvath)
Back to the movie. Now I was looking down into the swimming pool waters and there it was – the reflection of the screen on the water below. To make matters worse, the movie having been shot in Super Panavision (Cinemascope), the screen covered the entire length of the 25-meter pool. Where ever I looked with my face tucked between my knees, I saw the all too scary image of the vulture’s head. That scared me even further and so I closed my eyelids tightly – luckily we humans have only one set of eyelids.
After about five minutes, I managed to fall asleep only to be woken up by my friends after the show ended. What a relief! I later watched the movie in 1980 while on vacation from the National Defence Academy and made for up what I had missed as a nine-year-old. It was only then that I realised the movie was an all time classic.
- There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
TS Elliot in ‘The Waste Land’