In The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry wrote: "The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own nature." When the Whales Came is an English film that powerfully and poetically speaks to the communal dimension of our responsibility to the natural world. It is directed by Clive Rees with a screenplay by Michael Morpurgo from his 1985 novel.
The setting is Bryler, one of the isles off the southwest coast of England, in 1914. Daniel (Max Rennie) and Gracie (Helen Pearce) are best friends in this small community where the struggle to make ends meet is arduous. Daniel's creative spirit and natural curiosity are stifled by his abusive father and an authoritarian schoolmaster. He comes into his own identity when he and Gracie befriend the Birdman (Paul Scofield). This outsider who fled the nearby island of Samson 70 years ago with his mother, knows the tragedy that befell his community after the villagers slaughtered a group of beached whales.
Although deaf, the Birdman finds fulfillment doing wood carvings of animals. He teaches Daniel the art of long looking. And when Gracie's father goes off to fight the Germans in World War I, he provides anonymous gifts of food to her hard-pressed mother (Helen Mirren). The beaching of a whale compels the Birdman and his two young friends to take a stand against the greedy and self-centered instincts of the other villagers.
When the Whales Came speaks softly about the ecological web that draws together all living things on the earth. It is about the courtesy that we, in the spirit of Birdman, must extend to the natural world. And it proclaims the way community can be enhanced when we work together to save rather than take life.