‘Fierce Green Fire’ Takes Viewers on Thought-Provoking Journey of Environmental Tragedies

Sandra Bertrand


A young forest ranger, staring at the grey wolf he had just shot, sees a fierce green fire blazing from the animal’s eyes.  That connection between man and beast became a symbol for Philip Shabecoff’s book chronicling five decades of the environmental movement.   And it was that same book that became the inspiration for the film, A Fierce Green Fire, The Battle for a Living Planet, written and directed by Mark Kitchell.


The subject is so vast that it demands a director up to the task.  No stranger to activist movements, Kitchell created Berkeley in the Sixties, one of the defining protest films of its era, and the winner of many awards, including the the Best Documentary by the National Society of Film Critics.  Undaunted by the amount of research required, the mountains of archival footage to unearth, the spokespersons and narrators—Ashley Judd, Meryl Streep and Isabelle Allende, among others—necessary to make a relevant case for the survival of planet Earth, Kitchell has succeeded brilliantly.  The film unfolds in five acts of issues central to his story, the people and places that have made a difference, bringing us closer to comprehending the incomprehensible.


Swept across verdant plains, punctuated by images of a bald eagle, a running elephant, and in the distance, the black smoke from a factory’s waste—all to the tune of a quickening drumbeat—we are bombarded by images of the beauty and devastation to come.  Robert Redford, a recognized voice on the subject of conservation, starts with a lighter touch.  In the battle of nature versus humanity, he tells us that it “all started with ladies’ hats.”  The Audubon Society, primarily made up of Boston socialites, were intent on saving plumed birds.


However, the main focus—nature versus humanity—goes much deeper than hats.  It’s the Grand Canyon that’s at stake and the courageous battle of the Sierra Club, with David Brower at its head, to stop the Colorado River Storage Project from constructing 15 dams from Wyoming to Mexico.  Activist Martin Litton at 92 remembers it well.  He knew if they didn’t put a halt to the government’s plan, the Canyon’s river would run dry.  “Let’s not be nice,” he demands.  “If you don’t have hatred in your heart, what’s the point?”  Brower launched a huge ad campaign that finally won over the public.  The copy was bold and confrontational: “Shall we flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get closer to the ceiling?” With breathtaking archival shots of the Canyon and its massive rock formations, the Chapel analogy is apt.


After seven embattled years, Congress and Senator Udall were forced to abandon the project and more than a million acres were declared wild by law.  But David Brower was relentless.  Labeled by followers and detractors the “Arch Druid”, he declared the whole world a national park,  stepping down from his leadership post with the Sierra Club.  He went on to start Friends of the Earth, embracing the anti-nuclear movement.  He became, simply, the most famous environmentalist of his time. 


One of the most iconic and moving arguments in defense of planet Earth is delivered by Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog.  He was convinced if NASA could release the first photographs of Earth from space, the public’s perception would be changed in an instant—the life versus death view of a green world juxtaposed with the cold lunar landscape would be transformational.  Those who came of age during the years of the first ventures into space remember the almost spiritual power of those first images. And there’s no question that a documentary on the environment is richer for their inclusion.


Lois Gibbs may not be a name on everyone’s tongues these days, but thanks to the film’s second segment on pollution, we can only hope that denizens of young women feeling powerless to change environmental conditions in their own backyards will make her their role model.  Through her present day on camera testaments and flashbacks to her impassioned, fired-up presence as Love Canal’s principal spokeswoman, we see a Niagara Falls community on the verge of collapse by 1978, living atop 20,000 tons of lethal chemicals dumped by the Hooker Chemical Corporation and, presumably, including residue from the U.S. Army’s own Manhattan Project. 


The evidence against the perpetrators is staggering.  According to Gibbs, 56 percent of the community suffered defects, with children born with three ears, extra fingers and toes.  When she tried to move her son from his elementary school on medical advice, the principal told her he “was not going to move 400 kids because of one hysterical mother.”  Her success with the New York State Health Department wasn’t much better.  As she recounts it, “they think that it’s a random cluster of genetically defective people.”  Driven to desperate measures when the government refused to move the homeowners, Gibbs and a group of other frightened residents kidnapped two EPA representatives, delivering an ultimatum to Washington.  In October of 1980, President Carter paid a visit to Gibbs, insuring that some 900 families would be permanently relocated.


Kitchell focuses briefly on the subsequent grassroots movements that rose up, such as the uncomfortable truth that dumping has continued in places with a high Black populace.  It’s the director’s choice to focus throughout on a variety of individuals in their struggle that gives the film its heart. 



Protest would take many forms, not all of them pretty to contemplate, but the efforts of the Greenpeace campaigns, and Paul Watson’s heartrending attempts to save the whales and baby harp seals from cruel and unnecessary extinction is at the core of Act Three.


Greenpeace’s Rex Weyler, Paul Watson and Bob Hunter went literally into the “belly of the beast” when they set out in 1975 to confront Russian whaling ships.  It’s a slaughterhouse, blood turning the waters red with protestors standing on the prow of their small boat, directly in front of the harpoon shooters.  As the film depicts the grisly details of harpooning, we discover it’s the female to be attacked first, which brings the sperm whales quickly into action and their own demise.  Nothing is spared in the telling.  The camera focuses on a close up of a whale’s eye, while Watson explains the reason behind the killing.  Realizing the Russians were not eating the animals but using the lubricating oil for making intercontinental missiles, he declared he wasn’t interested any longer in saving humans in his efforts, but the whales. However controversial their efforts were to some, a moratorium on the killing was declared in 1982.


The “Going Global,” section describes Brazil’s Amazon as “ground zero” for the environmental movement.  When the country’s generals marched into the forests and the burning began, Chico Mendes became the spokesman for the rubber-tappers and protectors of the trees.  Here, we see the native women feeding the tree choppers, then in Gandhi-like fashion, forming human circles around the trees. 


Mendes and his devoted followers kept up the struggle, but the opposition had their say, creating in the wake of his murder a great martyr.  The faces in mourning on film provide a lasting portrait to his significance.  Though 58 million acres were set aside, the struggle continues—soil farming, logging, and chemical spraying continue to threaten the great Amazon while the spirit of protest holds steady. 


Perhaps Kitchell chose to save climate change for his final act as the facts in our face daily cannot be ignored.  Two voices of particular force are worth mentioning.  James Hansen is the perfect NASA spokesperson for the Greenhouse effect.  His 1970s work on Venus’ atmosphere taught him that the planet had experienced the same fate billions of years ago, enveloped by an atmosphere of carbon dioxide.  He remains a tireless activist against what he perceives as the crimes against humanity and nature on the part of fossil-fuel company executives. 


Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org, is ardent about the need to halt runaway climate change.  Scientists have measured carbon dioxide in parts per million (ppm), with 350 as the highest safe upper limit.  McKibben feels we are dangerously close to that number rising to 800-1000 ppm within a short period and it is our obligation to prevent the unthinkable.  In the words of Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, “the obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”


These eloquent voices among others provide the kinds of information we all need to embrace.  The message, carried aloft by extraordinary images and original music by Garth Stevenson and Todd Beckel Heide, with a score by Randall Wallace, may overwhelm some but hopefully inspire others to act. 


(This First Run Feature opened in March at the Cinema Village in New York and will open this spring across the country, returning to Washington, DC for the Environmental Film Festival hosted by the National Geographical Society.)


Author Bio:
Sandra Bertrand is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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