War and Penguins Is No Failed Russian Novel, It's the Odd Tale of Two Falkland Filmmakers
When British filmmakers Cindy Buxton and Annie Price landed near the remote glaciers of South Georgia Island in October 1981, their only neighbors were the exotic creatures they had come to photograph. For six months Cindy, 32, and Annie, 34, the first women ever to work in this desolate Antarctic area, lived alone in a tiny hut nestled below a rolling, snow-capped mountain range. Fighting gale-force winds and subfreezing temperatures, they made daily six-mile treks to film king penguins and the elephant seals that packed the beach like three-ton sardines. Recalls Cindy, who is, among other things, the daughter of a lord and an ex-girlfriend of Prince Charles, “We were totally cut off from the outside world. It was as though we’d entered another century.”
Then the 20th century interrupted with a bang—almost literally. In April 1982, just weeks before they were to return home, war broke out in the Falkland Islands. Buxton and Price learned through a BBC broadcast that the Argentine Army had taken Port Stanley, 800 miles away, and had also overrun the British Antarctic Survey’s radio station in Grytviken, just 15 miles from their camp. At that point, says Cindy, “We could actually hear guns going off and shells exploding.”
The juxtaposition of serenity and war adds spice to the film they made, King Penguin: Stranded Beyond the Falklands, which airs on CBS this Wednesday. Most of Penguin is a straightforward nature film, in which the pair get on famously with curious seals, penguins and albatrosses. Into this serenity the war intrudes like a jolting commercial, as when the women fly a Union Jack while cannons echo beyond the mountains, and when a British petty officer arrives by helicopter to give them pistol lessons. (In an event not shown on film, the women also risked their safety to warn British troops by radio of enemy ships and planes nearby.) In the end they are left unmolested and are evacuated by the Royal Navy aboard HMS Endurance just before the war’s end. “We’ve been asked many times, ‘Would you have killed someone?’ ” says Buxton. “If they came at me with guns or undoing their trousers, then I just might have.”
Nothing in Price’s background prepared her for such an experience. The daughter of a farmer, she grew up in Surrey, the countryside south of London, where she still lives with her mother. Divorced in 1978 after a brief marriage to a British Army officer, she worked for 11 years in London, first as a secretary and later as a wedding photographer. When she first discussed joining Cindy on the film expedition—they had been classmates at a Catholic girls’ school—”My mama thought I’d gone mad,” says Price. “But I can’t imagine opting for marriage and children and a nine-to-five job, unless the most fantastic person came along.”
By contrast, it is no surprise that Cindy chose an exotic career. The fourth of seven children born to Lord Buxton, executive producer of British television’s Survival series, Cindy had been around wild animals since infancy. By 20, she was filming on her own in Africa, where she was once chased up a thorn tree by a hungry hippo. Cindy, who has produced 10 films and written two books, lives in a London flat and also owns a 16th-century stone cottage in Norfolk. Although she dated Prince Charles several times while he was a student at Cambridge (they’re still friends), nowadays she doesn’t have much time for romance with anyone. “It’s difficult to keep a relationship alive,” she says. “You go away for nine months and—poof!—the whole thing is finished.”
Cindy, who had previously worked alone, decided to hire an assistant for South Georgia because of the unusually harsh conditions. Annie was a logical choice. “Whenever one of my films was on television, Annie would write me a postcard,” says Buxton. “So when I got back to London from looking over the Falkland Islands, I called her up for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, and I wanted to see what she was like.”
The two women are already plotting another wilderness escape—this time to Ascension Island on July 7. “It’s a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the South Atlantic, just below the equator,” says Cindy. She hopes the only invasion will be the migrating green turtles making their annual rounds.