Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a 1973 American film directed by Hall Bartlett, adapted from the novella of the same name by Richard Bach. The film tells the story of a young seabird who, after being cast out by his stern flock, goes on an odyssey to discover how to break the limits of his own flying speed. The film was produced by filming actual seagulls, then superimposing human dialogue over it. The film's voice actors included James Franciscus in the title role, and Philip Ahn as his mentor, Chang.
Whereas the original novella was a commercial success, the film version was poorly received by critics and barely broke even at the box office, though it was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Cinematography and Best Editing. The soundtrack album, written and recorded by Neil Diamond, was a critical and commercial success, earning Diamond a Grammy Award and a Golden Globe Award.
As the film begins, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is soaring through the sky hoping to travel at a speed more than 60 miles per hour. Eventually, with luck he is able to break that barrier, but when Jonathan returns to his own flock he is greeted with anything but applause. The Elders of the flock shame Jonathan for doing things the other seagulls never dare to do. Jonathan pleads to stay and claims that he wants to share his newfound discovery with everybody, but the Elders dismiss him as an outcast, and he is banished from the flock. Jonathan goes off on his own, believing that all hope is lost. However, he is soon greeted by mysterious seagulls from other lands who assure him that his talent is a unique one, and with them Jonathan is trained to become independent and proud of his beliefs. Eventually, Jonathan himself ends up becoming a mentor for other seagulls who are suffering the same fates in their own flocks as he once did.
Director Hall Bartlett came onto the project in the wake of a mid-life artistic crisis. Bartlett was not proud of the films he had made in the last ten years, during which he had directed several major critical and commercial misfires—among them, All the Young Men. By this point Bartlett was attempting to make films independently from Hollywood, often with his own money. It was at this time that his then-wife, Rhonda Fleming, had given him a copy of Richard Bach's novella of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. So fascinated was Bartlett by the story that he immediately decided to make it his next feature film; when production began, he declared, "I was born to make this movie."
In order to make seagulls act on cue and perform aerobatics, radio-controlled model aviation pioneer Mark Smith built radio-controlled gliders that looked remarkably like real seagulls from a few feet away.
The film received mainly negative reviews at the time of its release. Roger Ebert, who awarded it only one out of four stars, confessed that he had walked out of the screening after forty-five minutes, making it one of only four films he walked out on (the others being Caligula, The Statue, and Tru Loved), writing: "This has got to be the biggest pseudocultural, would-be metaphysical ripoff of the year." Others used bird-related puns in their reviews, including New York Times critic Frank Rich, who called it "strictly for the birds." In 1978, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was included as one of the choices in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss and Michael Medved.
In his film review column for Glamour magazine, Michael Korda considered the film "a parable couched in the form of a nature film of overpowering beauty and strength in which, perhaps to our horror, we are forced to recognize ourselves in a seagull obsessed with the heights".
The film was nominated for the 1973 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Jack Couffer) and Best Film Editing (Frank P. Keller and James Galloway).
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film was the subject of three lawsuits that were filed around the time of the film's release. Author Richard Bach sued Paramount Pictures before the film's release for having too many discrepancies between the film and the book. The judge ordered the studio to make some rewrites before it was released. Director Bartlett had allegedly violated a term in his contract with Bach which stated that no changes could be made to the film's adaptation without Bach's consent. Bach's attorney claimed, "It took tremendous courage to say this motion picture had to come out of theaters unless it was changed. Paramount was stunned."
Neil Diamond also sued the studio for cutting too much of his music from the film and after his experience with the film, Diamond stated that he "vowed never to get involved in a movie again unless I had complete control." Bartlett angrily responded to the lawsuit by criticizing Diamond's music as having become "too slick... and it's not as much from his heart as it used to be." However, Bartlett also added, "Neil is extraordinarily talented. Often his arrogance is just a cover for the lonely and insecure person underneath."
Director Ovady Julber also sued the film, claiming it stole scenes from his 1936 film La Mer.
Previously only available on VHS, it was released on DVD on October 23, 2007. It was released again on DVD on a manufactured-on-demand (MOD) basis through the Warner Archive Collection June 25, 2013.