Although it is derived from a book, "A Whale for the Killing," ABC's Sunday Night Movie, really is based on a bumper sticker: "Save the Whales." It lacks that succinct if sappy kind of punch, however; the film, at 8 on Channel 7, is three hours of creaky treacle and slushed-up sentimentality.
It isn't bad beyond belief, but only because television has so broadened the boundaries of the believably bad. Peter Strauss, an insufferable prig even in two-hour doses, plays a bullheaded architect who takes it upon himself to protect a trapped whale that Newfoundland villagers want to kill for the $30,000 in revenue it will bring to their community.
Of course the villagers are epitomized by sadistic, vicious ghouls who really want to bump off old Moby just to be mean.And naturally the architect is rebuffed by the unfeeling bureaucratic clods he appeals to for help.
Soon one foolish turn has led to another and there is Strauss in the water cuddling a prop whale that looks like an oversized bathtub toy, and marveling later than "I never expected . . . that she'd want me to touch her . . . It was as if she cried out for me to touch her."
The old story: boy meets whale, whale cries out for him to touch her, boy declares grandly "I'm going to save that whale." Hold it, Peter -- it sounds like you've got a bumper sticker in the making there!
Strauss, to judge from his self-aggrandizing testimonials on talk shows, won't take any roles now that don't put him squarely on the side of the goody-two-shoeses and demonstratively bleeding hearts. In his last film, "Jericho Mile," he played a convict so righteous that you felt guilty for never having spent a few years in the slammer.
In "Whale," he's almost all alone against the cold, cruel world, though he does have the assistance of Richard Widmark, as a crusty old coot meant to embody the salt-of-the-earth side of small-town life. He's rarely strayed from this little village, he tells an adoringly attentive Strauss, because -- get this -- "It's where Yesterday meets Today. It's like you and me, son; I'm near midnight, you're just dawnin.'" Actually, Widmark looks closer to 3 a.m. and Strauss has surely passed noon.
Lionel Chetwynd wrote the script, more rib-tickling than heart-tugging, from an ecological treatise by Farley Mowat, and Richard T. Heffron directed, largely on location. A large blob of rubber doubles for the whale in some shots; in others, a frisky humpback is seen frolicking in a pretty blue sea. For all the trendiness of the topic, the film's attitude toward animals is really no more sophisticated than, and just as condescendingly gooey as "Lassie Come Home," "Flipper," or, yes, "Bonzo Goes to College."