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Wolf Advocates’ Rage Against The Grey Might Be Misdirected

Hollywood Film Isn’t Part of the Assault Against Real Wolves

In early January movie trailers for writer-director Joe Carnahan’s new film, The Grey, started to run in advance of its January 27 national release: Somewhere in the northern Alaskan wilderness, a shuttle plane full of oil field works crashes on frozen tundra during a blizzard. Only a handful survive, wounded, freezing, stunned at their fate. And then the howling starts, weird, loud, frightening howling. Giant wolves materialize. Bloody wolf tracks mark all that remain of one worker — the monsters have dragged him off!  Hero John Ottway, played by Liam Neeson, tapes a knife to one hand, and broken, miniature liquor bottles to the other, then charges into battle.

Promotional Poster/Open Road FilmsWhen wolf conservationists denounced the film in mid-January and
advocated a boycott, no one had actually seen the movie, only
the trailers.

News of The Grey's imminent release came as yet another depressing blow to wolf advocates in the Northern Rockies, who are now entering their fourth year of brutal political conflict trying to save the region’s remaining wolves. This wolf war began in 2009, when a disparate far-right collection of paramilitary militia advocates, states’ rights activists, ranchers who used the region’s public lands to graze cattle and sheep, and elk hunting groups coalesced around a new mythology demonizing wolves. In this new folklore, the US Fish and Wildlife Service had stolen tens of millions of dollars from hunters, captured huge, vicious, and disease-ridden wolves in Canada, released them in Montana’s Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s.

According to the myth, a decade later thousands of wolves threatened to kill all the deer, elk, and livestock and whatever people they found in their way. The anti-wolf coalition wanted to remove wolves from the protection of the Endangered Species Act, and reduce their numbers from 1,650 to around 600-800 in all of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming (See my story, “Cry, Wolf” in the Journal’s Summer 2011 issue).

First the region’s Republican parties embraced wolf demonization, and then in 2011, so did the Democrats. Idaho’s Republican Congressman Mike Simpson and Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester (facing a 2012 election campaign against Republican Congressman Danny Rehberg) attached a rider to a federal budget bill to delist wolves as an endangered species — the first time an engendered species has been delisted by legislation.

Wolf hunts began this past fall, killing nearly 400 by mid-January — and this is the official count. “Shoot, shovel, shut-up” remains a popular anti-wolf slogan. Hunters post dead wolf trophies on websites and the social media. (See my blog on The EnvironmentaList with hunted wolf photos). Montana recently extended wolf hunting in some parts of the state until April 1, making pregnant females targets, while Idaho officials now plan to begin aerial shoots.

Facing this ongoing carnage, many local wolf advocate groups called for boycotting The Grey, declaring it “the worst wolf movie ever made,” and “irresponsible propaganda.” When the news broke that cast members ate wolf stew and that two wolf bodies saw use as props, the movement escalated its attacks. WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups suing in federal appeals court to overturn the Congressional delisting as unconstitutional, declared on its website, “Like Jaws, which made people unreasonably terrified of great white sharks, now comes the movie, The Grey, which inaccurately depicts wolves as hunters of humans.” Renown animal behavior scholar Marc Beckhoff  similarly denounced the film in his online Psychology Today column, noting that it “misrepresents wolves as violent hunters who harm humans,” while in truth there have been “only two fatal wolf attacks on humans in North America.”

But when wolf conservationists denounced the film in mid-January and advocated a boycott, no one had actually seen the movie, only the trailers. Trailers tease audiences into buying tickets; they don’t necessarily accurately summarize a film’s plot. Contrary to what its trailers portray, The Grey’s central story is not about wolves hunting humans; there are no combat scenes of wolves and humans fighting to the death or scenes of humans being devoured.  Instead, The Grey tells another kind of old war story. Namely that in severe battles, as men confront the deaths of their comrades and acknowledge the possibility or certainty of their own approaching deaths, they abandon traditional masculine emotional restraints and instead display real feelings and bond with one another.

Hero John Ottway works as a hired gun for an oil company, protecting workers from the wild. But Ottway’s no happy hunter. Just after the opening scenes he puts his rifle in his mouth, overwhelmed with grief for a wife who’s left him for unexplained reasons. Torn soul that he is, though, he doesn’t pull the trigger and instead boards the jet. The jet crash gives him a reason to live — he ministers to others. He says to a mortally wounded man. “You’re gonna die. It’s all right…It [death] will slide over you.” Ottway holds the man’s hand in his final moments. He’s clearly done this before, when serving as a soldier in an unnamed war. 

The Grey moves from man to man, allowing each survivor a few minutes to tell his stories about his sister, his children, and what he’s feeling at the moment — fear, anger,  regret, interest in the others. When only three men remain, the survivors turn to one another and introduce themselves, saying their first names and shaking hands for the first--and last time. Towards the end of the film, when only John Ottway and one other man, Pete, are left, Pete falls into a river, catches his leg on a log and begins to drown, his face only inches from the surface. Ottway breathes air into his mouth, but Pete knows it’s his time to die and exhales. It’s a touching interaction, almost as good as when director Paul Newman first staged the same identical scene in his 1971 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, Sometimes a Great Notion.  

John Ottway finally realizes he’s next. He recites his Irish father’s poem as his death song: “Once more into the fray./ Into the last good fight I’ll ever see./ Live or die on this day./Live or die on this day.”  Contrary to what the trailers show, Ottway does not stand and charge the wolves. The screen just goes blank, a fitting end for a film which tries to pass tired clichés as something new and important.

The wolves in The Grey are mostly off to the side or completely off camera. They function as vague enemies, and they help the movie along, allowing it to shift attention to the remaining survivors. After all, without the threat of the wolf monsters the men would never share their feelings. The wolves in The Grey do not resemble the demonic wolves created by ideologues in the Rockies—The Grey isn’t part of the assault against real wolves.

At times the film even makes its demonic wolves look good. The film’s opening scenes borrow from Avatar, portraying the oil company town as a modern hell, the men as brawling drunks and assorted losers (“men unfit for mankind” in Ottway’s voice over narration) and the attacking wolves as possibly morally superior. Ottway explicitly acknowledges that “We don’t belong here.”  On another occasion, one of the survivors kills a wolf and the group roasts and eats it. In a fit, he then cuts the wolf’s head off and throws it into the woods, declaring, “You’re not the animals. We’re the animals.”  No one openly disputes him

Wolf advocates did not err in gearing up to challenge The Grey based on the trailers and publicity campaign. But Hollywood has not suddenly turned into an enemy; nor are the American people all scared of either real wolves or demons created in their image. The story of Oregon wolf (OR-7)’s journey into California this past December continues to generate tremendous interest. And finally the deaths of the Montana and Idaho wolves are starting to be felt in public demonstrations. Last November, candlelight vigils in honor of the fallen wolves organized by the North Idaho Wolf Alliance, Howl Across America and Howling for Justice brought the attention of major national media such as the National Public Radio and The New York Times, as well as many local television and press reports in the region — a breakthrough. More vigils are planned.

Given The Grey‘s interest in expressing emotions, especially grief, perhaps it is time to invite the production crew and cast to participate.

James William Gibson
James William Gibson writes regularly for Earth Island Journal. Among his books is The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (1986).

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Sick barbarians murdering innocent animals. Thinking they’re manly. Hope they get payback. Animals are so superior to many human beings.

By Lesley Forrest on Fri, March 10, 2017 at 4:30 pm

Is this article more about railing on Republicans, or wolf behavior?  Can’t you leave politics alone just for one article, and stick to the facts??  As a Democrat, I’m as outraged at how you portray Republicans, (My wife) as you are at how Hollywood portrays wolves.

By Ian Poscetti on Sat, November 24, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Does anyone know the best places to see wolves? Where is wolf hunting legal?  I would like to, and I am sure my friends would love to go wolf hunting.  It would be a great father/ son trip for bonding and hunting together!!!

By B C Yarb on Sun, October 07, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I’m baffled by what I have just read.  The author should really do their homework and maybe actually watch the film before writing an article about it..

“Just after the opening scenes he puts his rifle in his mouth, overwhelmed with grief for a wife who’s left him for unexplained reasons”

^They don’t show him put a rifle in his mouth until the end of the movie, not just after the opening scenes.  Also, his wife left him for a VERY explained reason, she died.  Hence the scene when they are in the bed and the camera clearly focuses on medical equipment in the room…Jeez

“Ottway breathes air into his mouth, but Pete knows it’s his time to die and exhales”

^Umm no,  Pete very clearly want’s to live and is panicking as he is drowning merely inches away from life giving oxygen.  Ottway get’s frustrated trying to give him air because Pete cannot hear his instructions due to his panicking…because he wants to live and is extremely afraid..

It’s very scary the types of nonsense you can run across on the internet.  I understand the point of this article was the wolf controversy, but at least watch the movie and get things right if you are going to use examples to get points across.

By Concerned on Sun, September 30, 2012 at 7:21 am

“There are no combat scenes of wolves and humans fighting to the death or scenes of humans being devoured” - what movie did you see? I just watched it on video and it has both of those.

Just because there are other elements to the story doesn’t mean the danger from the wolves isn’t still a core part of the film. It may not be the sole point of it in the way typical adventure/monster movies rely on snakes or piranha or sharks. But it definitely portrays wolves as voracious, vindictive hunters of human flesh, and the reason activists would be especially upset about that is it isn’t even true. Other aspects to the drama which may be more laudable or realistic don’t take away from the negative effect it will likely have on how people who don’t know the facts perceive wolves.It does matter, because wolves are in peril.

By Jennifer Epps on Sun, August 05, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Holy shit this funny, this movie is discriminating against wolves next thing it will be this movie was racially correct cause it a black guy and a black wolf in it yeah cause that makes a difference if a movie is entertaining it has won it’s goal. Not every one is a wolf expert and you think people will go and kill wolves because of this movie.

seriously though iam sick and tired of people that carry on about racism and discrimination in movies because it paints a picture that is untrue, well shit me dead i didnt see true story on the title did you so shut your mouth and keep it to your self i enjoyed the movie reminded me of alien 2 the feel. cant any one just enjoy something these days with out some one bitching
even if u laugh at knowing its full of shit

By Cal on Mon, July 30, 2012 at 9:28 am

All the efforts of Defenders of Wildlife and movies like this are made depicting wolves as devils. I mistakenly rented this not knowing what it was about. Turned the movie off and totally agree with the boycott.  Shame on the makers of this crappy film.

By Jeanne Rooney on Thu, July 12, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Terrible movie. No doubt, some people will mistake its portrayal of wolves for something resembling teh real thing.

By Brimshack on Tue, April 17, 2012 at 4:38 am

Who said the wolves were demonized? In the movie Liam said they wolves were attacking because they were encroaching on their territory. If you stumble into a bears den i guerantee that youre going to get your face ripped off. Does this fact make bears mankillers or demonize them? No, they are just protecting themselves. In the film the crazy drunkard cuts off the roasted wolves head and said “You think youre the animals? Were the animals.” I have no problem with people eating wolves, even if its to get into the acting. I do have a problem with
the three other killed wolves im sure they did not eat. If youre concerned about actors eating wolves just take a look into americas meat industry, cows and chickens are no less than wolves. It was a great film with powereful images and philosophical points, the movie wasnt even about wolves. It was about nature and nihlism. If you cant see past the wolves youre just as bad as the rest of the sheeple.

By Dan on Sun, March 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm

It sounds to me as though you liked the film for its non-wolf aspects, and therefore you want to make excuses for it.  Sorry, but I do not think this film is harmless.  I know another wolf advocate who also went and saw the whole thing, and she was absolutely horrified by it—to the point that she felt compelled to stand up and tell the other moviegoers the truth about wolves after the film was over.  The “demon wolves” end up killing almost every member of the party of crash survivors.  Whether the battles between men and wolves happen onscreen or off is irrelevant.  Whether the wolves are portrayed as noble is irrelevant.  They are portrayed as killers, and a frightened human doesn’t stop to think about whether an animal that might kill him is noble or is only defending its territory.  If he thinks it might attack him, he will still shoot it.

As an example of that very effect, take this quote from Roger Ebert’s review of The Grey: “When I learned of Sarah Palin hunting wolves from a helicopter, my sensibilities were tested, but after this film, I was prepared to call in more helicopters.”  No, this film is not harmless.  It is not “just a movie.”  Whether it was intended as anti-wolf propaganda or not, I fear it could do very real harm to their reputation.  The only good thing about it is that it has given wolf advocates air time in the media to talk about what these animals are *really* like.

Also, assuming it’s true that the film crew ordered four dead wolves from a TRAPPER to make this movie, I’m sure they have no problem with hunters killing wolves for entertainment purposes.  Don’t bother asking them to attend vigils for fallen wolves; even if they say yes, I wouldn’t think of it as anything more than a PR stunt.

By CaptainSakonna on Sat, February 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm

remember the three s’s

shut up

By vincent on Thu, February 09, 2012 at 10:29 pm

So wolves will kill you if starving or a threat (near their den etc). I don’t hear in here that all wildlife can be dangerous if you come into contact with it. Their home is in the wild. If people do not take precautions and expect the unexpected it is easy to villify. Speaking of these animals coming into towns - your towns intersect their natural habitat. You act as if they are coming around just to find you. If you are going to live in the mountains you must learn to live “with”. What is more convenient is to say “i am more valuable and this is my territory now so lets kill them since they dont seem to ge the whole invisible fense concept”. If people are truly the intelligent beings why dont they think as such. Not ideal to live intheir territory but ignorant to not use that intelligence to act like more than an animal by figuring out other solutions. Not on one side or the other but some of the stuff I read - it is frightening to wonder how the minds of people can be considered superior when they resort to the animal like behaviors all in the name of territory.

By Diane on Sun, February 05, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I am appalled that this author paints anyone for wolf management as a wing nut. We were for the wolf intro, until their population exceeded the recovery goals 5x. Now they are around our town, howling from the school yard, killing elk in the cemetery, killing pets, following people out hiking. Habituated wolves are NOT afraid of people. Just look at how easily ancient humans domesticated wolves to become dogs!

Also I didn’t see anyone protesting that the movie “Alpha and Omega” portrayed wolves falsely. Or was that because it fits the propaganda that wolves are cuddly and cute? Until you live with wolves you have no idea what it is like.

By TLM on Fri, February 03, 2012 at 12:20 pm

James William Gibson is correct, and the sooner the armchair pro-wolf people get a grip on what needs to be done to stop wolf killing and quit worry about a Hollywood movie they didn’t even see, the better off wolves are going to be.

These are the people you need to be going after:

Go to this site and see the real enemy. Get your priorities straight if you really give a darn about wolves.

By Little Britches on Thu, February 02, 2012 at 9:39 pm

This is BS.  As anyone who has been involved in the fight for the wolves knows, the antis will use any and everything to demonize wolves. There is now a phony posting on conservation websites by a rabid group of anti wolf misfits pretending to support OR-7.  What they are really doing is trying to direct the wolf killers to the location of OR-7.  They have even cleverly softened their rhetoric to seem legitimate.  So, it is obvious that the anti wolf people exploit anything opportunity to pt wolves into more peril.  Carnahan and Neeson were asked to pt a disclaimer at the beginning and end of the movie indicating that this is NOT wolf behavior, and they would not.  I think they picked the time to serve their own interests and that is exactly what they are doing - $$$$$$$ is the issue here, not facts or ethics!

By Margaret Schafer on Thu, February 02, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Wolves were harmed in the making of “The Grey.” That is enough for me to boycott the film.

Gibson’s attempt to green wash the film while blogging for Earth Island is disheartening. This movie will not serve to enhance people’s understanding of wolves. It will create a barrier.

I like the “Pack of Lies” blog quite a bit. It’s an unvarnished appraisal of “The Grey.” The wolf biologists tell it like it is.

By Raven on Thu, February 02, 2012 at 2:51 pm

This essay is very misguided. Frankly, I was very surprised to see it published in Earth Island. There are ample data that misrepresentation of chimpanzees has negative consequences for these endangered and amazing beings, and there can be no doubt that The Grey will do absolutely nothing at all in support of wolves and will more than like reinforce false stereotypes based on ignorance and fear. Two essays that might be of interest are:

By Marc Bekoff on Thu, February 02, 2012 at 2:25 pm

The movie is merely entertainment, as opposed to the distortions and misinformation made in this blog.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read any of the environmentalist terrorist writings that abound now.

If the city folk that love wolves so much had them in their back yards they would be the ones howling.

By pilotrockpat on Thu, February 02, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Cry Wolf was an educational and insightful article I fully enjoyed. This article, however, is very misguided & it’s hard to believe it is the same author. Having seen this movie I can tell you that it does absolutely no good for the cause of helping to stop the massacre of wolves. It is a modern day Little Red Riding Hood in is demonizing wolves. The wolves, at one point, carry off a bloody, injured man insinuating that they are going to have him for a meal. And, yes the fact that real wolves were killed and even eaten in the making of this film IS enough of a reason to boycott it, for sure.

By Anonymous on Wed, February 01, 2012 at 9:31 pm

The Cry Wolf article cited within this one was excellent. Sadly, this article really missed the point made in that one (!) by ignoring history and human nature:

The public fear-mongering and hate-spewing for wolves over the past few years has increased exponentially, one only need visit a hunting forum in the Midwestern states to find comments replete with fear, vitriol, and century-old myths; it is a reminder of what one wolf researcher said regarding the ongoing persecution of the wolf in our American history: “It is the longest, most relentless, and ruthless persecution one species has ever waged against another”.

Considering that the gray wolf’s endangered status and long term viability across several states is still hotly debated, the increase in wolf hunts, wolf kill permits given to ranchers, and regional permission given with NO permit required for public citizens to kill wolves, are unprecedented.

In areas where wolves were deemed endangered only a year ago, they are now hunted, trapped, shot by ranchers, poisoned, and aerially gunned down by government officials (paid for by your tax dollars, care of the USDA’s Wildlife Services Dept.)

It is important to understand that years ago when agencies wanted to increase the rate of wolf kills they did not do so by increasing the bounties but instead they relentlessly maximized the fear factor publicly.

The result was not just that hundreds of thousands of wolves were killed but also tortured: they were trapped, poisoned, dynamited in dens, caught alive and soaked in kerosene and set ablaze, scalped, had their mouths wired shut, or had their eyes pierced with branding irons and then releases to starve to death (“The Great American Wolf”, Bruce Hampton.)

As any wildlife conservationist (or politician) worth his salt knows, public perception plays a huge role in conservation and policy, which is why the onus is on us informed environmentalists to combat the ignorance perpetuated to millions via movies like “The Grey”.

As an ethologist Marc Bekoff knows what he is talking about: humans do love animals, but when they learn to hate them and use them as an outlet for their fear and frustration, the end result is tragic.

By Patrick Hord on Wed, February 01, 2012 at 2:32 pm

If anyone has any thoughts or doubts about true wolf ecology please GOOGLE->  Ilse Royale Wolf Study or Wolf Ecology in Yellowstone National Park.  This movie, which I too will boycott, disgusts to me.

By Paul Lueders on Wed, February 01, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I feel you as the Editor missed the Point of this Film. It is a Man Versus Nature Film in the Form of Wolves Hunting and Attacking a Group of Plane Crash Survivors. I hate to ruin the Film for everyone, but basically, everyone is pretty much attacked and killed by the Wolves in this Film The Grey. The Main Theme of this Film is to get out of the Wilderness as quickly as possible to avoid being eaten by the Wolves.You can’t sugar coat this Film as to pleasant Wolves, as their Pursuit of the Group as they try to get out of the Wilderness is relentless like a Big School of Giant Barracudas pursuing Snook in Florida.The Wolves are the clearly the Victors in this Film. Its an interesting Film for those of us who like Man Versus Nature Stories. By Gerald J. Davis, Feb.1, 2012

By Gerald J. Davis on Wed, February 01, 2012 at 11:32 am

While I believe that this movie was not purposely made to be “anti-wolf,” it has dangerous misinformation about wolves which helps perpetuate the myths of wolves being dangerous to humans and harms their recovery. Extremely few cases exist of wolves attacking humans. Mr. Gibson’s attempt to pass off this film as some great moral tale or even pro-wolf (“At times the film even makes its demonic wolves look good.”) is itself misdirected. Seems to me another case of a journalist who does not understand basic wolf biology and the damage that legitimizing wolves as vicious man-eaters (as the film does) causes. Finally, just the fact that four wolves were killed and used as props in the film and even eaten by some of cast the crew is enough for me to boycott the film. This detail is conveniently left out of the article.

By Ken Keefover-Ring on Wed, February 01, 2012 at 8:09 am

Thanks for this very insightful article.

By Anne Settanni on Tue, January 31, 2012 at 6:13 pm

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