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 Films
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.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate