Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Never Cry Wolf (1983) * * *

Tyler (Charles Martin Smith) is a young government biologist and survival expert assigned to travel to the isolated frozen wilds of the Yukon in northern Canada to study the area's savage population of wolves. His orders are to gather proof of the wolves' ongoing destruction of caribou herds. It's a strange job to volunteer for--agreeing to spend six months all alone in the extreme Arctic environment attempting to observe wolves, but that is what the bespectacled scientist does. In the first half of the film the vast Arctic landscape is explored. Then in the second half, the film weakens as it resorts to formulaic devices and plots its protagonist against the civilized world.

Basically a one-character film, it's largely a straightforward record of Tyler's daily observations of the ways of the wolf. The biologist is an appealingly eccentric man who, at the beginning, is made to seem unbelievably incompetent for the sake of both comedy and drama. Later the movie treats him and his adventures without condescension. He is dumped unprepared in a snowstorm in the wilderness by hard drinking bush pilot Rosie (Brian Dennehy), who attempts to cure boredom with mid-air oil changes. When his character resurfaces near the end of the film, he is excessively obnoxious.

Rosie: We're all of us prospectors up here, eh, Tyler? Scratchin' for that... that one crack in the ground. Never have to scratch again. I'll let you in on a little secret, Tyler: the gold's not in the ground. The gold's not anywhere up here. The real gold is south of 60--sittin' in livin' rooms, stuck facin' the boob tube, bored to death. Bored to death, Tyler. Take the stick... Aaaaaaah!
Tyler: What's wrong?
Rosie: Boredom, Tyler. Boredom--that's what's wrong. And how do you beat boredom, Tyler?... Adventure. Adventure, Tyler.
Tyler: Where are you going, Rosie? Rosie, what are you doing? I can't fly this thing! What do I do?

When he lands, Tyler promptly gets out his typewriter and attempts to type up his initial reactions. A little later he walks across a frozen lake and falls through the ice. Aged Inuit Ootek (Zachary Ittimangnaq) saves his life and teaches him survival skills. He soon learns the rules of coexistence from a neighboring wolf. Contact with wolves comes quickly, as he discovers not a den of marauding killers, but a courageous family of skillful providers and devoted protectors of their young. Tyler learns that wolves, though carnivorous, live mostly on a diet of mice, mate for life and are loving parents to their cubs. Oolek and his friend Mike (Samson Jorah) drop by to keep Tyler company for awhile, sharing their observations on nature and life in an easy-going way. Mike reveals that he kills wolves to support his family and send his children to school. As Tyler learns more and more about the wolf world, he comes to fear, along with them, the onslaught of hunters (Tom Dahlgren and Walker Stuart) out to kill the wolves for their pelts and exploit the wilderness. He must now make a choice--should he return to the life he once knew or should he take a stand--defending this breathtaking new world.

Mike: To me a wolf means money. It's a way of making a living. One wolf pelt is about $350 dollars. And I've got to feed my family, my children. Buy a snowmobile, food, rifle, bullets whatever.
Tyler: You wouldn't ah... you wouldn't kill these wolves?
Mike: These ones... no. No I don't think so. Besides you would get mad if I killed one of them... and your gun is bigger than mine.
Tyler: Yeah.
Mike: I'd like to though.

Although Tyler gives names like George, Angeline and Uncle Albert to the wolves he observes, and though he attributes human attitudes to them, the wolves themselves always remain at a distance, most of the time ignoring the presence of the biologist who is studying them. The humor is as wholesome as it is instructive. In one sequence, there is a pissing contest as Tyler sets out to mark his territory in the same way the wolves do, by urinating on bushes and rocks on the perimeter of his land. He is amused to realize that what has taken him a half a day, plus huge quantities of tea to do, the wolf accomplishes in less than an hour, without stopping to drink water or tea. George the wolf respects the territory Tyler has marked.

Much fun is also made of Tyler's successful attempt to live on mice, in this way to prove that an animal as large as a wolf can subsist on small rodents, if enough of them are consumed. Tyler eats mice in soup, in stew and even en brochette, usually leaving the tail as the last thing to disappear down his throat. In what is perhaps an homage to earlier Walt Disney movies in which animals act like people, there is a scene in which mice are shown watching Tyler as he eats an all-mouse meal, and the living mice squeal in horror. These gross-out scenes are countered with the second half of the film, which has more nudity than it should.

Drunk: (warning Tyler about wolves) They'll come after you, son. Just for the ugly fun of tearing you apart.

When it appears that a group of angry hunters are going to ruthlessly murder any wolf that they see, he is forced to take a stance once and for all, endangering his own life in the process. Tyler's journey culminates in a majestic run with the wolf pack, an exhilarating sequence where for an instant he becomes one with the natural environment in the wilderness.

The last shot is an ad lib between Tyler and Oolek that is endearingly sweet, without being sappy. This is a film with sentiment, but it is not sentimental.

Tyler: In the end there were no simple answers. No heroes or villains. Only silence.
(last lines)
Tyler: I believe the wolves went off to a wild and distant place somewhere, although I don't really know... because I turned away, and didn't watch them go.

NEVER CRY WOLF is a screen adaptation of Farley Mowat's 1963 best-selling autobiographical book about his life among Arctic Wolves. This film dramatizes the true story of Farley Mowat, when he was sent to the Canadian tundra area to collect evidence of the serious harm the wolf population was allegedly doing to the caribou herds. In his struggle to survive in that difficult environment he studies the wolves, and realizes that the old beliefs about wolves and their supposed threat are almost totally false. Furthermore, he learns that humans represent a far greater threat to the land, and also to the wolves, a species which plays an important role in the ecosystem of the north. One of the book's more controversial points is that wolves and caribou exist in a symbiotic relationship. Wolves, according to Mr. Mowat, attack only weak and sick caribou, in this way helping to ensure that only the fittest caribou are around to re-create the species. In their turn, the caribou provide wolves with a certain number of tasty feasts. It is Mr. Mowat's conviction that hunters, not wolves, have been responsible for the drastic reduction in caribou herds in recent years. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are too faithful to the heavily jocular tone of Mr. Mowat's book, but they do avoid melodrama.

There is too much nudity for a Disney movie, and the ending is very sad.  It's only a movie and the Disney filmmakers were not obligated to have a sad ending.  Otherwise it is quite enjoyable to watch.  Some of the "information" in the movie is incorrect.  For example, Tyler talking to himself says that the Arctic wolf (Canis Lupis Arctos) is the largest of the wolf species.  No.  Arctic wolves have the shortest legs of all wolves and are definitely not the largest.

Director Carroll Ballard’s visual epic, gorgeously photographed by Hiro Narita, proves his great skill as a director. This is a follow up to Ballard's THE BLACK STALLION (1979). Once again, he chooses to rely on imagery to tell his story, rather than drowning out the visuals with unnecessary dialogue. Smith’s inspired performance allows the audience to slip inside his mind, resulting in a deeply personal viewing experience, and he does an excellent job at carrying a compelling story mostly by himself. It sounds romantic, but Ballard never sidesteps the ugliness of nature or the discomfort of loneliness. The result is a quirky, deceptively simple meditation on life. Shot on location in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, the astounding visual treatment captures the awesome natural magnificence of the Canadian wilderness with power and poignancy, revealing a world of hypnotic beauty with breathtaking cinematic imagery. NEVER CRY WOLF has been rated PG for some scenes near the end when wolves are shown attacking a caribou, but the carnage is discreet. The picture is also noteworthy for being the first Walt Disney film to show naked adult buttocks, those of actor Charles Martin Smith.

The film's fundamental premise is that life in the Arctic seems to be about dying: not only are the caribou and the wolves dying, but the indigenous Inuit people as well. The animals are losing their habitat and the Inuit are losing their land and their resources while their youth are being seduced by modernity. They are trading what is real, true, and their time-honored traditions for the perceived comforts of the modern world. NEVER CRY WOLF blends the documentary film style with the narrative elements of drama, resulting in a type of docudrama. It was originally written for the screen by Sam Hamm but the screenplay was altered over time and Hamm ended up sharing credit with Curtis Hanson and Richard Kletter.

The cast also includes: Hugh Webster (Drunk), and Martha Ittimangnaq (Woman). Charles Martin Smith, Eugene Corr, and Christina Luescher provide the narration--some of which was written by Ralph Furmaniak. Mark Isham composed the incidental music. Curtis Hanson, Sam Hamm, and Richard Kletter wrote the screenplay from Farley Mowat's book of the same title. Mark Isham directed.

Filming locations included Nome, Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia, Canada. This drama was made during the 1980s when Walt Disney Productions, under the guidance of Walt Disney's son-in-law Ron W. Miller, was experimenting with more mature plot material in its films. The following year Miller would start the Touchstone Pictures label. Perhaps that's the reason Disney treats this film shabbily. It was made the year before Michael Eisner took over the studio. Eisner likes Big Event films. NEVER CRY WOLF is a small film. Eisner likes fantasy. It is based on a true story. Eisner likes stars. It has none. Studio chiefs rarely tout the work of their predecessors--if anything, they have an investment in making such work look as poor as possible.

The scenery is often spectacularly beautiful. Charles Smith is at his best when he is playing Tyler straight, without the comic exaggerations that suggest a small child showing off in front of adults. Perhaps the best thing about the film is that the wolves are never made to seem like strange but cuddly dogs. They look like wolves, not especially threatening but still remote and complete unto themselves. The wolves are well-trained performers.

Charles Martin Smith devoted almost three years to NEVER CRY WOLF. He wrote, "I was much more closely involved in that picture than I had been in any other film. Not only acting, but writing and the whole creative process." He also found the process difficult. "During much of the two-year shooting schedule in Canada's Yukon and in Nome, Alaska, I was the only actor present. It was the loneliest film I've ever worked on," Smith said.

A review in the Los Angeles Times called the film, "...subtle, complex and hypnotic...triumphant filmmaking!" Film critic Gene Siskel felt the film was "absolutely terrific" and Roger Ebert said "this is one of the best films I've ever seen about Man's relationship with the other animals on this planet". Both gave the film "Thumbs Up". Brendon Hanley of Allmovie also liked the film, especially Smith's performance, and wrote, "Wolf's protagonist is wonderfully played by the reliable character actor Charles Martin Smith." Ronald Holloway of Variety gave the film a mostly positive review, and wrote "For the masses out there who love nature films, and even those who don't, Carroll Ballard's more than fits the commercial bill and should score well too with critical suds on several counts."

Some critics found the premise of the film a bit hard to believe. Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, wrote, "I find it difficult to accept the fact that the biologist, just after an airplane has left him in the middle of an icy wilderness, in a snowstorm, would promptly get out his typewriter and, wearing woolen gloves, attempt to type up his initial reactions. Canby added, the film was "a perfectly decent if unexceptional screen adaptation of Farley Mowat's best-selling book about the author's life among Arctic wolves."

The film opened in limited release October 7, 1983 and went into wide circulation January 20, 1984. It was in theaters for 27 weeks and the total US gross sales were $27,668,764. In its widest release the film appeared in 540 theaters.

There are several differences in the film compared to Mowat's book. In the book, Ootek and Mike's roles are reversed, Mike is actually Ootek's older brother (Ootek is a teenager) and Ootek speaks fluent English and communicates openly with Mowat while Mike is more reserved. The film adds a more spiritual element to the story while the book was a straight-forward story. In the film the characters are isolated, while in the book Mowat meets several people from different areas of the Arctic. Also in the book, the wolves are not killed and the bush pilot does not bring in investors to build a resort.

Dr. L. David Mech, an internationally recognized wildlife biologist who has researched wolves since 1958 in places such as Minnesota, Canada, Italy, Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, and on Isle Royale, criticized the work. He stated that Mowat is no scientist and that in all his studies, he had never encountered a wolf pack which regularly subsisted on small prey as shown in Mowat's book or the film adaptation.

On one DVD release, except for a small legal notice on the disc itself, you'd be hard-pressed to find proof this is Disney's product at all. The transfer to DVD was farmed out. Even the Disney studio logo at the film's start has been completely lobbed off and the logo of the company that transferred it to DVD replaces it. It's clear Disney wants nothing to do with this film today. Nothing in any of the studio's theme parks, collections of literature, or merchandizing even acknowledge its existence. The DVD has no extras--not even a theatrical trailer. The Internet Movie Database lists a TV documentary, "The Making of Never Cry Wolf," that surely could have been included. Most upsetting of all, the DVD is not enhanced or anamorphic. Comparing it to an old VHS copy, it appears the DVD was take from the same print of the film, meaning they may have just dubbed the VHS version to DVD.

NEVER CRY WOLF is now available in a number of different DVD releases. At least one is enhanced for 16:9 TVs. Although Disney finally released this in the enhanced picture format with better resolution, and although they now actually put their name on the front of both the box and the film, they still used the same crappy print, which looks like a run-of-the-mill theater print with many nicks and scratches, and which was used all the way back for the original VHS release in the 1980s. No extras, not even a trailer. There is a fullscreen DVD from Anchor Bay, re-released in two separate volumes. The film doesn't use audio much, since much of the film is about quiet solitude and isolation in nature, though the nature is under-represented aurally. The 2.0 soundtrack isn't too hot--the two native characters are often tough to understand, and a number of other characters are as well. Audio just hasn't been mixed very well, and though it probably wasn't the most high-tech audio track to begin with, it should sound better than this.

Since this movie appeared over twenty years ago, the public image of the wolf has greatly improved and wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone Park. Everybody in this fine production can take some credit for that. However, we must also keep in mind that this movie is about wolves in Canada, with the largest population of wolves in the world by far. Wolves have no protection whatsoever in Canada, and the country exports most of the world's wolf pelts. Only the American state of Alaska is as anti-wolf as Canada. Although Farley Mowat is Canadian and "Never Cry Wolf" is credited with shifting the mythology and fear of wolves, he has had zero impact on public opinion or government policies regarding wolves in Canada.

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