Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Underrated Movie #23: Never Cry Wolf

Title: Never Cry Wolf
Year: 1983
Director: Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion)
Writers: Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), Sam Hamm (Batman), and Richard Kletter

Stars: Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti), Brian Dennehy (Cocoon), Zachary Ittimangnaq

The Story: A fictionalized version of the real adventures of naturalist Farley Mowat, who traveled alone to the arctic wilderness in order to determine if wolf packs were really killing off Canada’s caribou herds, or if something more sinister was going on.

How it Came to be Underrated: As the public’s taste for kids’ movies got more saccharine, Ballard lost his audience and his early hits faded from memory.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This was a Disney movie, and it was a big hit with kids, so it’s kind of shocking how much beer and male nudity it has. You might get arrested for foisting this on kids today, and that’s a shame, because there’s no better movie for showing kids (and, for that matter, adults) the thrill of scientific detective work and the heartbreak of man’s callousness toward our own biosphere.
  2. Smith quickly discovers that his plan to hide and observe the wolves will never work, because they know his every move. Instead, he drags cans around to reveal himself as much as possible. It turns out that the only way to get to know wolves is to commune with them. This culminates in a scene that I absolutely loved in the theater as an eight-year-old boy: a literal pissing contest, as wolf and man compete to see who can mark the most territory. The series of a-ha moments that allow Smith to uncover and prove the truth become downright thrilling as we come to understand his process.
  3. The more that Hollywood learns to do with special effects, the harder it is to justify going to the trouble and expense of shooting the real thing. I can’t imagine how terrible this film would be today with CGI wolves. Back then, the only way to make a film like this was to go out there, hunker down for the winter and wait for the animals to do something interesting on camera. Ballard understood Mowat so well because he had to replicate his process in order to make the movie.
  4. In the end, this film is all about the stunning visuals. Ballard is the son of the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch) so he knew how to work with his own cinematographer, Hiro Narita, to craft one of the most poetic films ever shot.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: You have to go back to the silent era of The Gold Rush and Nanook of the North to find earlier movies this satisfying about life above the arctic circle. Koyaanisqatsi was another beautiful and thought-provoking early ‘80s film about ecological imbalance.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and it shows up regularly on Turner Classic Movies, where I re-discovered it.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Protect Your Children (with DDT-soaked wallpaper)!

(Thanks to Boing Boing)


Unknown said...

I don't have any fascinating insights to offer about this film, but I =do= want to let you know that this blog has become a daily "go-to" site for me, and I've been spreading news of it to others. Some of the films you choose are familiar to me; others are not. Either way, I'm enjoying this glimpse of them through your eyes.

Amy said...

I LOVED this movie as a kid and would love to see it again. A few things I remember: the very short cast list (maybe 5 people?) and the shots of the tiny airplane in amongst the huge mountains. And, of course, the pee scene and the mouse eating scene. And the falling through the ice scene. And the listening to Russian radio drinking beer scene. Yeah, I loved this movie.
And now I live in Canada and study ecology. Go figure.

Matt Bird said...

Thanks for reading, Judy, and for spreading the news.

Amy, have you just found the lost fountainhead of your adult life?

Tate said...

Glad you included this one. I saw it for the first time a couple of years ago at the Couchville Film Festival in TN and fell in love with it. Loved Mark Isham's score, Charles Martin Smith's understated performance, and the low-key humor. Like you say, I'm sure this wouldn't have been filmed in the same manner today; I'm sure they would have taken the easy way out with CGI. Also, I had no idea that Ballard was the son of Lucien Ballard!

Jay in VA said...

A terrific movie. The majestic scenery, the animals, the quiet scenes with the Inuit, all first-rate.