Never Cry Wolf

February 7, 2012

It is written, somewhere in the annals of Hollywood lore, that “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers each night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.”

We don’t find out whether Tyler, the scientist sent alone to the Arctic to study the habits of wolves in Never Say Wolf, is a praying man, but he seems reasonably pure of heart. Naïve, even. And as enacted by the lovably goony Charles Martin Smith, he has the wide-open eyes that wait to be illuminated by the bright, full moon.

Tyler doesn’t exactly turn into a wolf in the course of this film, but he does adopt some of the wolves’ behavior, and he develops not only a healthy respect for the beasts, but also a kind of kinship with them.

He’s been sent to the icy wasteland to find out whether wolves are the culprits in the drastic reduction of the area’s caribou herds. It is generally assumed that they are the villains; but Tyler discovers that the wolves are simply fulfilling their function in the natural scheme of things.

Indeed, they become, in his eyes and ours, much more likable—and even more human, with their carefully arranged family units and group behavior patterns—than some of the people in the movie. Man is about to put his paws on this untouched wilderness, and anything that gets in the way of manifest destiny—wolves, caribou, or Tyler—will probably be flicked aside.

For most of the movie, however, it’s just Tyler and the wolves, and the spectacular Yukon countryside. We see his struggle for survival, including an unscheduled dip in a freezing lake, and then his lonely vigil near a family of wolves. When Tyler sees the wolves chewing on field mice, he gets his first inkling that the wolves may not be the savage caribou-killers he was expecting.

By now, he’s gotten so fond of the creatures that he feels compelled to prove that a large mammal can live by eating only mice. Since the only laboratory animal around is himself, it’s soon a steady diet of mouse stew, fried mouse, and mouse au gratin.

This episode, like many in Never Cry Wolf, is immensely engaging. Director Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) keeps a sense of discovery very much to the forefront. For instance, he hooks a camera on to the bottom of a seaplane and films its landing on a frozen lake. That’s a stunning effect, with that great sense of trying out something new—not unlike the feeling Tyler has, setting off into the tundra.

Also crucial to the film’s irresistible spell are the gorgeous vistas that Ballard has photographed, and the Eskimo characters whose folklore provides some of the film’s mysticism. (The two non-professional Eskimo actors who play Tyler’s friends, Zachary Ittimangnaq and Samson Jorah, are quite wonderful.)

But the movie really revolves around the wolves. As Tyler watches them play—he feels so close to them, he’s even given them names—he sighs, “This is not a place for man. It belongs to the wolves.” So does this movie, and eloquently.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

The Grey, of course, has come along to set us straight on this movie’s hippie-dippy ideas about the predators in the tundra. I think of Ballard as occupying a spot in the Coppola-Malick section of the movie spectrum, with his strong instinct that the power of the pictorial image will put everything over. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Also, about my opening paragraph, I confess I’m the kind of person who can’t resist quoting The Wolf Man when I get the chance. Curt Siodmak ftw, as they say.