John Ottway: It was only when I was a lot older, I realized he had written it. It was untitled, four lines. I read it at his funeral: “Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”
[Liam Neeson, “The Grey” (2011)]
Remember when you were very young and your parents, who were probably wondering if there was some legal way, they could offer you up as a human sacrifice to someone so they could just have five minutes of peace and quiet without you bothering them, would temporarily solve this problem by telling you to either, “Go outside and get some fresh air” or “Go outside and play.” Even though you would usually comply, you also might have caught what was actually going on if this occurred during the winter and it was snowing so bad that snow drifts were piling up in front of all of the windows. At that point you then realized that the only individuals who might have ever wanted to frolic outside would have either been a polar bear or Santa Claus. Heck, even for Santa Claus, he only had to risk suffering frost bite one night every year. The rest of the time he was probably on some beach somewhere working on his tan and hammering down Mai Tais! However, not lucky and soon to be shivering little you! The various aspects of being outside or in the Great Outdoors can bring out many different feelings in all of us, both good and bad, can’t they? However, one unpleasant realization could be discovering that being in the Great Outdoors was something more risky than anything you might ever possibly imagine. This month’s Blog Post will explore different films about individuals in the Great Outdoors discovering that they have taken on something far more dangerous than they have ever realized.
One of the greatest writers of stories about animals and individuals surviving in the outdoors was Jack London. His popular novels such as “The Sea Wolf” and “The Call of the Wild” have been adapted numerous times for films and for television. The most recent adaption of “Wild” was a 2020 film version starring Harrison Ford and a computer-animated “Buck,” the St. Bernard sled dog that Ford ultimately rescues and has as his companion. However, for this version’s quality, well, other than the fact that the computer-animated “Buck” gave a better performance than Ford, and that the original novel focused on “Buck” and not the humans, this version was best suited for children and their accompanying parents who could take a quick nap during its runtime. Fortunately, a much better dramatization about an individual who underestimates the dangers in the outdoors was “To Build a Fire” (1969). This adaption, based on a 1908 short story by London, was only 52 minutes long. It told the tale of an unnamed man (Ian Hogg) who is a newcomer to the Yukon and who sets out on a winter hike in sub zero temperatures to visit some prospectors (“the boys”) at their base camp accompanied only by his large husky dog. Ignoring prior warnings against traveling alone during such extreme weather conditions he soon discovers that he is risking his life when he gets wet, his hands become numb when they are exposed to the air, and he can’t even light his matches to “build a fire” as he is slowly succumbing to hypothermia. This adaption of London’s classic story builds suspense, even though there is almost no dialogue at all. However, it does have one ace in the hole, which is the actual narration of London’s story as it unfolds by actor/director Orson Welles. Although David Cobham rather than Welles, directed this film, his narration is gripping. He tells the story with a quiet calm tone in his voice, emotionless and cold, which conveys a deadlier chill than any weather one might experience in the Yukon. Directed in a realistic manner by Cobham with almost no camera trickery, “To Build a Fire” is a gripping little film.
Other outdoor pictures, which involved mountain climbing, and which were usually populated by overconfident individuals threatened by both nature and themselves in dealing with the frigid extremes of such an environment, were also made before “To Build a Fire.” However, they were especially prevalent in the nineteen fifties, and they were also especially lousy. First, you had the 1950 drama, “The White Tower” (the movie, not the hamburger joint) about five people brought together by Carla [Alida Valli) to be the first ones to climb “The White Tower,” a huge Swiss mountain to honor her father who died while trying to reach its top. Her group consists of “hunky” Glen Ford acting “clunky.” Then you had fellow oldsters Cedric Hardwicke, Oskar Homolka, and Claude Rains who all look like they couldn’t lift themselves up onto a step stool let alone actually climb a mountain. Last, you had Lloyd Bridges as Hein, the unrepentant blond ex-Nazi (with a bad sauerkraut soaked German accent) who wants to Blitzkrieg the mountain, but feels that these inferior race members of his climbing party will hold him back. Maybe the only real reason to watch this howler, besides trying to keep from bursting out laughing whenever everyone mountain climbing is wearing capri shorts while not wearing any gloves (Didn’t any of them read the Jack London story?), is due to fine on location color cinematography by former Oscar winner Ray Rennahan. Otherwise, you’d might be better off just going to a real “White Tower” and order the fifteen cent “grease” burger rather than seeing “The White Tower.” While the burger might give you gastric indigestion, this picture might give you mental indigestion!
The next far fetched mountain climbing saga was “The Mountain” (1956). For this one, after a plane crash near the top of Mont Blanc in the French Alps, two brothers, Zachary (Spencer Tracy) and Chris (Robert Wagner???) have competing objectives for wanting to climb the mountain to reach the plane. For deceitful bad brother Chris, it’s to rob the dead! For salt of the earth good brother Zachary, it’s to keep Chris from dying in the effort while trying to change Chris’s mind. Now let me mention the one good thing about this movie: Franz Planer’s spectacular outdoor color cinematography. Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of the film. Long time bad drunk Tracy was 56 years old at this point in time, but he looked more like he was 76 years old with a face more weathered from alcohol than any craggy mountain peak. As an actor, Tracy could never convincingly do a foreign accent for any of his roles, so here he compensated by speaking hesitantly and in a simple manner so his acting defects weren’t easily noticed while wearing baggy clothing to hide how hefty and out of shape he actually was. Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to all of that because the rest of the cast (Wagner, Claire Trevor, William Demarest, E.G. Marshall, etc.) were saying their lines without any accents at all while acting about as French as a bunch of fries! Maybe the funniest thing of all was the casting of 27-year-old Wagner as Tracy’s brother instead of his “son.” Whoever thought that one up must have been drunker than Tracy ever was. Oh, and a special mention must also be made for Robert Wagner’s performance.
Wagner, who is now in his nineties, has been a big-time movie star for over seventy years. In his long successful career, he has been able to develop and constantly maintain one unique and special trait that no other actor has ever been able to rightfully claim. Namely, it was his skill in continually being… The Worst Actor in America, year after year after year! Yes, worse than Tab Hunter! Yes, worse than Ryan O’Neal! Yes, even worse than Sylvester Stallone (Sorry Sylvester, I know you tried really, really hard, but even you gave some good performances for “First Blood” and “Creed”). How this shallow, no talent, “pretty boy” dope has ever been able to be this continually successful for so long, I’ll never know! Maybe it was due to his perfectly coiffed hair which always looked the same in every film (except in “Prince Valiant” where he sort of looked like Buster Brown). If you just took any Cabbage Patch Doll and put his hairdo on it, you had Robert Wagner. However, in “The Mountain”, for once, he actually looked and acted quite different. Here, if you took his hairdo and just put it on “Chucky” instead of the Cabbage Patch Doll, you had Wagner’s performance as Chris. He is trying so overtly hard to be reprehensible while contorting his face into a pretzel that his acting is unintentionally and hysterically “campy.” It might be a career worst performance, and in his case, that’s really saying something! To sum it all up, as a picture, “The Mountain” is aptly named. However, just don’t ask what it’s a “mountain” of? You might not like the answer!
Other types of extreme outdoor pictures of individuals trying to survive could fall into two specific categories. The first category would be individuals threatened by other individuals in the outdoors. The second category would be individuals threatened by other creatures in the wild. There are some fine examples in the first category such as “The River Wild” (1994) starring Meryl Streep (as an action hero no less) as a former river guide who, while on a family whitewater rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho, is menaced by two violent criminals. Even better was the whitewater canoeing survival thriller, “Deliverance” (1972), directed by John Boorman. Based on the acclaimed novel by James Dickey, this picture told the story of four Atlanta businessmen who decide to take a weekend canoeing trip down a river in the northern Georgia wilderness. They consist of Lewis (Burt Reynolds), an experienced outdoorsman and the group’s macho leader, his close friend Ed (Jon Voight) who has done some previous trips with him, and Bobby and Drew (Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) who have no experience at all. Leaving the stress of modern life behind them, they hope to have some fun and a little adventure on the river. Instead, they will discover that there is much to appreciate about civilization after all when their lives are threatened by two violent hillbillies forcing them into a fight for survival.
Boorman, helped immensely by Vilmos Zsigmond’s outstanding cinematography, crafted an intense and disturbing picture. He had Zsigmond film the scenes of the outdoors desaturated, muting the vibrant colors of the natural landscape and the river itself to make everything look darker which created an atmosphere of dread and unease. This also helped to make the scenes of the rapids even more ominous and threatening. The four actors were also put into dangerous situations during filming. To minimize costs, this production was not insured, and Boorman was insistent that the actors should do their own stunts which resulted in Beatty almost drowning, and all of them suffering various injuries. Despite all that, “Deliverance” was a critical and popular box office hit and received a number of Academy Award nominations for Best Picture along with Boorman for Best Director. However, it did not receive any nominations for either Zsigmond’s cinematography or for Reynolds performance as Lewis. Regarding Reynolds, this film was the break thru role that made him a star, and if ever there was a part that was tailor made for one actor, then its Reynolds as the character of Louis Medlock. Like the character in the novel, his Lewis is not awkward but more at ease in the natural world rather than in modern society. By his manner alone he assumes the leadership role, and although he is macho, it’s not overt. It’s a terrific physical performance and Reynolds even stated that this film was the best thing that he had ever been in. Although Jon Voight also gave a fine performance as the uncertain everyman Ed, who winds up having to become the new leader when Louis is injured, it’s Reynolds who you cannot take your eyes off of. Unfortunately, the really sad thing is that not only was Reynold’s performance ignored come Oscar time, but he also never, ever had a role as perfectly cast or as great, ever again. A scary tale of survival in the wilderness, “Deliverance” is a classic!
For the second category of individuals threatened by creatures in the outdoors, one had a number of film choices to choose from. First, you had the really bad Western drama, “The Night of the Grizzly” (1966) with Clint Walker as a former lawman who settles down with his wife and children in Wyoming to become a rancher. Instead, they and everyone in the surrounding area are threatened by a bloodthirsty grizzly nicknamed, Howie… I mean, SATAN!!! In this unintentional laugh fest, you were far more fearful for the poor old grizzly than Walker, since the six-foot six-inch Walker looked far larger than good old Satan (although Satan had all the best lines). Then you had the Alaskan survival drama, “The Edge” (1997) with Anthony Hopkins as Charles, a gazillionaire, and Alec Baldwin as Bob, a photographer who is having an affair with Charles’ wife, Elle Macpherson (Can’t say I blame him). The two of them are forced to survive in the wilderness after a plane crash while being hunted by a huge (Is there any other kind?) Kodiak bear played by that great carnivoran thespian, “Bart the Bear” (I’m not kidding!). Stupidly advertised as “Jaws with Claws,” this film was much more than just that. Helped by a fine screenplay by David Manet, this survival thriller/character study gave a fascinating portrait of two mismatched men: (1) the younger, more virile, and increasingly envious Bob, and (2) the older, smarter, and more quick thinking and adaptable Charles who have to work together to survive. Both actors, especially Hopkins, gave great performances, and although this picture was not a success, it is still a terrific film about survival in the wild.
An even better character study of survival in the wild, and the last picture that I will discuss for this month’s Blog Post is the film, “The Grey” (2011). This one starred Liam Neeson as John Ottway, a professional hunter/sharpshooter hired by an Alaskan oil company to provide security by killing any grey wolves that threaten the oil workers there. Depressed and suicidal, he flies back with a bunch of the oil workers to Anchorage, but upon the flight back their plane runs into turbulence and crashes somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness leaving the survivors to fight for survival when they are threatened by the extreme weather and a roving pack of wolves that start picking them off one by one (I guess the “bear” union was on strike when this picture was made). “The Grey” was a different kind of survival tale for a number of reasons. First, it was not a real action thriller, and you didn’t even see the complete final confrontation between Ottway and the main Alpha wolf at the end of the picture. Second, it was not an accurate representation of how wolves really act in the wild with “The Grey” actually promoting some of the worst stereotypes that people wrongly associate about wolves. Three, Ottway, who becomes the leader of the survivors since he is supposedly the most knowledgeable individual about how to survive in the wild, makes some of the worst decisions that anyone could ever think of, which actually puts their group into even greater danger. This picture received some big-time justifiable criticism from a number of wildlife and environmental organizations for gross misinformation about wolves in general along with how anyone with even a minimal amount of knowledge could realistically survive better than the characters portrayed in this film. Hence, why am I, along with others, willing to praise such a picture? Well, that is because this picture is not supposed to be realistic, but more of an “allegory.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “allegory” is defined as being…
“A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.”
What is the allegory conveyed in this picture? Well, with an allegory you can have so many personal interpretations as to what something might actually mean that too often directors use it to make things so vague or unclear that you finally just want to say, “What the Hell just happened” or “What does all of this really mean?” A number of months ago I wrote about certain directors and their pictures, like Stanley Kubrick for “2001, A Space Odyssey” or Jane Campion for “Power of the Dog” who did this to such a degree that, even if their pictures were not believable or realistic, they were also not interesting along with being so slow, overly long, boring and vague that they just made you feel infuriated and personally cheated in some way. Other name directors even made an entire career out of making all of their motion pictures that way such as, to a lesser extent, Federico Fellini, along with maybe the very worst of them all being Ingmar Bergman.
I feel that “The Grey” is a meditative piece in the guise of an action/survival picture about an individual (Ottway) dealing with loneliness and past grief in a dark, cold, unforgiving world. Although, in the beginning he is suicidal, during this ordeal he instead fights to find a purpose, and to help the others as best he can even if their situation is dire, and with little hope for survival. Although Ottway is an admitted atheist, he still has the capacity to look up and cry out in an explicative filled rage for G-d to give him something real to prove that G-d exists so that Ottway can actually believe again. However, when there is no answer, he just says, “F**k it, I’ll do it myself!” He’s a sort of “Job” or “Christ” figure who carries the wallets (souls) of the dead with him and even lays them out in the shape of a cross as a means of remembrance. What Ottway and all of these damaged men (“Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.”) are running from is also maybe their fears, their failures, and even death itself personified by the wolves stalking them and the cruel environment around them. However, no one can escape their fate. You just have to ultimately face it which, in the end, Ottway finally does!
You wouldn’t expect such a film to be made by a director like Joe Camahan who was better known previously for making such shaggy dog action flicks like “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team.” The screenplay adapted by Camahan and Ian MacKenzie from his novel is also excellent, fully fleshing out all of the characters in depth, even those with little screen time. All of the actors give fine performances, and with a special shout out to Frank Grillo, as Diaz, the most obnoxious member of the group who actually turns into someone quite touching when he finally has to face his final end. However, best of all is Neeson’s towering performance as Ottway. He runs the emotional gauntlet from tough, to pensive, to unsure, to afraid, to resolute, and even, to being caring and thoughtful. There is an early scene in the picture where he comforts a dying man that is absolutely riveting. It’s one of the finest performances of his entire career. For such a downbeat motion picture that was deliberately made in such a way that it might have ultimately hurt its box office receipts, it was surprisingly successful too. It made back over three times of what it originally cost as well as receiving some serious critical acclaim. As a picture, “The Grey” will have you thinking about it long after its final minutes fade!
And if you have any complaints about it, my orthodontically challenged friend, “Bart the Bear” would like to have a word with you!