When The Grey opened in theaters nationwide the other day, animal advocates were shouting that the film demonizes wolves. Indeed, "demonize" is the verb of the hour. As our ugly Presidential campaign lurches onward, Americans talk a lot about "demonization," with both parties insisting that they're being demonized by their opponents. What makes "demonization" work is disinformation, pure and simple. Propagandists have to paint a hideously warped picture of the enemy. To do that, they must twist the facts as much as possible, no matter how scientifically ridiculous they wind up looking.
Animal advocates have called for a boycott of The Grey. Great idea. But too many people take positions on films they haven't seen and books they haven't read. So last night, two friends of mine and myself agreed that we wanted to see the movie for ourselves. I can now report that The Grey is an appalling piece of anti-wolf propaganda, cast in a broader well-worn theme that is closely related to homophobia.
It dangles a dramatic tale about alleged wolf viciousness to remind us of an old attitude of Western civilization, that "nature is evil incarnate and must be subdued." And this propaganda is a close cousin to an old belief that "gays are evil incarnate and must be destroyed." The same process of disinformation works for both.
Empty, Hostile Mountains
The Grey starts at an oil-drilling site in the arctic, where attacks by grey wolves are supposedly such a direct threat to the workers that a professional hunter, Ottway (played by Liam Neeson) was brought in to shoot any wolf he sees. Fact: Real-life wolves would steer clear of a noisy industrial site such as an oil rig.
When Ottway joins a group of workers flying out on a visit home, the plane crashes somewhere in a trackless winter mountain wilderness. Seven men survive the crash, including Ottway, whose experience makes him the natural leader. He shows them how to build a fire and gather materials that might be useful as weapons. Fire or no fire, the local ravening wolves show up anyway - they kill one survivor and leave his bloody skeleton right amidst the wreckage.
The remaining six men decide to go for help, so they slog off into the howling blizzards and empty mountains. As the hordes of stalking wolves pick them off, one by one, the disinformation unfolds in all its brazen, inaccurate glory. Clearly, the producers and screenwriters didn't bother to consult any wolf experts as they built their script and story points.
Fact: Grey wolves are highly territorial, and they have huge ranges in the arctic, covering as much as 100 miles a day to hunt. They don't tolerate other packs on their range. Packs seldom number more than half dozen or a dozen wolves, though occasionally packs of 40+ are seen if game is really plentiful. So the biggest pack that Ottway's group might have encountered would be a dozen wolves - maybe two or three dozen in a pinch. Yet the film tries to convince you that a whole howling army of hundreds of grey wolves is seemingly besieging the men.
Fact: In that northern environment, a vast army of wolves would need a vast army of large and small game to live on. Yet, during the men's trek, we don't see a single other animal. Nary a deer or moose or caribou or musk ox. Indeed, the production designers somehow forgot to populate their movie wilderness (some of which was created with matte paintings and special effects) with the kind of small animals that you'd normally see there in winter. Like birds or snowshoe rabbits or foxes or ptarmigan that might pop up. But the hostile mountains are seemingly empty of any life...except for wolves.
"Expert hunter" Ottway himself is a font of misinformation. Example: He tells his buddies that they must hope not to run into the pack's den. The alpha female will defend it to the death, he says. The fact is, wolves don't den in the winter! They den in late spring and summer, when pups are born and growing. By winter, the pups are fully grown and able to hunt and travel, so the pack roves around their range looking for meals.
But eventually Ottway - now the sole survivor - finds himself stumbling onto the den, a pile of rocks that is spookily banked by piled skeletons of big game. It's a great visual, that the screenwriters and set designers labored to bring forth. But the fact is, wolves don't waste energy dragging the carcasses of large prey back to the den. Instead, they feed right on the spot where they make the kill, and carry meat home in their stomachs, sometimes for dozens of miles, and regurgitate it for the pups.
In short - most of the story points about supposed "wolf behavior" are just pure Hollywood, based on ignorance and refusal to do homework. The Grey team just made it up as they went along, during many, story conferences, with the goal being to get the desired propaganda effect.
In this final apocalyptic scene, Ottway confronts the "demonic" alpha mother wolf with the last of his weapons and the last of his strength. Man and wolf die together.
The Moral of the Story
Is there a thread of moralistic theology in this queasy epic? Of course there is.
It has to do with why Ottway dies instead of winning his battle with the wolf.
At one point, the straggling men pause to discuss the pros and cons of faith. The ones who do believe in God perish early, because their will to survive is weak. Ottway, the strongest-willed, says he doesn't believe in God. But close to the end, he breaks down and yells at the sky, demanding God to prove his existence by helping him. What God does, apparently, is lead him to the fatal den and his personal Armageddon. Since he has no faith, Ottway too perishes.
In the film's final frame, we see the dying hunter lying across the body of the dying wolf, taking his own last breaths. Message sent. You better have faith if you want to win.
In short, The Grey is a textbook example of how to operate the clanking machinery of propaganda. The process works the same way for homophobia. The people who hate us have to twist the biological and social facts radically enough to portray LGBT people as a swarming, howling army of moral evil that are out to destroy the lives, the families and the marriages of innocent believers.
One more significant fact: The Grey is being released amid a gigantic new anti-wolf campaign across the United States, with official blessing of the Department of Interior. Ultraconservative political forces have geared up to massacre all the wolf packs so carefully built up from the edge of species extinction through 40 years of wildlife conservation. The killings are going on as I write this, in Montana, Idaho Alaska, and elsewhere. So I have to ask - were some backers of The Grey wanting to beef up the political excuses for getting rid of real-life wolves? I.e. by alleging that wolves kill not only livestock, but people as well?
Coincidentally, that gigantic anti-gay war is also being waged right now, with disinformation spewing from some Republican leaders and their churchy supporters. The messages must be continually hurled out there in the media, to keep the American public suitably fearful for their moral and physical safety. And to keep the public accepting of extreme violence against targeted animal species and targeted groups of people.
Scanning reviews of The Grey, I'm amazed at the uncritical and breathlessly positive comments coming from some of the mainstream media. They range from "great adventure" (NY Daily News) to "captivating" (New York Observer) and "spiritual" (The Wall Street Journal). But I'm not surprised. Such reviews reveal how well the propaganda has worked - how hardened and accepting many Americans have grown to the daily onslaughts of misinformation on many subjects.
After all, the propaganda poison often comes wrapped in a pretty package. And that's the case with The Grey. For the most part, this film is magnificently filmed and edited. Liam Neeson and supporting male actors do a great job. Star producer Ridley Scott makes sure of that.
The Grey cost an estimated $34 million to make, including location shooting in Canada and animatronic fakey-looking wolves with glowing demon-like eyes. Several production companies partnered in this effort, including 1984 Private Military Contractors, who specialize in over-the-top macho combat thrillers, notably one titled Machine Gun Preacher. The whole profile of the production kinda makes me wonder where - politically speaking - the financing for this propaganda epic came from.
For me, the bottom line is this: We're told that wolves must be shot on sight. And we're told that gays must be shot on sight. Both propagandas are pages from the same book.