Why Did I Watch It? One of my favourite movies as a kid, which I had not seen in a long time.
Farley Mowat was weirdly a big part of my childhood. If you don’t know that name, I’m not surprised. He was a Canadian author and environmental activist, and the small amount of fame he accumulated in his lifetime has faded. He was most popular in the 80s, and he died nearly ten years ago.
Mowat was best known for his books on the animals of the Canadian wilderness, wolves especially. As a young man he worked for the government’s wildlife service, studying native animals and the environment. His books were much lauded – although controversial in some circles, Mowat was not a scientist – and he was credited with raising awareness of wolves as an important endangered species.
He also wrote about his eccentric family.
I remember the moment distinctly. We were living in Perth, I was probably 10, and we had gone to a flea market. Money was always tight, it was single parent household, and mum generally did her shopping wherever she thought would be cheapest; a lot of markets and second hand stores. This day she was looking for a new pot, the handle had snapped on our previous one.
I found the markets a bit boring. In fact, thinking back on my childhood, I was generally in the company of either my mother or brother, one or other was always looking after me, and they were always dragging me places I did not want to go. Mum liked markets. Dave was very into building model aeroplanes, and I spent a lot of time with him in hobby stores, while he carefully considered different small cans of paint. I was not allowed to stay home by myself, which is what I wanted: I was too young. So I would have to find a way to occupy myself, and make the best of it.
In any case: the markets. There would always be at least one stall selling books, and so I would fill in the time browsing through those. This is how I coped with these endless errands I had to tag along on: reading was my favourite thing.
And there it was. Sitting on top of a stack at this stall; a book called ‘The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be’, by Farley Mowat. The cover was what hooked me. It showed a black and white dog, kindof like a border collie, but not exactly, wearing a pair of driving goggles, and giving a sly smile. Something about this called to me, very strongly. When mum finally finished what she was doing, I asked her if I could have it.
She asked the guy running the stall, how much?
He glanced at it. One dollar, he said.
Then, as now, people do not know the value of things.
The book did not disappoint. In fact, it exceeded expectations. It was about a kid, growing up in regional Canada, and the adventures he had with his eccentric father, who fancied himself as an inventor, a sailor, and an outdoorsman; none of which he was any good at. The father’s job required the family to move constantly, and so they explored the small towns and wild back country of Canada. A lot of road trips, and hiking, and camping, in the immensity of that natural environment. The father tries to build a boat at one point, and other schemes, all of which end in disaster.
Somewhere along the way the family acquire a mongrel pup, a scruffy, unprepossessing animal they call ‘Mutt’. While Mutt doesn’t look like much, he quickly reveals himself to be not your average dog. He learns to climb ladders, and walk along the tops of fences, navigating the entire neighbourhood fence-to-fence, like a cat. He proves to be a master retrieval dog and tracker, sniffing out scents and trails that other dogs cannot find. He is even the kind of gifted woodsman the father wishes to be himself; guiding the family back to safety when they get lost.
He can do it all.
Mutt fits in with the eccentric family perfectly, and they have still more elaborate adventures together. It is a very funny and warm hearted book, and it became my favourite as a kid. I read it multiple times.
And the ending devastated me, each and every time:
‘I returned directly to the road, and my boots were sucking in the mud when a truck came howling along toward me, and passed in a shower of muddy water. I glanced angrily after it, for the driver had almost hit me in his blind rush. As I watched, it swerved sharply to make the bend in the road and vanished from my view. I heard the sudden shrilling of brakes, then the roar of an accelerating motor – and it was gone.
I did not know that, in its passing, it had made an end to the best years I had lived.
In the evening of that day I drove out along the road in company with a silent farmer who had come to collect me. We stopped beyond the bend, and found him in a roadside ditch. The tracks that I had followed ended here, nor would they ever lead my heart again.’
I just got my copy out for the first time in many years to read the final page, and it seems just as sad, and lovely, as it did all those decades ago. Quietly devastating, and also beautiful. To me it is a special object, like a magic talisman.
In any case: Never Cry Wolf.
This movie was a favourite when I was a kid as well. It is about a naive young man sent to study wolves in a remote part of Canada, to determine if they are responsible for a decline in the Caribou population. He is meant to kill one, and study the contents of its stomach.
Only: in this isolated environment, in some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable, just him and the wolf, he starts to feel a bond with the animal. He had previously bought into the stereotype of them as savage killers, now he realises this is far from the truth. The wolf is a beautiful creature, living in harmony with its environment. His study takes on an additional layer when he realises the wolf he has focused on has a mate, and she soon produces a litter of pups (exactly as cute as you would imagine).
Over one long season, the man watches the wolves, and they watch him. They grow, they play, they hunt; resources are scarce, but they manage to get by. Both wolf and man subsist for a time on mice. But when summer comes the snows melts away and food becomes plentiful, the country a paradise.
Even though I watched this film any number of times when I was little, I did not realise till much later that it was based on another book by Farley Mowat, and the main character is meant to be him. It is based on his own experiences, in the wildlife service.
Director Carroll Ballard is something of a legend in the film industry; an iconoclastic type who only made a handful of features, including one of the most acclaimed family films of all time, ‘The Black Stallion’. He brings a gentle, assured touch to this material, and shows his passion for nature. The stars of the film are the wolves, and their footage is a mixture of trained animal actors, and real life footage of wild animals. They are thrilling to watch. It is remarkable to see how large they are, and imposing; you can see why they have the reputation they have. But the film deftly shows their other side; intelligent creatures who mate for life, care about their family, and even have a sense of play.
Charlie Martin Smith is perfectly cast as Mowat’s surrogate, called Tyler in the film. A lot of the story is told via voice over, recounting the character’s own journal entries (he is alone for most of the film), and the credits spotlight that the actor wrote these lines himself; clearly this was a passion project for all involved. Another trivial footnote: among the other credited screenwriters are Curtis Hanson, later of ‘LA Confidential’ fame, and Sam Hamm, who wrote Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ movies.
The ending is a heartbreaker, which you can always feel coming. This is a wild place, but the modern world is encroaching, and many people see these animals and their environment just as a way to make money. As one of the Inuits Tyler encounters puts it: ‘Survival of the fittest.’ A sombre note, but the film is glorious. It is lovingly made, and transportive, and also reflects a different time. Before Disney became an assembly line, cranking out the world’s biggest franchises, they used to make stuff like this; a simple movie about wild animals, designed to give children a sense of wonder, and maybe get them thinking about conservation.
Worthy aims, and a pretty wonderful means to do it.