The 1983 Carroll Ballard production Never Cry Wolf began on the premise of wildlife and the wilderness encroaching on the well-being of man, as seen through the experiences of its protagonist Tyler (Charles Martin Smith). The film was based on a book of the same title written by real-life Arctic wildlife explorer and environmental advocate Farley Mowat, whose work changed the way the public viewed wolves and their role in the ecological system.
Tyler was commissioned by the Canadian government to investigate the conduct of “killer wolves” in the tundra and confirm the threat they posed on the caribou population. His main task was to take home a wolf carcass and examine the contents of its stomach. A biologist by training and a frustrated explorer at heart, he accepted the job in spite of his own misgivings: “I just jumped at the opportunity to go. Without even thinking about it, really. Because it opened the way to an old – and very naïve – childhood fantasy of mine: to go off into the wilderness, and test myself against all the dangerous things lurking there.”
But it wasn’t just the caribou that the wolves were suspected of feasting on. A drunkard he had met before heading for his trip warned Tyler, “They’ll come after you, son. Just for the ugly fun of tearing you apart.” As the plane that would take him to the heart of the Canadian tundra flew through the snow-capped mountains, the biologist himself expected his six-month solitary expedition to be “a suicide.”
The man-versus-wild angle is reinforced even in the cinematography – the beginning of the film is abundant with wide-angle and long shots showing Tyler making his way through the vast white expanse of the Arctic. Within days of his arrival, he encounters a majestic Canis lupus arctica whom he christens George.
At first, Tyler struggles to facilitate interaction with – and consequently, scientific observation of – the wolf. But thanks to his knowledge of animal behavior and 27 cups of urine-inducing tea,Tyler put his foot and pants down in a successful bid to establish his own territory. This much George understood respected, and both man and beast turned to observing each other from a distance. Soon,Tyler realized why George was being so watchful of him: the wolf had a family of five, one that he and his mate Angeline were committed to protect at all cost.
Tyler would soon find out that he wasn’t the only human in the tundra. He crosses paths with members of the Inuit tribe, the elderly Ootek (Zachary Ittimangnaq) and the younger Mike (Samson Jorah). Ootek lived his whole life in the wilderness, and had been a companion to the wolves since childhood. Mike, on the other hand, had been educated in southern Canada and found himself ensnared by the luxuries and trappings of modernity.
The film is a study of loss in as much as it is a study of discovery. The nature of Tyler’s dispatch suggests that man – represented by the Canadian government, in this case – has fancied himself the messiah of nature, the restorer of the ecological balance caused by the wolves’ supposed hunger for caribou. But as it would turn out, the wolves were far from being mercenary carnivores. As a matter of fact, the real preys of the wolves were mice in the field, as Tyler himself observed and tested out. He also discovered that there was truth in the Inuit knowledge that wolves only ate the weakest of the caribou. The rationale behind this was so that the ailment of their secondary prey would not be passed on to the rest of the caribou herd.
The loss tackled here is not only the loss of sustenance, but also the loss of resources, habitat and culture. The young Inuits, as characterized by Mike, were breaking away from their own culture’s beliefs and traditions and trading them in for the comforts of city living. Far from restoring the natural order, human activity facilitated the destruction of the Arctic tundra. Technology and capitalism threatened the area’s wildlife and natural resources.
One telling indicator of this is the juxtaposition of the vehicles shown at the start and end of the movie. The vehicle that brought Tyler to the site was a dilapidated air carrier, one that would break down and conk out in mid-air. The vehicle that would later bring exploiters of nature to the same site was a sharp helicopter, its turbine making like fangs biting into the riches of the wilderness. The very vehicle used to take Tyler there was revamped with money that came from the sale of pelts from the wolves he had come to observe.
When the state of the environment and the satiation of our material greed hangs on a balance, like the fragile ice of the tundra, what we need be most afraid of is ourselves. Never Cry Wolf shows us that for all our technological advancements and biological know-how, we humans may be howling up the wrong tree when it comes to determining the perpetrator of environmental destruction. In the end, we may find that we are hardly even threatened by the wild – it is us instead, who pose the greatest threat to it.