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The Myth of Macho: Man vs. Nature

Ariel Schudson considers the deeper meaning of 'The Grey' and 'The Pack,' two films about men fighting off man-eating canines.

“He’s too far gone, he’s too wild. I’ve seen it before. It’s more than hunger.”

Man versus nature. The cinematic portrayal of such an act is almost historic, hailing back to ideas of “fight or flight,” dominance and natural selection. Taken at its most basic form, it’s plant life and natural disasters, inspiring films such as Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960 and Frank Oz, 1986), Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (John DeBello, 1978), Hurricane (John Ford, 1937) and the most over-the-top recent film, 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009). A few steps beyond angry vegetation and the world’s own climate-curveballs, this cinematic concept has extended itself to the unregulated and vicious behavior of the other natural beings we are surrounded by: animals. The most famous examples of this are generally considered to be Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), a tale about a seaside town’s experiences with some rather rancorous crows and seagulls, or the much-lauded Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) a film about a large and very hungry great white shark.

While many of these films make arguments for male virility and survival instinct, two films stand out to be explored within the Myth of Macho context due to their lead actor and the chosen animal(s) they must battle for survival. While hostilities on the street led to the development of different masculine sensibilities in Boyz n the Hood and certain kinds of animal instincts are part and parcel of a story like that depicted in Warrior, these are all men versus men. Nothing that we have discussed thus far has brought up the “Angry Animals” genre. This group of films may go under various genre headings (“when animals attack,” “natural horror,” “animal disaster” films), considering that the slew of films that can be catalogued under this label started almost as early as film did. Earlier examples might be King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, 1933) or, to an extent, the first silent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Stuart Paton, 1916). It moved onwards quite rapidly to things like The Killer Shrews (Ray Kellogg, 1954), Willard (Daniel Mann, 1971) and everyone’s Easter favorite, Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972). This genre did not quite reach its apex until the 1970s and at that point it went wild (pun intended).

Most of these films involve a male protagonist “saving the day” and yet many of the more sci-fi elements also indicate that men, heading up the science divisions, also served as villains in a weird way, many times causing their own danger or demise by attempting to “scientifically advance” or alter the surrounding natural habitat. Attempts to rid a community of rabbits only creates, literally, a much larger scale problem in Night of the Lepus, and films like George McCowan’s Frogs (1972) show us exactly how much the ecological landscape and its tenants really hate pesticides. While the environment was able to exact its terror upon humans and the 1970s really gave it to us in large (sometimes extra-large) doses how much we should not be futzing with the natural order of things, a certain amount of masculine triumph was present in many of these films, especially those dealing with mammals (sorry, Jaws).

This filmic asset has caused the genre to continue up until today. Since the 70s, we have seen a few more monkeys (I highly suggest George Romero’s Monkey Shines from 1988), pissed-off undead housecats (Pet Sematary, Mary Lambert, 1989), folks having bear-related issues (The Edge by Lee Tamahori, 1997), and even lions (The Ghost and the Darkness by Stephen Hopkins, 1996). I think we’re still waiting on a great tiger film so that we can have the “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” death-defying triple bill. Overall, the science/ecology/revenge storyline lessened in tandem with the hippie-environmentalist subculture dying out, but it left a certain interest in man versus animal survival films.

 

The films that Myth of Macho will be centering on this week are The Pack, aka The Long Dark Night (Robert Clouse, 1974) and Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2011). These films represent two very interesting and different explorations of men’s roles in the “man versus animal” genre, or, to be more specific, in the subset of films that make up the “man versus canine” subgenre. The evolution of this and the depictions of male strength, survival skills and interpersonal relationships has evolved greatly from 1974 to 2011, in no small part having to do with the male leads. The choices of Joe Don Baker for The Pack and Liam Neeson for The Grey are more than just representations of male tenacity in a survival situation, they are also emblematic of what we have found, both then and now, to be the man capable of conquering the beast… whatever that beast may be.

Each of these films has a different take on the dog world. The Pack centers on the residents of a quiet vacation town on Seal Island. Jerry (Joe Don Baker), a recent arrival to the island, becomes the protagonist and “defender of the fort” when a pack of wild dogs comes out of the woods and decides that the vacationing humans are their target of animosity and vengeance. The Grey is slightly different. As Ottway (Liam Neeson)’s voiceover says at the outset of the picture, “A job at the end of the world. A salaried killer for a big petroleum company. I don't know why I did half the things I've done, but I know this is where I belong, surrounded by my own. Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assh*les. Men unfit for mankind.” Ottway has been hired to keep the wolves away from the workers. When he says he’s a hired killer, he’s not wrong. But when his airplane filled with a group of “his own” goes down in the middle of a snow storm, the dynamic changes: the hunter becomes the hunted. With very little chance of being found, the men struggle for survival as a pack of quite hungry canus lupi decide that this incursion on their territory is good for only one thing: dinner.

“Killer canine” pictures have become a large and vastly entertaining part of the natural horror film genre. From Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982) to the highly underrated French film, Baxter (Jerome Boivin) and 1993’s Man’s Best Friend (John Lafia), dogs have certainly gotten to have their day. These representations of canines, domesticated or feral, beg a certain amount of study due to the fact that dogs are, for all intents and purposes, supposed to be “Man’s Best Friend.” So what happens when said friend goes all Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1983) on your ass? It’s not like a giant crazed boar is attacking those you know and love (Razorback, Russell Mulcahy, 1984). No, it’s a recognized “family member” or a representative of the animal that has been socially established as a companion and protector of the home. What does it say about masculinity when your primary male character is forced to battle these creatures for dear life? When looking at films like The Pack and The Grey, it is crucial to keep this question in the forefront.

While The Grey is a film that deals chiefly with issues of isolation, existential necessities and desperate survival skills, it also raises questions of base animal instinct and “pack-like”-behavior. Wolves may not be domesticated canines (although I have known domesticated dogs who are part wolf) but their aesthetic and behavioral similarities are clear even to the common observer. With a few minor differences, wolves are basically hardcore pups that can fight like the Dickens and have a much higher tolerance for cold than, say, Chihuahuas. In fact, Dr. Robert Wayne, a specialist in all things canine, has discovered through DNA evidence that the star of The Grey, the grey wolf, is actually a direct relation to the dog. But let’s not mistake the intent of this film; Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan’s wolf pack are not like the other animals in the Alaskan wilderness who would gladly attack and kill to satiate their hunger or protect their environment: the structure of these wolves and the manner in which they are depicted convey a sense of the men they are hunting. The Grey isn’t just a great film where Liam Neeson punches the crap out of a huge grey wolf, it’s an exploration of the relationship between masculinity and animal instinct.

The Pack operates on an “outsider” principal: the feral dogs that attack the humans in the film, while seeming to be the bad guys, are really not to be blamed for their behavior. Like the wolves in The Grey they are reacting to their surroundings and experiences, and fighting back. The major difference in The Pack, however, is that we are told at the beginning of the film that many, if not all of these dogs used to be someone’s pet at one time. They have simply been abandoned and now are at the point of starvation and desperate measures for survival. But Jerry, much like the angry dogs, is also an outsider. Although he is more acclimated to the island than the vacationing family in the film, he belongs and yet he doesn’t belong: he has only just moved to the island with his family (his son, fiancé and her son). Like these poor discarded animals who have created a makeshift family out of their shared desertion and cohabitate in an abandoned barn in the woods, Jerry, too, has cobbled together a whole out of parts; while we never really know what either Jerry or Millie (Hope Alexander-Willis)’s pasts were, it is clear that neither is a native islander, and they both came out of previous relationships, as each one has a child.


Joe Don Baker’s presence in 1977 was a force to be reckoned with. Although not considered true star material or a major heartthrob, Baker’s already burgeoning career had gotten a good head start when he was chosen to play opposite Steve McQueen as his younger brother, Curly, in Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah, 1972). Joe Don Baker’s real “breakthrough,” however, came with his participation in a film called Walking Tall (Phil Karlson, 1972).  Now considered to be more on the 70s B-movie end of things, this film’s budget of $500,000 ended up being far under the $23,000,000 it made. Baker’s filmic creation of the non-fictional Sheriff Buford Pusser not only initiated a string of sequels (and a relatively recent remake starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), but it also established Joe Don Baker as a no-nonsense, won’t take nothin’ from nobody-type of character actor. Based upon this, he was given other such roles, like the fantastic revenge/crime thriller, The Outfit (John Flynn, 1973) with Robert Duvall and the somewhat bizarre mash-up of martial arts and crime drama, Golden Needles (Robert Clouse, 1974) alongside Jim Kelly, directed by the same man who cast him a few years later as the lead in The Pack (which, by the way, has a really nicely remastered DVD available from Warner Archive Collection, and no, they didn’t ask me to tell you that).

While The Pack may not seem like a major film (and make no bones about it, it is a 70s action/horror film, but that’s what makes it so wonderful), Clouse utilized Joe Don Baker’s rough appeal to make the character of Jerry stand out and to showcase the aspects of the film that might’ve been ignored. Because he was an established hardass with a sensitive side (see the “Say I love you,” scene in Golden Needles as reference or his familial loyalty in Walking Tall), his brand of masculinity was perfect for the fighting and killing of the animal that is considered to be such a treasured companion.

Like Buford Pusser, Jerry is a family man and dedicated to that job, come hell or high water. When the feral dogs come out of the woods and begin to attack, coming at the vacationers, Millie, their neighbors, Jerry does not hesitate in fighting back. At the same time, when the dogs injure their own family dog, Jerry sees to it that the poor thing is well tended to medically. The Pack is as much an exploration of man-as-provider (he built Millie a house, makes sure the dog’s wounds remain uninfected) and defender of hearth-and-home as it is an analysis of the extremities that a man will go to in order to keep what he has built.

As viewers, we wince to see such a familiar animal as a dog harmed or destroyed. Matching that discomfort is the fact that this incident occurred as a result of total irresponsibility on the part of human beings. At the beginning of the film, we bear witness to a dog being abandoned carelessly by a family, simply left in the woods as the family goes back to the city from their island vacation. Needless to say, said dog joins the wild pack, having nowhere else to go. The animals fight back because they have been left behind. Their anger and hunger have replaced the domesticated pet personas they once possessed, revealing the same brutality that Jerry and his cohorts show in fighting back to defend themselves. The Pack is about what happens when we do not care properly for the vulnerable and the consequences of our actions.

Liam Neeson wasn’t always famous for being the badass he is today. Films like Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990) put him on the action “map,” but his career mellowed a bit after than as he pursued roles in films like Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen, 1992), Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Bill Condon’s Kinsey (2004). However, that all changed in 2008 with the release of Pierre Morel’s Taken, where Neeson plays one of the most hardcore special agents and protective fathers committedto cinema thus far. After Taken, the dramatic-shield was broken, and he was cast in films like The A-Team (Joe Carnahan, 2010) and Unknown (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011), firmly placing him in Action Man-territory.  Much like Robert Clouse’s casting of Joe Don Baker in The Pack after working with him in Golden Needles, Joe Carnahan went right from working with Neeson in The A-Team to placing him front and center in The Grey. The choice was obvious: Neeson’s dramatic ability would enable him to carry the weight of the emotional resonance of the film while his New Action Persona would give the film the masculine strength that it so richly deserved.

The Grey is a highly layered piece of cinema. Aside from the basic narrative of survival, relationships and the male psyche, this film digs deep into the connective tissue that exists between the masculine identity and primitive instincts. Liam Neeson’s character is such that, although severely broken and emotionally vulnerable, he is still the most hardened of all the crash survivors. The reality is, none of the rest of the men were hired to kill… Ottway was. The other men, while playing “hard,” don’t have the skills or guts to back-up their strutting.

Ottway is established as a weak man, done with the world. He is introduced with an attempted suicide accompanied by several flashback/dream sequences with his wife, who, we gather, is no longer in the picture, although it is not clear why. However, the minute the plane crashes, we see a very different side of him. No longer the moping devastated man who has shipped himself up to Alaska to be with others of his “ilk,” he is the only man on the plane who shifts into “fight or flight” mode. Ottway’s behavior during these scenes exhibits the most primal of instincts: clan/familial protection and survival at any and all costs. Not only does he pull the men together and get them to “snap out it” briefly, he is calm enough to ease a dying man through his last minutes.

Ironically, it is Ottway, the survivor, the protector, who attracts the attention of the wolves and brings them to the survivor’s camp. When going to help a woman he thinks has survived the crash, he quickly realizes that not only has she not survived, but she is being eaten. The wolf attacks and things go downhill quickly from there. The hunt is on. Now that the pack knows there is more food to be had and an incursion on their territory, the protection that has been set up is fairly useless, as the men find out.

Ottway’s description of the wolf pack is analogous to the survivors’ own structure, with one small problem: Ottway, as the Alpha/leader, has mad survival skills; the rest of the men do not. They have bravado (which doesn’t work out too well), and there is a great deal of fear (also not very helpful). A wolfpack generally functions with the same set of abilities, just within a hierarchical social pattern. The Grey not only explicates masculinity as being about more than one’s own concerns, needs and sense of self but also about strength and stamina, even in the toughest conditions. The men who don’t make it are, with few exceptions, men who exhibit some kind of inability to function when the going got rough.

At its heart, The Grey isn’t about survival as much as it is about endurance, courage and spirit. Ottway’s success in the film has more to do with his inner triumphs than his outer ones. As the survivors try to make it through the snow to a place of safety, Ottway’s flashbacks turn to a poem written by his father: “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.” While this could mean anything from the physical confrontations with the wolves to staying alive, in the end it comes down to being ready and being capable to tackle whatever life throws your direction, no matter what hardships you’re facing or whatever state of mind you are in. Liam Neeson’s ability to combine pathos with genuine masculine strength and primal energy gives this film the exact force that it needs to put that across.  

The Grey is a different film from The Pack, and rightly so. They are decades apart. But what they both convey is a highly masculine look at loyalty to one’s own and the importance of pushing through and determination even if it seems impossible. They also each establish the connection between a man’s affirmation of his own survival skills and feelings of success. While Jerry and Ottway achieve victory in very different ways, they both are shown as having relied upon their own powers of “fight or flight” and Darwinian know-how to do so. Using the canine species to help access these messages only reiterates ideas of the group dynamic and the fact that, much like dogs or wolves, we are social creatures; we, too, gather in packs or groups, and we should also be concerned for each other’s well-being.

I hope I’ve given you a little to chew on with this week’s Myth of Macho, and remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!
 


Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.