For the masses out there who love nature films, and even those who don’t, Carroll Ballard’s more than fits the commercial bill and should score well too with critical suds on several counts. Pic was two years in production in the wilds of the Yukon and Alaska, and it measures up to the promise Ballard amply provided in his first feature, “The Black Stallion.”
Basically, this is a story about the life-and-times of white wolves in the Arctic. It’s based on a bestseller, Farley Mowat (an autobiographical account of the popular writer’s experiences as a government biologist in the Canadian Northwest).
The stretch of location shooting in and around Dawson City, Yukon, and Nome, Alaska, tried the talents of the entire crew, from the documentarist Ballard to actor Charles Martin Smith in the role of the young biologist Tyler – it was seasonal work requiring proper lighting, patient animal training, and simply two years of hard work. The results of this sweat-and-labor are all to be found in the film’s powerful images and comprehending feel for the wonders of Mother Nature.
The story is simple: idiotically simple. Biologist Tyler is sent to survive in the Arctic while investigating whether the predatory wolf is responsible for the gradual disappearance of the caribou herds. Tyler, a naive lad, could hardly survive a winter alone in any case, so a friendly but reticent Eskimo, Ootek (Zachary Ittimangnaq), fortunately happens by the helpless biologist’s stake-out in the dead of winter to rescue him – both the greenhorn and his supplies are then transported to an isolated hut, whereupon Tyler is left on his own again. When the weather begins to change, Tyler falls through the ice on a lake during an expedition, but finally the idiot-biologist hardens into a practical scientist by learning everything the hard way — including eating mice to survive when his supplies run out.
Then begins the study of the white wolf. It turns out to be just like numerous recent articles and Mowat’s own book: the wolf is, after all, an intelligent creature and deft provider with warm family ways, hardly the villain he’s so often made out to be and certainly not the reason for the ongoing decrease in the caribou herds. Indeed, it’s the wolf who’s being wantonly hunted for the bounty of his pelt. Biologist Tyler, in some of the wittiest, funniest, and most human scenes in the film, comes to know his research-quarry quite intimately as George and Angeline living with their families of three pups in a nearby den. When Eskimos Ootek and Mike later join him for company, the wisdom of this production surfaces in their light conversation on man and nature.
In the end, when the caribou arrive on a trek of their own, the final proof is garnered on the innocence of the wolf — even though the kill of one weak caribou is registered (it’s evidence instead of Nature’s way of removing the weak to strengthen the strong). Man also appears on the scene in most undignified manner: the wilderness is gradually being exploited for commercial gain without bothering in the lest for relevant ecological needs.
All this said, the most praise goes to the imagery of this poetic fiction-documentary as fashioned by Ballard, cameraman Hiro Narita and soundman Alan R. Splet. The style of the film historians will probably classify Carroll Ballard’s “Black Stallion” and “Never Cry Wolf” as fable-documentaries or poetic nature-epics; and if there is any weakness to note at all, it lies in the rather extreme poetic and romantic polish of the director’s vision. No biologist is that dumb, to begin with, on an expedition in the wilds of the Northwest. And, if he was, he should have taken Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” along with him to read in his spare time.
Yet the magic of the film is in that quaint comic performance rendered by thesp Smith. He’s the Goofy of the Walt Disney nature series.