The wolf at the cinema: From realism to idealisation – 5 symbolic movies

The wolf, fearsome predator and loyal member of the pack, has always inspired the creativity of writers, painters and filmmakers. For directors especially, the ability to tell stories through the filming of these spectacular animals, has led to the release of long list of high-acclaimed films. Putting aside the countless ‘horror flicks’ featuring the werewolf – a disturbing fusion between man and beast – the king of the pack is also portrayed, either struggling with man, in a relationship of mutual respect or conflict or in its natural environment.

If you’re curious to see how the wolf has been depicted on the silver screen, you can start with these 5 films that cater for almost every movie genre:

1. For the movie buff/dog lover – Dances with Wolves

This 1990 film, written, directed by and starring Kevin Costner, has been the recipient of many awards; it has also been ranked seventy-fifth in the ‘100 Greatest American Films of All Times‘ by the American Film Institute. The plot focuses on the tormented figure of Lieutenant John Dunbar, and is set during the American Civil War. The soldier, confined in the desolate outpost of Fort Sedgewick, meets and joins a neighbouring Sioux tribe. Through his association with the tribe, the protagonist finds love, self-awareness and perceives the true spirit of the community of Native Americans. They identify him in as their ‘hero’ and rename him ‘Dances with Wolves‘, because of his special affinity with a wolf – Two Socks – that keeps him company during the long period of solitude at the outpost.

2. For the ecologist: Never Cry Wolf

In 1983, Walt Disney Pictures produced this adaptation of the book by Farley Mowat. Carroll Ballard directed it. The film tells the incredible story of a biologist called Tyler (Charles Martin Smith) who is sent to observe the behaviour of Arctic wolves in Canada following the killing of many caribous. Initially driven by a negative preconception of wolves – as the protagonists of his worst nightmares – the biologist will be forced to change his view: those responsible for the massacre of caribous are not wolves but poachers. Before discovering the truth, Tyler braves the hostile tundra closely observing the slick operation of the wolf pack.

3. For the traditionalist: White Fang

Adapted from the famous novel by Jack London, this 1991 movie focuses on the special relationship between a man and a wolf. On one side, you have young Jack Conroy (Ethan Hawke), in search of gold and a sense of belonging in the world, on the other, you have the wolf White Fang, first orphaned, then carefully trained by an Indian and finally exploited by unscrupulous men in illegal dog fights. The encounter between wolf and boy will change their lives for ever: the wolf tames its aggression after finding a human that it can finally trust, while the boy builds a peaceful life founded on a conscious choice to respect nature.

4. For the tough: Siberian Education

This 2013 film was directed by Gabriele Salvatores and is based on the novel by Nicolai Lilin. Set in Moldova, the film tells the story of the friendship between Kolyma and Gagarin. The first, educated by his grandfather in the strict Siberian values of respect and honour, the second, travels a rocky road through a series of mistakes and misadventures. In this instance, the wolf is a reference point with which Kolyma’s grandfather, played by John Malkovich, explains the value of dignity that among men, as in the pack, should overcome the need to survive.

5. For the sophisticated: Wolf Totem

We eagerly await the release of this hotly anticipated film by Jean Jacques Annaud, who brings the novel ‘Wolf Totem’ – written by Lu Jiamin in 2004 under the pseudonym Jiang Rong – to the big screen. Set in Mongolia in the 60s, Wolf Totem tells the story of student Chen Zhen, who is sent in to the heart of the wilderness to teach a nomadic tribe of shepherds. The admiration he develops for wolves will lead him to not only tame a wolf pup but to defend the wolves, after they are targeted by a public official who has decided to kill all the animals of the region.

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