“Once more into the fray …”

“Once more into the fray …” June 30, 2012

Spoiler Alert: The following post contains movie spoilers.  If you have not seen  Liam Neeson’s The Grey and you plan to, then don’t read this yet.

A few weeks ago, I watched the movie, The Grey, starring Liam Neeson.  Neeson is one of may favorite “man’s man” actors.  I’ve loved many of the roles he played, but The Grey was something special.  Neeson plays Ottway, a hunter hired by an Alaskan oil company to kill wolves that threaten its workers.  We learn from flashbacks that Ottway’s wife had died before the movie began, and when we first see him, he is stumbling through life.  He is about to shoot himself in the mouth with his own rifle on night, when the howling of a pack of wolves interrupts him and, for some reason he does not go through with it.

Liam Neeson in The Grey

Ottway then gets on a plane with several other workers for the oil company.  The plane goes down in the Alaskan tundra.  They crash in what they soon learn is the hunting ground of a large pack of wolves.  The pack attacks Ottway, who survives, and then starts picking off other survivors.  Rather than wait in the open for a rescue that is not coming, the group follows Ottway into the forest.  But they do not find any safety there.  They start with eight survivors and, as they move deeper into the forest, they gradually lose one after another.  In addition to the wolves, which are at their heels (quite literally), the survivors have to contend with the elements, including a blizzard, lack of food, and the terrain, including one heart-stopping leap off of a cliff.

Throughout the movie, the survivors argue about the meaning of their circumstances.  Some believe that there must be some meaning in their survival, a proposition which seems increasingly dubious as those same “survivors” are later killed by the wolves.  In the end, the only one left is Ottway, who had been ready to take his own life just hours earlier.  After his last companion dies, in a particularly pointless fashion, drowned in a river when his foot gets stuck under a rock, Ottway climbs onto the bank and looks up at the sky.  He pleads and then yells:

“Do something…do something. You faulty prick, fraudulent motherfucker. DO SOMETHING! FUCK FAITH! EARN IT! SHOW ME SOMETHING REAL! I NEED IT NOW, NOT LATER! Do something and I’ll believe in you until the day I die, I swear. I’m calling on you, I’M CALLING ON YOU!”

When the sky does not respond, Ottway pauses and then says to himself,

“Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

(That’s a sentiment that the humanist in me thrills at.)

We then see Ottway trudging through the snow until he can go no farther and collapses on his knees.  There he pulls out the bag he had been carrying containing the wallets of all his now deceased companions which he has gradually collected, looking through their photographs of loved ones.  Each wallet he places respectfully on the ground, almost as if he is building an altar.  When he is done, he places his own on top.

And then the wolves appear.  Ottway looks around and sees the carcasses of other animals and realizes he is actually in the wolves’ den.  All this time, the group had hoped they were moving farther away from the wolves territory, and now Ottway finds that he has walked right into the center of it.  He then dumps the contents of his bag, the few items he had managed to scrounge from the wreck.  He tapes his knife to one hand and broken mini-bar bottles between the fingers of his left.  He then recites a poem which his father had written:

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 … 

The movie ends just as Ottway charges the wolf.  The implication is that he will die, but the fight has brought him back to life.

When the movie ended I felt a distinct sense of dissatisfaction with my own life — that there was not enough fight in it.  It is a strange thought for me.  I knew years of strife and struggle as a teenager and young adult.  I fought with myself and just about everyone around me.  I thrived on the conflict.  I know thrill of the fight.  But I also know how unsatisfying it ultimately is.  I finally found peace in a few realizations that coalesced for me around the word “pagan”.

Today, I am a lawyer, and probably get my fair share of strife, in the form of litigation — which I don’t mind, but I don’t thrive on like some attorneys.  And I have no desire for strife in my personal relationships.  So, what is this absence that I felt so acutely after watching The Grey?

In response, my mind turned to this quote from D.H. Lawrence (which I’ve posted here several times before), writing about the what he experienced in the Etruscan frescoes he saw on his visit to Tarquinia in Italy:

“The old idea of the vitality of the universe was evolved long before history begins, and elaborated into a vast religion before we get a glimpse of it. When history does begin, we see evidence of one underlying religious idea : the conception of the vitality of the cosmos, the myriad vitalities in wild confusion, which still is held in some sort of array : and man, amid all the glowing welter, adventuring, struggling, striving for one thing, life, vitality, more vitality : to get into himself more and more of the gleaming vitality of the cosmos. That is the treasure. The active religious idea was that man, by vivid attention and subtlety and exerting all his strength, could draw more life into himself, more life, more and more glistening vitality, till he became shining like the morning, blazing like a god.

— D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places

This quote haunts me.  Maybe I just need to climb a mountain, but I feel like I need to throw myself up against something — against life itself perhaps.

I think I need some increased vitality, not just in my daily life, but also in my spiritual practice.  The stoicism of my Pagan outlook has given me an equilibrium I never knew in my early years.  It is a hard won gift that I will not relinquish easily.  But I wonder if I am not missing out on an intensity in my spirituality.  The danger of this craving is, as I know too well, that I can manufacture the excitement in an unhealthy way.

My religion of origin, Mormonism, is all about striving, at least it was for me.  Mormons see life as one step in an unending process of evolution they call “eternal progression”.  I’ve come across this idea in Paganism in the case some polytheists who believe the gods are highly evolved human beings.  (That’s basically what Mormons believe to.)  For me, this conception of life resulted in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction.  For years after leaving the Mormon religion I focused on cultivating as sense of acceptance of what is right here in front of my eyes.  And I find that acceptance expressed in the Pagan paradigm.  I’m not exactly a tranquil person, but I have come a long way, I think.

But now I find myself craving an intensity of experience again.  But the question is how to achieve that without destroying the peace of spirit I have cultivated for years.

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  • Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

  • I really, really loved “The Grey” — and I really enjoyed your article on it. I too felt kind of an emptiness after watching the end of The Grey — and even moreso, the true ending that shows up after the credits finish rolling! But really, the movie got me thinking about life — and when everything becomes monotonous and complacent. When is it an ok time to shake things up all around you, and remember why you’re here? All the time, in my humble opinion. 😉

    • There’s another ending?! I’m going to go look … I just saw it. I like the first ending better.

      • I agree, Sir! I work part-time at a video store; while arguing about how much I enjoyed ‘The Grey’ (and she did not!), a customer checking out told us about the secondary ending. I watched it, and felt that none of the questions I still had were answered by that secondary ending. Sadly for me, I’m the one who loves movies that make you think. Take that movie with Ryan Gosling; Drive, for example. Everyone in the free world (or at least at my video store!) hated it because there was no ACTION. Yet it’s exactly why I loved it; I understood what the actors and the director were going for, and actually cried several times throughout at how beautiful the message is. I use art, books and film for inspiration in my writing; both Pagan-themed and otherwise. Though I can understand looking for a rest from day-to-day life; the monotony that sometimes comes with work, home and going thru the motions of the “daily average” I’ve found that I have to have much more come from my free-time than just explosions and elaborate martial-arts scenes. When the art loses what makes it art – what’s the point? And that’s why I loved movies like ‘The Grey’ and Drive. Thank you for writing such an awesome point of view, on how the movie made you feel.

        • I agree about movies and art. “Drive” is a great example. I think something is wrong in our society when people can watch that movie and think there is no action. It had some of the most intense action I have ever seen on the screen. It has action that is embedded in a narrative and allows the stillness necessary to truly develop the suspense which makes action intense. Of course, I am not talking about the kind of cheap stimulus that most so-called “action” movies provide today. Lately, some movies have actually started to feel like a subtle form of torture with their rapid-fire sensory overload. (Maybe I’m just getting old.)

  • Jake Bryant

    So I just finished this movie and happened to come across this page. I read this with incredible interest not really knowing why. Then I read that you were LDS, and it clicked. I used to be Mormon too. I felt a lot of what you expressed. I felt so lacking in exactly what you said. Spiritual intensity. There was no desire. No drive. No life. Then God made himself real. I asked God to show me truth and he did. The God of the Bible. Not the book of Mormon. Jesus Christ is God and he as made me alive. I was dead before, trying to make my life what I thought it should be. As I walk in faith and he guides me into things I never thought I could do or see He bring meaning to every part of life. Know him. Read the book of John and ask Christ to show you who he really is. Then ask him to make you alive. And I’ll pray you find what you need.

    • Thank you for your kind thoughts. I continue to be a work in progress, as we all are. I have found both peace and challenge in my Pagan path. I wish you the same in your path.

    • JFG

      Jake , you are spot on.The Grey is about a spiritual journey. It takes two paths, one without faith and one with faith, both end up in death. The one with faith also ends up with purpose. Taking the leap of faith is difficult but even more treacherous is keeping the faith. Gods signs are not easily seen and its easy to lose your vision or lose your grip due to a hangnail. Once you take the leap and you understand it, as the book of John describes, you can’t go back, just like Diaz .Pete just didn’t drown, he was engulfed by a river flowing through him. You can even ask for a sign and not get one only to be lead straight into your purpose in life. Interesting to note that the three guys after the leap introduced themselves as John, Pete and John. The very last scene should make sense.
      Thanks for confirming what I saw and felt in this movie.

  • Aar

    The ending to The Grey was simply incredible. I was maybe a bit unsatisfied but watching it the second time I understood it. It really feels wrong trying to explain it, its a feeling that we all can accept in different ways — how we perceive it. But my take was he was seconds from death, he knew this, accepted it, in doing so fought the last fight into the fray, and lived while dying.
    That wolf was not getting out alive either, both fought their last fight. You see the wolf take its last breath after the credits. There is alot more to the last scene though and one can interpret it how they want to, that’s what is great about that sort of ending.

  • Peter Goy

    When the end credits end there is an additional 2 second scene, both the alpha wolf and Ottway lay heavily breathing thus they both survived …somehow……The Grey is one of my all time faves .

    • I liked the movie where it ended before that final scene. But in any case, it was my impression that they were both dying. Interesting. The possibility that they would survive didn’t cross my mind.