Grey Owl artwork by Mister G

Grey Owl

Grey Owl artwork by Mister GDirector: Richard Attenborough / Screenplay: William Nicholson / Editing: Lesley Walker / DP: Roger Pratt / Music: George Fenton

Cast: Pierce Brosnan / Stewart Bick / Vlasta Vrana / Annie Galipeau / Graham Greene / Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman / Saginaw Grant / Jimmy Herman / Renée Asherson / Stephanie Cole   

Year: 1999


‘You’re through to the Re-Make hotline. For whom are you calling?’

‘Terrence Malick…’


For what would be Richard Attenborough’s penultimate film as director, he chose to make a biopic about Archie Belaney. If that name’s unfamiliar to you, then that makes two of us. Even his famous alter-ego – ‘Grey Owl’ – had passed me by, until this film revived his legacy.

No. Me neither…

GlassesIn the back of my mind, lay dim recollections of interviews caught around its release, in which both Attenborough and its star, Pierce Brosnan, talked of the film being a ‘passion project’ for both men, but the film itself eluded me until now.

Attenborough’s interest in Belaney’s story was jogged when his PA read a magazine article, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the man’s death. Both Richard and brother David, had visited a Leicestershire theatre back in the 1930s, to see a talk from the man himself. Back then, ‘Archie Grey Owl’ had become a popular advocate for taking a more holistic view of the natural world and our place in it.

It was this outlook, presented with conviction to audiences in the UK as well as North America, that sparked David Attenborough’s in-turn; an approach that’s left him one of the most recognised & credible advocates for wildlife preservation in popular culture. It’s not inconceivable then, that subsequent conversations between the two brothers led to Richard choosing this.

GlassesAnd what a story! Born in in 1888, in the English seaside town of Hastings, Archie Belaney was raised by two maiden Aunts after his father had emigrated to the ‘States and subsequently disappeared. An intelligent boy with an eye for mischief, Belaney became obsessed with Native American culture; possibly influenced by tales written of folk heroes such as Bill Cody (a-k-a ‘Buffalo Bill’); one of a coterie of frontiersmen & women then making a more comfortable living as entertainers, re-enacting scenes from ‘The Old West’ for rapt audiences world-wide. Figures such as Cody were the superheroes of their time, so it’s little wonder that an impressionable mind such as Belaney’s, should’ve been so impressed & persuaded by what he heard. Whereas other young men eventually move-on to more humdrum pursuits, Belaney proved an exception and emigrated to Canada alone, aged just Eighteen; a young man, in search of adventure and with nothing to lose…

At first, he stayed with a family in northern Ontario, where he learned the basic skills of a woodsman: tracking, handling snow-shoes, trapping, etc; skills he’d later use once he began trapping his own game for their fur. He’d continue to trap until 1925, when he met Gertrude Bernard (a-k-a ‘Pony’); a girl of Mohawk – Iroquois descent. It was she, who persuaded Belaney to stop trapping and find an alternative income that would preserve the natural world about them. This came in the form of magazine articles about life in the wilderness, that Belaney proved adept at writing (his formal education back in England finally proving its worth). It seems that, prior to Belaney’s articles & books, no ‘Westerner’ had given much thought to the consequences of the trade in beaver-pelts, i.e. how a beaver’s dam – and the pond that forms behind it – are crucial to the rhythm of life in the wilderness and that, without the beavers to build them in the first place, down-stream water-flow is left unchecked, causing accelerated soil erosion and the loss of valuable wetland.

So far, so good. However, Belaney was to take things a step further. First, by claiming Native American (Apache) ancestry, then apparently being ‘adopted’ by the Ojibwa tribe, during which time he took the name ‘Grey Owl’. With his swarthy (vegetable-dyed) complexion, long, black hair (again, dyed) and native dress, one can see how he might’ve fooled people. Though as time passed and his fame spread, it’s equally not difficult to see how the truth might emerge…

This revelation surfaced publicly only on Grey Owl’s untimely death in 1938, when it was revealed by a Canadian newspaper. The North Bay Nugget had been sitting on the secret for a few years, but had refrained from running the story, out of respect for the impact that Grey Owl’s books & public talks appeared to be having, in changing ingrained behaviours & attitudes towards Canada’s untamed hinterland.

GlassesSo, to Attenborough’s film. At the outset, let’s consider William Nicholson’s script. A prolific screenwriter, Nicholson was to follow-up Grey Owl with Gladiator, for Ridley Scott; it only seems right then, that what must have been one of the most frustrating life-stories to adapt, should be followed by a project destined to be the most commercially successful of Nicholson’s career. 

‘Frustrating’? Oh, yes. Behind his public face, the ‘real’ Belaney was the antithesis of the classic Hollywood hero, being more flawed than you might imagine. For a start, he was a proven bigamist, fathering three children with different mothers; two of whom he all-but abandoned, as his own father had done to him. He also suffered as an alcoholic; an affliction that was to blight his speaking tours and his health (his death from pneumonia is attributed to complications arising).

The hammer-blow to his screen-hero credentials however, surely lays in his falsification of race, in order to live a fantasy life and a lack of courage to admit the truth whilst alive… Such obvious dichotomy may very well have been a key reason for Belaney’s alcoholism. The irony of course, is that had he the courage to admit it all whilst alive, his mea culpa might very well have been taken as the price he had to pay, in order for his views to gain acceptance. Instead, the universal derision that followed the ‘Nugget’s revelation, would do much to discredit the very views he’d been lauded for whilst alive! Different times

GlassesIn tackling the big issues of Belaney’s life, Nicholson’s script keeps things simple. No mention here, of the demon drink, as that would’ve added too many wrinkles to the script. There’s just one significant relationship here, with Pony, played here by newcomer Annie Galipeau. She’s an interesting casting choice, as although a beautiful young woman, Galipeaux’s acting career (at least in film) seemed to go nowhere after this picture. True, her delivery of Nicholson’s ripe dialogue was a little laboured at-times. And, yes, she often looks like a refugee from a lifestyle-magazine’s photo-shoot, but that should be attributed to her Director as much as any one. 

In the title role was Brosnan who, at the time of shooting, had just wrapped on The World Is Not Enough (1999), so was in peak condition to skinny-dip in what looked to be Quebec’s freshest lake.

Attenborough’s film opens with our hero sat backstage before a gig. Enter: a reporter ‘looking for Archie’ in time-honoured fashion… You can almost hear the script creaking as Brosnan mutters: ‘Took you long enough to find me.’ The script’s so rough, I’m surprised he didn’t catch splinters when reading its pages 

This is Attenborough’s graceless entry-point to Belaney – sorry, Grey Owl – some years before in ‘1934’, in which he’s leading a pasty-faced, ‘white-bread’ tourist on a guided hunt. They encounter a bear. After giving the paying guest time to squeeze off a couple of hastily-aimed potshots, it’s left to Grey Owl to administer the coup-de-grace; a development unnoticed by the ecstatic patron. Back at the modern lodge, c/w hot & cold running servants, there’s even a resident troupe of dancing Indians to add ‘local colour’. It’s there, that Grey Owl is approached by a publisher – Harry Champlin – to turn some of the articles already-published, into a book, allowing a more in-depth look at ‘a trapper’s life’.

As Nicholson’s turbid script churns-on, so Grey Owl meets Pony and, against both his wishes and those of her father (the always-impressive Graham Greene), she joins him at his hut, in which they’ll over-winter, trapping beavers for their pelts. Along the way, we’ll get a ‘dramatic’ rescue from freezing water, a soft-focus love-making scene before a wood-burning stove and a nice beaver…

GlassesA pair of them in fact, that our loved-up duo will adopt & raise as their own. It’s all a bit ‘Grizzly Adams’ at-times, which probably explains why I began focussing on the work of DP Roger Pratt, who takes his lead from Attenborough’s ‘relaxed’ pacing and indulges in stately camera-pans and timid composition.

At one point, Grey Owl admits to Pony, that he’s a fake; Nicholson’s script showing his greying, un-dyed hair, yet the real Pony went to her grave denying she ever knew that Grey Owl was a fake! If true, I think Nicholson’s introducing this here, to lend a degree of angst to an adaptation of Belaney’s life that’s otherwise stripped of its truths.

For all that, I still don’t think it works… Even when things shift to Hastings later-on, for a delayed-reunion between Belaney and the two maiden Aunts who raised him, I’m still not ‘feeling it’. There’s insufficient light shone on what made him ‘become’ Grey Owl.

I also think Attenborough’s ‘Achilles Heel’ as a Director – his perceived sentimentality – is also indulged here. The hardships of cabin life are never really explored; neither are Belaney’s relations with the Ojibwa. Beyond him being a man ahead of his time, as an early advocate for ecological responsibility, the script also falls-down in its handling – and the drawing-out – of his identity. It’s so obvious, given Brosnan’s casting, that he’s not of Native American descent, that perhaps more could’ve been made of an early admission, so unleashing more guilt about that as much as his early profession. 

Moreover, his on-screen relationship with Pony lurches from pained reluctance to love, whilst stopping at all the waypoints along the way, yet Nicholson’s script omits the fact that, after fathering a child with Pony, the real Archie Grey Owl would leave her for a third wife… Such were the compromises made in adapting Belaney’s life, that I can’t see why this huge chunk of it couldn’t have been changed as well? It’s not as if we’d all have known about it

GlassesThe end result, then, is a film both blessed & cursed with a tragic-heroic figure, who only gets somewhere by lying through his unrepentant teeth… It’s a problem acknowledged by both Director and Screenwriter at the film’s release, but they took the view that Archie’s message – his legacy – was of more value than his credibility as the lead in a motion picture. That might very well be the case, but despite their protestations, the film never received a theatrical release in the USA; a decision that scuppered any hope of ever recouping its budget of $30 million…

Watching the picture today, it’s impossible to overlook its slow pacing, lumpen script, stilted performances in-support (with some key exceptions) and an embarrassed Pierce Brosnan who, when he’s dancing, looks like your mad Uncle; the one who’s never been able to shake-off the Ayahuasca he took at Burning Man

However, I don’t think the idea of an Archie Belaney biopic is beyond redemption. There’s a dualism within Archie ‘Grey Owl’ Belaney, that’s crying out for a director such as Terrence Malick to inject a little dreamlike photography and a quasi-mystical VO that explains the man’s motivations, in ways that Attenborough & Nicholson’s attempt never can. In finding-out what drove Belaney to become Grey Owl, we might unearth deeper, darker motivations that, when confronted in later life, fire his passion for conserving & nurturing an environment: the mirror to his own dysfunctional life…

GlassesMaybe that’s it. Maybe the key to unlocking the story of a man who invented a new identity, is to ignore him completely and invent someone from scratch; a character less flawed and more readable, through whom such dualities might be explored, as he carries the weight of guilt & new-found responsibilities.

As it is, we’re lumbered with the enduring image of Brosnan, scowling at us for daring to laugh and hope for better things. That’s okay – he was doing the same, back then. Next up? Die Another Day 

My brother says men become what they dream. And you have dreamed well.


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