From a very early age I was fascinated by the animal kingdom. Some of my earliest memories are of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
In the days before satellite television, there wasn’t a Discovery Channel or Shark Week. But my parents raised me on PBS and fueled my curiosity by making nature documentaries a priority over “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” — though I watched those too. What really inspired me, however, was the wild world of animals and the great diversity living right outside our little urban lives.
In my dreams I soared with eagles — though I was deathly, inexplicably afraid of owls — swam with sharks, and prowled the jungles with tigers. My cats were like siblings rather than pets, and the squirrels outside my window were the neighborhood kids I played with rather than wild interlopers.
As such I found a very familiar bond with Timothy Treadwell, at least up to a point. Treadwell is the subject of 2005’s “Grizzly Man,” a documentary by Werner Herzog.
The film tells the tale of Treadwell, a self-styled environmental warrior and protector of the Alaskan grizzly bear. For years Treadwell lived a sort of rogue environmentalist life. He slept in a tent between fox dens while filming the majestic and mighty grizzly bears in their natural habitat. Treadwell would take his films and knowledge gained in his survivalist outings and make presentations to schools across the country. That is, until he was mauled and eaten by the very grizzly bears he sought so much to protect.
The film is a mixture of Treadwell’s own footage and Herzog’s investigation into the unconventional filmmaker’s life and death. Herzog reveals a lost soul who felt he finally found his purpose and calling in the wild. In the grizzly bear, Treadwell found what he thought was a kindred soul. That Treadwell thought he knew best how to protect this masterful hunter and predator is perhaps the cruelest joke the would-be eco-warrior refused to get.
Treadwell’s footage is nothing short of amazing. Because he dared to go where other filmmakers before him refused to — most likely to protect their own safety – Treadwell captures some of the most beautiful and detailed footage of grizzly life I’ve ever seen. He expresses a profound love and understanding of the bears. Treadwell appreciates the heart and the souls of these animals and captures them on film with an intimate admiration. He says time and time again he will die for these animals: noble and apropos.
What Treadwell doesn’t realize and what Herzog illustrates is this need to protect and live with the bears is more a symptom of a life left wanting. We see from Treadwell himself his own anger and contempt for the world. In a schizophrenic fashion Treadwell creates adversaries where there aren’t any. He screams, in camera, at the top of his lungs how he will never quit and never stop no matter who he has to fight to ensure the safety of these animals. By the time the film ends, we learn Treadwell isn’t fighting hunters, poachers or some nameless system of oppressors — he’s fighting his own dissatisfaction with life itself.
The story itself may seem like an ironic tragedy. Herzog thought so as well, but the tragedy he discovers in this unfortunate incident is not one of man versus nature, but rather the tale of one man against the world, against conventions and against himself. In Treadwell, Herzog discovers not the jovial Steve Irwin-like naturalist, but a lost man bent on making his mark on the world by defying the natural order.
If you ever imagined being an animal in your childhood play, you might understand Treadwell’s desire for some more simple primal existence. You too might cast off the trappings of the convoluted modern world for the fight or flight survival of the animal kingdom. However, if you see this film you might just be satisfied with watching the Discovery Channel and donating to the World Wildlife Fund.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Werner Herzog
Director: Werner Herzog
Runtime: 103 minutes
Rated R for language