Grey Owl

UK/Canada 1998

Reviewed by Richard Falcon


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

1936. After Native American trapper-turned-author Archie 'Grey Owl' gives a lecture on conservation, newspaper reporter Cyrus Finney asks him about an Englishman called Archibald Belaney.

Two years earlier, Archie is performing a war dance with a group of Native American performers. Anahareo Bernard, an assimilated Mohawk whose real name is Pony, asks him to take her to the Mohawk reservation. Against the advice of her father Jim, Pony accompanies Archie on a breaver-trapping expedition. Archie rescues Pony when she falls through the frozen surface of a lake. He later expresses worries that the beavers are becoming scarce due to the activities of the timber industry. Ignoring Archie's protests, Pony adopts two orphaned beaver kittens as pets. Pony and Archie become lovers.

Taking his pelts to the Hudson Bay Trading Company Post, Archie has a run-in with two unscrupulous trappers. After he gives a lecture about preserving the beaver to some tourists, Archie is invited to take up residency in a mock trapper's hut in Prince Albert national park. His articles about the wilderness are reprinted around the world. Millionaire publisher Harry Champlin commissions a book from him which is a big success.

On a tour of England, Archie stops off in Hastings to pay a visit to his two aunts who raised him. In the US, Archie receives the honour of a ceremonial audience with a gathering of Native American chiefs. The Sioux chief realises immediately that Archie isn't a Native American. Shunned by the white establishment when they learn of his English origins, Archie delivers a lecture about the importance of conservation before returning to the wilderness. In 1938, he dies of pneumonia.


Richard Attenborough's latest liberal-conscience adventure biopic has two significant advantages over its epic predecessors. First, the film's true-life protagonist Archibald 'Grey Owl' Belaney, while a talismanic focus for a certain brand of North American environmentalism, isn't as well known as some of Attenborough's other subjects. Second, this latest attempt by the director to conflate the personal, the political and the mythical is essentially a drama revolving around questions of authenticity. Grist to the mill, one would have thought, for a director whose work has often been criticised for failing to explore with sufficient depth such overexposed historical figures as Charlie Chaplin, Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill.

Archie's bluff - he was a Hastings grammar-school boy so besotted with Native American culture that he uprooted to Canada to live as a Mohawk - is a rich point of departure. But Grey Owl limits its story to the period from 1934 to 1936, when Archie transformed himself from a trapper into a writer, lecturer and conservationist under the influence - or so the film tells us - of his young Native American lover Pony. The logic of this is clear: it allows events to be structured around a love story. And there is an enjoyable irony in accessing Archie's world through a Native American character who knows far less about "the old ways" than the Englishman. Pony is introduced wearing jodhpurs, the somewhat spoilt daughter of a wholly assimilated businessman (a nicely shaded cameo by Graham Greene). But neat and tidy as the old ways of such Hollywood narrative economy are, the screenplay by William Nicholson (Shadowlands) leaves a great many questions unanswered: how, for instance, did Archie become an adept trapper, and how did he first meet the Mohawks, who are his friends as the film opens? Instead of exploring such potentially interesting issues, Attenborough gives us a ready-made, ruggedly individualistic hero, a plum role for his star Pierce Brosnan.

Attenborough relies on loving sequences of cute furry animals, notably the two orphaned beaver kittens which Pony adopts, to advance Archie's conservationist cause. To his film's credit, moments in Grey Owl rival Gladiator in its mainstream reflexiveness about its audience-pleasing techniques: as Archie lectures wealthy tourists, for instance, he clutches two beavers, realising if the visitors won't respond to his words, they will to the sight of the animals; later we see him introducing film of the beavers at play to delighted audiences on his British tour. But while the film's green message, encapsulated in Archie's slogan that we are the planet's servants, not its masters, is unimpeachable, the film is so enamoured of its outdoor spectacle that at times it feels as if Attenborough would have been happier making an IMAX documentary.

This said, Brosnan is excellent in an unlikely role and the film abounds with genuine pleasures: director of photography Roger Pratt's shot of the tepees on the plain at night, lit from within like Chinese lanterns, gives you a sense of the romantic appeal the Canadian wilderness must have had for young Archie and goes some way to explaining why he left Hastings to live there. Then there's his return to Hastings where he visits his maiden aunts, a small gem of Alan Bennett-like understated insight. As the two old ladies reveal they have kept his room exactly as he left it, they add an apologetic rider: "I'm afraid we had to throw away the dead snakes."


Richard Attenborough
Jake Eberts
Richard Attenborough
William Nicholson
Director of Photography
Roger Pratt
Lesley Walker
Production Designer
Anthony Pratt
Music/Music Conductor
George Fenton
©Beaver Productions Ltd & Ajawaan Productions, Inc
Production Companies
Largo Entertainment presents in association with Transfilm and Beaver Productions a Jake Eberts presentation
Co-produced by Beaver Productions Ltd & Ajawaan Productions, Inc with the assistance/ participation of the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit
and the assistance of the Government of Québec (Tax Credit Program)
Executive Producers
Barr Potter
Lenny Young
Canadian Producer
Claude Léger
Diana Hawkins
Josette Perrotta
Production Associate
Judy Wasdell
Production Co-ordinators
Danielle Boucher
2nd Unit:
Charles-André Bertrand
Marie-Josée Dupont
U.K. Unit:
Joyce Turner
Production Manager
U.K. Unit:
Hugh Harlow
Unit Production Manager
Michel Chauvin
Unit Managers
Jean-Yves Dolbec
2nd Unit:
Maurice Forget
Michel Guay
Gilles Perreault
Location Managers
Céline Daignault
2nd Unit:
François Fauteux
U.K. Unit:
Mark Somner
Joel Cockrill
Assistant Directors
Patrick Clayton
Buck Deachman
Anne Alloucherie
Stéphane Bourdeau
2nd Unit:
Isabelle Brutus
Jean-Sébastien Lord
U.K. Unit:
Trevor Puckle
Script Supervisors
Nikki Clapp
2nd Unit:
Anne-Laure Debay
Vera Miller
René Haynes
Additional Consultant:
Rosina Bucci
ADR Voice:
Louis Elman
2nd Unit Director
of Photography
Sylvain Brault
Camera Operators
Andy Chmura
Daniel Vincelette
Robert Guertin
Steadicam Operator
Brad Hruboska
2nd Unit Wescam Technicians
Clyde Miller
John Trapman
Visual Effects
Hybride Technologies
Special Effects
Les Productions de l'Intrigue
Graphic Designer
Carl Lessard
Supervising Art Director
Claude Paré
Josée Pilon
Daniel Carpentier
Set Decorator
U.K. Unit:
Joanne Woollard
Storyboard Artist
Francis Back
Key Sculptor
Gilles David
Denis Ampleman
Camille Villeneuve
Costume Designer
Renée April
Costume Consultant
John Hay
Wardrobe Co-ordinator
Marianne Carter
U.K. Unit Wardobe
Adrian Simmons
Jill Avery
Key Artist:
Jocelyne Bellemare
U.K. Unit, Artistes:
Christine Beveridge
Helen Barrett
Key Stylist:
Marcelo Nestor Padovani
2nd Unit, Dresser:
Géraldine Diane Courchesne
U.K. Unit, Dressers:
Christine Beveridge
Helen Barrett
Title Design
Chris Allies
Digital Titles/Effects
Magic Camera Company
Additional Music
David Lawson
Orchestra Leader
Gavyn Wright
Geoffrey Alexander
Jeff Atmajian
Music Co-ordinator
Veronika Rentsch
Music Editor
Graham Sutton
Recording Engineer
Keith Grant
Patrick Rousseau
Jonathan Bates
Gerry Humphreys
Sound Mixers
Michel Charron
Tim Cavagin
2nd Unit:
Véronique Gabillaud
Sound Recordist
U.K. Unit:
Dave Allen
Dialogue Editor
Nick Lowe
ADR Mixer
John Bateman
Pauline Griffiths
Paula Boram
John Bateman
Peter Holt
First Nation Adviser
Donna Noonan
Pow Wow Consultant
Don Waboose
Stunt Co-ordinators
Dave McKeown
Michael Scherer
Andrew Campbell
2nd Unit:
Stéphane Falardeau
Equus Action
Educational Audio-Visuals
Pro-Films Animals
Animal Wrangler
Pete White
Beaver Specialist
Bill Carrick
Beaver Wrangler
Kelly Whitlock
Dog Wranglers
Raymond Ducasse
Josée Juteau
Canoe Wrangler
Marcel Savoie
Pierce Brosnan
Archibald Belaney, Archie Grey Owl
Annie Galipeau
Anahareo Bernard, 'Pony'
Renée Asherson
Carrie Belaney
Stephanie Cole
Ada Belaney
Nathaniel Arcand
Ned White Bear
Stewart Bick
Cyrus Finney
Chip Chuipka
1st trapper
John Dunn-Hill
Sim Hancock
David Fox
Jim Wood
Saginaw Grant
pow wow chief
Jimmy Herman
Chief Pete Misabi
Jacques Lussier
hotel manager
Gordon Masten
Gus Mitchell
Charles Powell
Walter Perry
Vlasta Vrana
Harry Champlin
Floyd Crow Westerman
pow wow chief
Graham Greene
Jim Bernard
Neil Kroetsch
Serge Houde
Peter Colvey
hotel guest
Lee-Roy Jacobs
hotel porter
John Walsh
2nd trapper
Annabelle Torsein
Marcel Jeannin
Kent McQuaid
Matthew Sharp
Hiker Hawkins
Seann Gallagher
Bill Oliver
James Bradford
Tom Walker
Noel Burton
Southampton reporter
Richard Jutras
Art Kitching
Pierre Lenoir
Norris Domingue
Halifax reporters
Al Vandercruys
immigration officer
Gene Blackbird
Lindsey Coté
Arnold Jocks
Tahatie Montour
Rene Tonda Splicer Kiepprien
Donald J. White
Kevin Peltier
Donald Swamp
Wabikon Lodge dancers
Timothy Eashappie
pow wow dancer lead
Frank Buswa
Vernon Cardinal
Josie Cox
Donald Dowd
Hilliard Friday
Les Harper
David Herman
Joseph McLeod
Dylan Manitopyes
Brian Moore
Gordie Odjig
Gary Parker
Ron Ranville
Steve Sands
Dwight 'Bucko' Teeple
Denis Whiteye
Larry Yazzie
pow wow dancers
Gerald McDonald
Wabikon Lodge drummer lead
Michael MacDonald
Narcisse Kakegabon
Wabikon Lodge drummers
Steve Wood
pow wow drummer lead
Elmer Baptiste
Shane Dion
Aaron McGilvery
Bradley McGilvery
Ferlin McGilvery
Cecil Nepoose
Leroy Whitstone
pow wow drummers
20th Century Fox (UK)
10,641 feet
118 minutes 14 seconds
Dolby Digital
Colour by Astraltech/Technicolor
2.35:1 [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011