Ottway's father's poem is so simple as to not quite ring true, though it's understandable that a man's man like John Ottway would appreciate it. It's like the epitome of some simplistic, stereotypical version of masculinity...
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...
In the commentary track, director Carnahan keeps coming back to masculinity, how Hollywood's sense of what it is to be a man has gone wrong. He's never particularly specific, though. Does he think that these men, who are (eventually) able to talk about their feelings and their fears and their love--of course, Ottway never talks about his wife with these men, only his father--are real men? Is he suggesting that the usual macho men of action movies are the wrong version?
What kind of men are these men?
In an interview with Screen Rant, Liam Neeson talks about men and emotions. He says:
I don't think for this generation, but for my generation [Neeson was 59 at the time], and my father's generation, men had difficulty in accessing emotion and then being able to talk about it. I think [the movie] certainly touches on that, and these guys, these characters in this film, find it very, very hard to relate to themselves and to one another. Which is one of the nice things about the film, that they do, in a way, they do share in a very primitive, basic way.
Keep in mind, these characters don't even have first names until nearly the end of the film, and then only the last three survivors.
(What does it mean that two of them are named John and one Peter, biblical names, New Testament names? We don't normally think of Jesus and his disciples and the founder of Christianity as manly men. Important men, sure. But not manly men. Nevermind Elder Cunningham's notion about Jesus manning up; these are men for whom one of their great iconic representations is them sitting around having dinner.
But, these names do link these men to the Bible, to Jesus, to God. God is an important part of this film; Talget's faith vs. Ottway's atheism; Diaz basking in the beauty of the natural world vs. Ottway's rejecting that beauty to trudge on, effectively until he dies. Hell, Lewenden dies from a wound to his side. References to religion, or at least the debate over whether there is or isn't a God, abound. I needn't bother with any official Christ-Figuring to figure out that Ottway is a Christ-Figure. Trust me on this one; I've done it a few times, wrote a paper on the subject, got a binder full of articles and essays on it. John Ottway is a Christ-Figure.)
These men are identified by family name, and they have been reduced to working, as Ottways describes it, jobs "at the end of the world." They are, again in Ottway's words, "Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind." Their given names don't matter because they don't matter. I watched the deleted scenes today before turning on the film, and there's an extended section at the campfire, with the men telling each other more stories, and more detailed versions of the stories they tell in the final film. It differentiates the men a bit more than the film, as is, does. It gives them more opportunity to be more distinct characters. But, they are not supposed to be distinct characters. They are group of men stuck together in this situation, and in the process of dealing with it, they are a pack.
Note: Flannery references two other films in passing in dialogue. When he first talks to Ottway on the plane, he asks him what the biggest game he's shot is, if he's shot a Kodiak bear. Then he references, quite negatively, Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Man. Being out in nature, communing with the beasts of the wild (by choice or not, I suppose) is referenced in the negative.(Subnote: Another deleted scene is an extended version of Ottway's suicide scene from the beginning of the film. Instead of a wolf howl distracting him from pulling the trigger, a polar bear approaches, and rises onto its hind legs. He turns his rifle on that bear (taking his duty to protect everyone else as more important than his own depression in that moment), they remain momentarily in a standoff, then the bear drops to all fours and leaves.
Nevermind the bit I will definitely get to below about Ottway being the alpha of this pack of men, he is here equated with a polar bear. This is a place he belongs. A killer is what he is.)
The other film that Flannery references is Alive, the true story of the Stella Maris College rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes. When they have no food, they end up eating parts of the deceased passengers. Flannery jokes about the cannibalism--"ass on a stick" I think he says--but the reference is still positive. Being a team, banding together to survive--that is positive.)
Reviewing the movie for the New York Times, A. O. Scott makes a notable (and, not unique, though I cite only his piece) literary comparison: The Grey, he says, is "a stripped-down, elemental tale of survival in brutal circumstances, as blunt and effective--and also, at times, as lyrical--as a tale by Jack London or Ernest Hemingway."
(And, just now in the film, the alpha was challenged offscreen and, as Ottway says, "the alpha put it down." Moments later, Ottways tells the men to make their "bang sticks" and Diaz challenges Ottway's authority. (I imagine that, as Diaz starts with "This is what it comes down to, this MacGyver bullshit," that challenging wolf on the other side of the hill started with "This is what it comes down to, this picking 'em off one by one bullshit.") Ottway puts that challenge down.)
London and Hemingway--two authors whose names come up in discussions of masculinity in literature all the time. And, London's name goes with wolves too. This movie makes for a sort of deconstruction of and reconstruction of masculinity, especially cinematic masculinity. Diaz' overkill of the wolf that comes into their camp is just one example of the deconstruction side of things. The extra stabs with the knife, the kicks, the beheading not much later--the other man stand and watch, are amused (and maybe a little horrified). The violence is as movie men do. Yet it comes after Ottway's admission that he is terrified. These moments balance each other out. Just as these men talking around the campfire balances out the violence we expect, but don't really get. It's important to realize that these men are on the run from the wolves. Their pack is smaller so they must flee. Even after they fashion their bang sticks, they use them almost immediately thereafter when the omega attacks Diaz. Then, they flee again.
(If there hasn't been enough SPOILing going on the last few days, the next bit will very much SPOIL events to come.)
Burke dies in the night, not killed by wolves. Talget dies from falling off their makeshift rope, not killed by wolves (though we do see them pulling him apart, that fall was fatal). Diaz chooses to be left behind and, though we can assume that the wolves get him (and indeed, just before the scene cuts away, you can briefly hear them approaching), we do not see him killed by the wolves. Henrick successfully gets away from the wolves, but gets stuck in the river and drowns, not killed by the wolves. The pack is thinned, but mostly not by the wolves. Most of the deaths do not come from the "plot" of the wolves coming after these men. Many die in the crash. Lewenden dies from his wounds therefrom. Only Hernandez and Flannery are actually killed by the wolves (and we don't see the former).
And, maybe Ottway.
At the end of the commentary, Carnahan says that post-credits scene doesn't answer any questions, so whether or not Ottway survives, whether or not the (other) alpha survives--that shot is not supposed to offer a clearcut answer. That the wolf is still breathing doesn't (necessarily) mean anything. That Ottway is still relatively upright doesn't (necessarily) mean anything.
Except for this:
Who cares what Carnahan says? The meaning we take from the film does not have to be intended. Inference does not have to follow implication. That the wolf is still breathing--I take this to extend the metaphor, the wolves as all of the things that can kill us, the things that make life difficult, the darkness of death that frightens us; this is still there; it can never die. That Ottway's head is visible, that he is sitting upright, leaning against the wolf suggests a sort of victory, even if he may die from his various wounds. This wolf on the ground, breathing hard--this echoes the scene early in the film (the last bit before the plane) in which Ottway puts his hand on the wolf he has just shot, as he feels its last breath. This echo is (presumably) intentional. The echo takes this shot beyond something that is just artistic, as Carnahan describes it. The echo means something. Carnahan specifically says in the commentary that he wanted that scene of the earlier wolf dying to be the very last thing before the plane (nevermind that this placement toys with the flow of time from scene to scene, since it happened before the suicide scene). That scene demonstrates Ottway's place where they work. He is there to kill the things that might kill these men. This is the same job he maintains to the end of the film (though with less success). Ottway is a Germanic name, meaning "one who is fortunate in battle." But, we see Ottway consistently being unfortunate in battle. He is the alpha of this pack and his men die around him one by one. Hell, Henrick dies in his arms, inches from the surface of the water. There is an inevitability to Ottway's isolation at the end of the film that rings quite true. You may die with loved ones around you, but you are still the only one dying. You are still very much alone... Ottway suggests something strange, that death slides over you, warm. It sounds almost comforting. I don't think that most of us buy that description.
And maybe it is the most atheist thing about this film that, regardless of his efforts, his sacrifice, Ottway cannot save any of the others.
Or maybe that doesn't matter. He has saved them time and time again on the job. Plus, assume he does live, that he survives his fight with the alpha and the rest of the wolves don't then kill him. He has those wallets, he grew to like if not really know those men. He can tell the tale of their last days. He can still serve a purpose for their families, even if he could not save them from death.
Besides, you cannot save anyone from death. Not really.