When it comes to film, bears usually end up in a metaphorical role. Think about Bart the Bear, who played in such films as The Edge, and Legends of the Fall. Bears are typically portrayed as the powerful adversary who lurks just beyond in the tree line. The protagonist must muster up what strength he can, and eventually face the bear, lest his manhood be questioned.
In the make-believe world, the bear is the aggressor. In the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, the role of aggressor is left to another character: the fool. Grizzly Man recounts the life of Timothy Treadwell, a surfer-type turned amateur naturalist, who went to Alaska every summer to camp out with the grizzly bears. He observed, filmed, and talked to the bears without any weaponry. After 13 years of surprisingly close contact with the region’s grizzly population, Treadwell and his girlfriend were attacked and devoured by one of the very creatures he loved.
While the film doesn’t show Treadwell’s actual demise (there was an audio recording of the event, but Herzog tastefully declines to play it in the film), the descent into his own quixotic version of reality is well-documented through Treadwell’s video footage. In his mind, Treadwell was the sole protector of the bears. He claimed that the bears were in constant danger from poaching, and his presence there kept the bears safe from them.
In one clip Treadwell, hidden behind cover, filmed some of these so-called poachers — a group of fishermen who were simply taking photos of a bear while keeping it at bay by tossing rocks. Apparently, Treadwell saw anyone else who entered the bears’ territory as predators.
Legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi went out into the wilderness to preach the gospel to the animals. Timothy Treadwell went into the wild to preach himself. He saw himself as the bears’ savior, and boasted to the camera of how he “would die for these animals.” His prescience, evidently, was better than his judgment.
Timothy Treadwell was a fool, no doubt. His death, however, is not something to be relished. It is true that if you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned, but Treadwell’s story evokes sadness more than anything. For all his foolishness and Mister Rogers–like character, Treadwell was a uniquely gifted individual. When such giftedness should have caused him to give thanks to his maker, Treadwell became a god unto himself. A god which in the end was powerless to save him and the bear that killed him.
[Watch the Grizzly Man trailer]