Gender Bashing: What it Means to Be a Man in DOG SOLDIERS
Dog Soldiers is feminist.
Hear me out.
In his 2002 horror film, writer-director Neil Marshall (who is currently helming the Hellboy reboot) has men dealing with their identities in the most masculine of realms, the primitive woods. Over the course of the movie’s 105-minute runtime, a ho-hum military exercise turns into a balls-to-the-wall fight wherein multiple elements of male identity are exposed to the moonlight. In that exposure, some of those gendered elements become monstrous on-screen and ruminate on what it means to be a man.
The film opens on a sprawl of the Scottish Highlands, both natural and foreboding. A couple falls victim to an attack on their campground, and they aren’t seen again. Meanwhile, Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd) fails to pass the field tests of an elite military unit for his unwillingness to commit acts of violence without reason; his refusal to shoot an unassuming dog prompts the unit’s leader, Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham), to declare, “I don’t need a man of conscience. I need men of action, not deeds.” Naturally, he shoots the poor dog as he says this. Cooper’s refusal to give in to the sadistic streak that Ryan displays sets him apart from the story’s beginning as an outcast, but one who retains his own brand of masculinity till the very end.
As the plot goes on, Ryan continues to be a very manly piece of garbage who thinks of no one but himself and his objective; his masculinity is made up of indifference to collateral damage and of superiority to those unwilling to unleash the inner beast as he does. He returns a dejected Cooper back to his own unit and four weeks later, Cooper’s unit finds themselves back in the vast Scottish Highlands for a training mission. There’s a scene or two of character-revealing downtime before the group discovers the bloody remains of their opposing team’s campground. The sole survivor is good ol’ Captain Ryan, who won’t divulge the full details on what caused the attack. Something big and hairy and mean attacks the soldiers, who retreat until they comes across zoologist Megan (Emma Cleasby) who transports them to a nearby little farmhouse. Now without a radio and with dwindling ammunition, the remaining soldiers are Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee), Cooper, “Spoon” Witherspoon (Darren Morfitt), Pvt. Joe Kirkley (Chris Robson), and Pvt. Terry Milburn (Leslie Simpson), with a wounded and belligerent Cpt. Ryan in tow. Night falls, the moon shows itself, and the attackers return, revealed as werewolves. Their new mission is to survive the night.
Dog Soldiers is male-centric, and we learn a lot about the men through both words and actions. The war games-cum-siege premise allows for slogs of classic military hurry-up-and-wait jags peppered with character-revealing action amid waves of brutal attacks. Sarge, in particular, recounts a story in which he witnesses
Reminiscent of the Outpost 31 crew of Carpenter’s The Thing, the soldiers react in ways unique to each character, especially once shit gets real. One man vomits (the same one, by the way, who had to be unwillingly yanked from the helicopter at first touchdown earlier in the movie).
In his book The Horror Show, David J. Skal gives a pretty straightforward breakdown of wolf lore, calling the mammal an “ancient symbol, deeply linked to militarism and the battlefield.” He goes on to point out that the species’ bloodlust is “uniquely human” and absent in the animal world. Skal echoes the sentiments of wilderness scholar Barry Holstun Lopez in his study Of Wolves And Men: “(Wolf-lore is) almost completely a projection of human anxiety.” The gist: we inject our social fears and misgivings into the lore. The connecting thread between werewolves and military aggression stayed strong from the First World War through the second one, starting with Werewolf of London (1935). Universal Pictures reared up and flexed its horror muscles with The Wolf Man five years later, bringing primal animal-men into the forefront of a public that was already dealing with a generation of war-weary veterans who knew just how beastly man could really get.
Now, there is a moment in the film where it seems like all of the wonderful problematization of hypermasculinity goes right out the window. After convincing Cooper and the others to blow up their only transport and the only other refuge near the farmhouse, Megan turns Judas and reveals herself to have been in cahoots with the wolf pack the entire time. She’s one of them, and she has doomed the men to death. Cooper grumbles, “You women are all the same,” to which Megan responds that being nice to her will get any man killed. The first time I watched this scene, I groaned. In a horror or action movie with a mostly-male cast, women who enjoy the luxury of having speaking roles in the plot are often reduced to the love interest or the traitor, and Megan was already catching lingering glances from Cooper. At first viewing, Megan was just another ho coming between the bros. But upon revisit, the same scene transformed and grew some fangs. After the exchange, Megan starts getting cheeky. As she begins to turn into a werewolf in the light of the full moon, she says, “You may think all women are bitches… but I’m the real thing,” and, with a curl of her lip, quips, “It’s that time of the month.” That’s what takes the exchange from tired trope to clever send-up, much like Spoon’s red-blooded chest-thumping throughout the narrative. The reveal could have been a cringe-worthy cautionary tale of the Dominant Female (which would have made some sense in a film made on the heels of the Riot Grrrl era), but as with so many genre joints, tone matters.
With Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall made a creature feature and a siege film. He also challenged social expectations of men through villainization and parody with Cpt. Ryan and Spoon, respectively. Add to that his normalization of traits that are often coded as weakness in men, like Sarge’s admission of fear and Cooper’s aversion to unnecessary violence, and it all adds up to a film whose attitudes align with progressive feminine ideals. Yes, it’s written and directed by a man, and yes, its cast is male-dominant, but Dog Soldiers is a feminist film, and a damn good one.