Representations of male friendship in
Dog Soldiers and The Ritual
Emma Platt heads off the beaten track to explore the divergent relationships between the male friends of Dog Soldiers and The Ritual…
The woods have long held a certain mystique about them. Fairy tales were full of what horrors lurked between the trees, waiting to gobble up unsuspecting children. Even now, in the 21st century, they still hold potential for horror, hiding the unknown and the unknowable. From the Scandinavian wilderness to the Scottish highlands, Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002) and The Ritual (David Bruckner, 2017) use the distance from civilisation to push their protagonist’s to the limit as they face down the supernatural forces that dwell there.
From the moment the audience sees the main characters in Dog Soldiers; they know that they are a united front, a team on a routine training mission. But there is mutual respect, easy banter and a deep unspoken emotional connection between them. There is genuine distress from the survivors as their numbers begin to dwindle after each werewolf attack. Yes, they are a team, but they are also friends, who not only fight for their lives but also the lives of those around them.
Conversely in The Ritual, we begin with a bond fractured by the death of a friend in a robbery gone wrong. Luke is wracked with guilt over his inability to act while the rest of the group are suspicious of his role in Robert’s death. As a tribute to their lost friend, they agree to use his suggestion of taking their annual holiday to Northern Sweden. The holiday is a tradition, and they are not content to sit on a beach, the men want to experience things, go off the beaten track, conquer obstacles. But, even before their holiday takes a turn towards the supernatural, there is infighting between the groups. No one seems happy to be there, they snap and bicker. Accusations of differing fitness levels threaten to boil over, injuries slow them down and, ultimately, lead them, metaphorically and literally, down the wrong path.
When Dog Soldiers’ squaddies find the destroyed base camp of the special ops unit also involved in the training action, they immediately spring to action. Unlike the characters in The Ritual, here there is a clear and defined leader, Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee). Upon discovering a seemingly half-dead Captain Ryan, he knows exactly what to do. Despite Ryan’s vague recollection of exactly what attacked him and his men, Wells takes no chances:
‘We are now up against live, hostile targets. So, if Little Red Riding Hood should show up with a bazooka and a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch.’
His men do as he says, immediately and without question. There is no hesitation. They act as one, without question, to take down the otherworldly threat. The attack on them brings them together. As they flee, it is not a case of ‘every man for himself’; the squad look out for each other. When they are no longer in immediate danger, they check on each other, mourning the friends they have already lost.
When things begin to head south in The Ritual, it comes as tensions between the group are at a breaking point. Dom’s injury leads Hutch to make a decision to take them off track, to, what he believes, will be a quicker route for them. However, they soon find themselves embroiled in a nightmare as they stumbled upon eviscerated elk and are surrounded by strange symbols worthy of the Blair Witch. It is clear, that this was a mistake. Unlike the squaddies, who find some sort of rescue with the arrival of Megan who takes them to a safe space, a space she knows personally, the group stumble upon an abandoned cabin. Despite the fact that every fibre of their flight or fight instinct should be telling them to leave it well alone, it is the only place they can seek shelter from the weather.
Here, in the middle of the wilderness, surrounded by literal and metaphysical darkness, with something ancient and evil lurking in the trees, they manage to find a place of concentrated darkness that infects each and every one of them. Far from offering any kind of respite from their dire situation, their experiences in the cabin only serve to push them further apart. When Hutch, the de-facto leader of the group is taken from his tent, and later found impaled and gutted, it seems like there is little hope left for the remaining survivors, now that the most capable and level headed one of them has died.
Barricaded in a seemingly abandoned cottage, the squaddies work quickly to secure the premises and set up a perimeter, attempting to make a stand and survive until the morning when their attackers, revealed to be werewolves, will revert to human form. However, it isn’t as easy as that. The werewolves surround the cottage and look to retain some semblance of intelligence; destroying a land rover and killing Joe by hiding in the back seat of another car when it becomes obvious they are running short of ammunition and their only hope is escaping.
Things only get worse when Ryan reveals to the squad that they have been used as bait so Ryan’s team could capture a live werewolf. When he himself transforms thanks to his injuries sustained during his attack, it doesn’t look good for Welles, whose superglued innards are healing remarkably fast. When Meghan, a zoologist who rescued them, transforms into a werewolf herself, the surviving three; Spoon, Welles and Cooper, stand together to put up one final fight. Despite the rapid escalation of their situation from increasingly desperate to utterly hopeless, they never lose faith in one another. There is never any sign on distrust or tension between the team as they work together as best they can to ensure as many of them get out alive as possible.
When they stumble upon a small settlement deep in the woods, only Dom and Luke have survived. Dom, knowing his is going to be sacrificed to the creature that has been stalking them, urges Luke to save himself and burn the village to the ground. There is little hesitation here, and while their situation is just as bleak as the one the squad are facing, there is no team effort; there seldom has been since the trip began. It has always felt like every man for himself. Even when Cooper knows that Welles has a limited time left before he turns, he tries his hardest to stay with his friend, to keep him human. To save him.
Both films close with the sun rising and only one survivor emerging; Luke and Cooper. Luke refuses to worship at the feet of the creature, an ancient god who grants its followers immortality in return for sacrifices. He manages to flee to an open field and discovers the creature cannot follow him; he is beyond its reach. Luke is safe, but alone. While his failure to act in Rob’s defence has haunted him, his experience in the woods can be read as some sort of karmic retribution, the universe sending literal death to either fix the mistake of Rob dying, or allow him to fight for his life and prove himself worthy of living. Cooper is also alone, pushing his way out of the destroyed cottage, blown up by Welles, willingly sacrificing himself knowing what his future held. But unlike Luke, almost every action that Cooper and the rest of the squad took was not designed to just save themselves, but everyone else. Cooper lives, but he is now a solider without a squad, a man who has lost all his closest friends in one night. Luke celebrates his triumphant victory, Cooper does not. His loss is a heavy weight he now must struggle with as he slowly makes his way down the road, on a long walk back to civilisation.