James A. Swan's Home Page

(Keynote Address: 1998 Outdoor Writers of America National Convention)

Villians, Fools and Heroes:
The Image of the Hunter in Television and Feature Films

By James A. Swan, Ph.D
Ideas are what bring us here. Ideas are like seeds scattered on the wind. Some take hold and grow into beliefs, attitudes, values, cultural systems, and religions that make war or peace and change the destiny of mankind. Others die and are never heard from again. What mass communication research tells us is that if 20% of the population embraces and accepts an idea, it is not likely to go away, at least not quickly. As we live in a mass society, where public opinion determines the future of hunting, and hunters are a minority group, hunters must be concerned about the image that others have of them, regardless whether it is deserved or not.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service recently published results of a three-year survey of thousands of Americans about hunting. They found that forty percent strongly approved of hunting. Another 33% moderately approved of hunting. Only 22% either strongly or moderately disapproved. A whopping 81% of the respondents believed hunting should remain legal, while only 16% thought it should be outlawed.(1) In another survey, only 3% of those surveyed supported the tactics of animal rights extremist groups.
Despite these statistics, hunters are an endangered species. Unlike other forms of outdoor recreation, the number of hunters is not growing, and all across the US anti-hunting initiatives are appearing on ballots, hunting is being challenged in legislative proposals and in the courts. The Fish & Wildlife survey also asked about the image of the hunter. The response provides insight into the vulnerability of hunting. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed believed that "a lot" of hunters broke hunting laws or practiced unsafe behavior, such as drinking to excess and firing guns recklessly. These polls show that the non-hunting majority don't have much of a problem with HUNTING, but they do have a problem with HUNTERS. Statistics on safety, wildlife numbers and the good work that hunters do to save wild lands and support wildlife research clearly show they don't deserve the negative stereotype, but regardless whether it is deserved or not, a majority of the general public's image of the hunter is negative and suspicious. So long as the future of hunting is determined through general elections, legislative measures, and legal action rather than wildlife management biology, if hunting is going to survive this negative image has to be changed.
In this paper I will focus more on what the rest of the media is doing to create a negative stereotype of hunters, but ultimately I will assert that you as outdoor writers can (to borrow a phrase from David Mamet's hit film) "Wag The Dog" and influence how others portray hunting and hunters, changing the image of the hunter from villian and criminal to that of a hero.

The General Public

Hunters are a minority group. Less than 5% of all Americans, and less than 10% of those aged 16 or older, are hunters. The average person today lives in a large metropolitan area, a city or suburb, and has little direct contact with nature, except for an occasional visit to a park, passing sightings of squirrels, house sparrows, pigeons and starlings, and looking at trees out of a window. For most people, an increasingly large percentage of time is spent indoors, and more and more of that time is spent working. US Department of Energy studies show that the "average person" now spends 84% of their life indoors.
Humans are creatures of habit. The indoor-tied pattern of behavior persists even when people recreate. Studies have shown that the average visit to a national park is six hours or less and the average recreationist does not stray more than 50 feet from the road. Considering the amount of time spent in visitor centers, rest rooms, and restaurants, it's safe to say that the bulk of time spent enjoying our national parks is now done from an automobile.
Having become a new sub-species, Homo sapiens indoorensis, people come to rely on "experts" to keep them abreast of daily events, and even defining reality at large. In terms of time, the most popular sixth sense organ is television. In the average home, the television set is on ten or more hours a day. This means that people watch about an hour and a half of commercials a day, for the top four networks now air an average of 11 minutes and 12 seconds of commercials for every hour of broadcast time.
Except for the outdoor shows that are generally aired early in the morning on week-end, and thus are seen live more by VCR's than humans, TV programming pertaining to hunting is sparse. Sometimes featuring celebrities (which supports the image of hunters as heroes), three t's shows -- tips, techniques and travel -- educate and entertain a lot of people. The audience for the most part, however, is probably largely those who already hunt and fish. The people that must be reached are those who may not have ever fired a gun, sat in a duck blind, or thrilled at taking your first buck. Non-hunters need to understand the drama, excitement and motivations of the ethical hunter, but prime time shows with hunting as a major or minor theme are about as a common as white deer.
Coverage of hunting in the general media news is primarily negative, focusing on sensational negative items -- accidents and crimes. A case in point is the Marin Independent Journal headline for a story about the tragic shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, "Boys Had Hunting Weapons," for we later learn the guns were stolen. Channel Seven in San Francisco last year did a "Look What Your Tax Dollars Are Doing" report about youth hunts, as if Pittman-Robertson funds were not the funding for the hunts. The tabloid magazine show, "Extra," aired a negative treatment on bear hunting this January. When I challenged a former "Extra" reporter to run a story about animal rights terrorism, she told me it would never air as the staff were all pro-animal rights.
Not getting one's hands bloody or dirty to put food on their plate, or seeing people harvest wild game in an ethical manner, the average citizen is divorced from participation in the food chain, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, even though the average American eats 20 animals a year. The loss of participation in the food chain, I believe, is a major source of alienation which contributes to the plague of emotional dis-stress that makes tranquilizers and anti-ulcer drugs the most common prescriptions. (2)
Whenever you don't understand something, there is a human tendency to project all kinds of unconscious issues onto it; issues which may have little to do what are the real emotional issues. Hunters, unfortunately, are an all too easy target for many feelings not at all associated with hunting.
Because he or she carries a lethal weapon and pursues and kills ("defenseless") animals, the image of a hunter brings up thoughts and fears about crime and violence. Since animals symbolize that part of the self that is identical to nature -- emotions and the physical body -- which are largely denied by people living in the fast lane in the Information Age, people all too easily identify themselves with the animals being hunted. Thus, to the unintiated, who has never had first hand contact with death in nature nor experienced the rich heritage of hunting, hunters are easily stereotyped into sadistic criminals, even though, according to Erich Fromm, ethical hunting has absolutely nothing to do with sadism or psychopathology.(3)
Unfamiliarity with hunting is further exacerbated by our educational system. Few words are spoken about hunting in K-12 schools, neglecting a significant part a cultural history. Not much more positive is said about hunting in college, even in programs designed to train resource managers. The number of college courses about hunting is fewer than whooping cranes, and more endangered. To train a wildlife manager or a recreational professional and not educate them about the sports they will manage seems comparable to turning out physicians who have never witnessed an operation.

Hunting Stories

Recently researchers in Germany discovered three spears six to seven feet long along with a pile of thousands of animal bones. The spears have been carbon dated at 400,000 years old. Most anthropologists feel hunting has been part of human culture twice this long. One thing that hasn't changed from the earliest days are the importance of stories. Hunting has never been a spectator sport, and today, when so many people are alienated from nature, more than ever before, we need good stories to communicate the spirit and practice of hunting to show hunting and human nature in their proper light.
In hunting the hunter departs from society, undertakes rituals of preparation, dons special clothes, becomes one with nature, must avoid injury, stalks and kills wild animals, and returns to share their flesh with the community. This pattern of retreat from the world, going through an ordeal of transformation, performing dangerous acts, and returning to serve the community, is consistent with what Joseph Campbell describes as the "hero's quest." (4) Today's hunters continue to be heroes, not only in the practice of hunting, but in their heroic efforts saving wild lands, supporting research, feeding the hungry, and passing on heritage to future generations, yet they are more often portrayed as villains than heroes. What makes or destroys the image of hunters as heroes are stories.
Story-telling today is a multi-billion dollar business. Robert Redford's feature film "A River Runs Through It" (1992), which has made fly fishing politically correct and helped make it one of the fastest growing outdoor sports in America, is a good example of the power of a good story, well-told. Comparable stories where hunters are heroes could ease tensions between hunters and non-hunting members of their families and educate the general public about the deeper truths of hunting that make it ultimately a spiritual act of the highest order, as well as a way to provide healthy food for the table. Let's now turn to look at the stories that have been spun about hunting on the big and little screen.

Hunting In The Movies and Television: Some Major Themes

Forty years ago the safari's of Martin and Osa Johnson and Fred Bear were prime time television action adventure shows and feature films where hunters shot and killed game and posed with pride beside their trophies. In the 1940's and fifties master archer-stunt man Howard Hill was regularly featured at the theater in shorts about hunting, and he starred in the feature film "Tembo" (1951). Four decades ago hunting was largely unquestioned, and hunters were heroes, celebrated in such classic African safari movies as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952). That attitude has changed. The 1998 Video Source Book, which contains 160,000 entries and is probably the most complete listing of all the videos currently available through distributors -- feature films, documentaries and educational -- has 310 selections under "Hunting" in its index. Fourteen of these are feature films. Only two, "The Ghost and The Darkness" and "In The Blood," are positive about hunting and recent.
There is no complete list of all movies where hunting is a major or minor plot or setting, but thanks to friends in the movie industry, especially Curtis Hermann at Warner Brothers, the Internet Movie Database Search (which includes 115,000 titles), Richard Hummel's excellent sociological study of outdoor sports Fishing and Hunting for Sport (Popular Press, 1994), and several voluminous collections of movie reviews, I have been able to identify over 100 dramatic programs or documentaries that concern the overall character of hunting. Let's briefly look at some of the major themes of this list of 100.

Hunters and Warriors

A prominent theme in many motion pictures in the first half of this century including "Sergeant York" (1941), "Life of A Bengal Lancer" (1935), "Charge of The Light Brigade" (1936), and "Sergeant York" (1941), as well as the somewhat later "Zulu"(1964) and "Zulu Dawn" (1979) is that hunting skills are transferable to being a good soldier. This is in sharp contrast to the 1978 classic, "The Deer Hunter," where soldiers returning home from a war find that shooting deer brings up troubling guilt feelings and flash-backs from the Viet Nam war. In this movie that film critic Roger Ebert considers "one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made," hunting buddies who drink to excess and are pretty reckless in the woods go hunting before and after serving in the Viet Nam War. (5) The title suggests it is about hunting, but the actual story is about post-traumatic stress syndrome and how it effects one's life in general.
A number of other films with titles about hunting have little or nothing to do with hunting animals, but portray war or people stalking other people. "The Last Hunter" (1980) is a Viet Nam War movie a little like "Rambo." "The Night of the Hunter" (1955) is the story of a psychopathic minister stalking his victims. "The Hunter" (1980) is about an urban bounty hunter. "The Hunters" (1958) is a Korean War movie. The 1971 "The Hunting Party" is a tale of a Texas posse organized for revenge. The television series "Hunter" is a police stories program. While it is true that marksmanship, stalking, and concealment are equally important in war and hunting, the motivations are quite different. War is more of a kill or be killed experience, with humans fighting to gain advantage and protection. In hunting, a hunter seeks out wild game for food, following ethic guidelines and laws, and hunts ultimately to fulfill his soul. In taking the game he or she develops deep feelings of respect for the animals killed and nature in general that one may ultimately describe as spiritual. Warriors are heroes, too, but they despose of a feared and hated enemy, who is seldom eaten, for practical reasons of self-defense.

Native Hunters

The classic silent movie, "Nanook of The North" (1921) portrays an Eskimo hunter established a legendary cultural hero. Many western movies and television shows have shown Indians hunting, such as "The Last of the Mohicans" (1936), "Northwest Passage" (1940), and "The Pathfinder" (1952), but little is ever said about the spirituality involved in Indian hunting, which was integral to their original culture.
The Academy Award-winning "Dances With Wolves"(1990) starring Kevin Costner is a rare insight into the spiritual kinship between Indians and animals that includess some moving action sequences of Indians killing buffalo that did not seem to elicit much criticism from animal rights groups. This movie also shocks us with the carnage and waste in market hunting scenes, which is a very sad story in American history. Screenwriting guru Syd Field believes that one reason for the success of "Dances With Wolves," is that this is a classic tale of a hero's journey, according to Campbell's formula. (6) Costner's character, John Dunbar, is a classic example of the hero as an apparent fool. To some, a hero may seem to be a fool, because he or she acts contrary to society's norms, following a deeper unconscious instincts by surrendering to irrational intuition. Walking to the beat of a different drummer breaks through repressive social norms, making the heroes actions an expression of truth that cuts through social blindness and transforms society, as well as the hero.
The theme that native hunters can hunt and kill with ethics and spirituality is found in other movies. "The White Dawn" (1976), set around the turn of the century, portrays an Arctic shipwreck where white men who have no feeling for native culture or nature disrupt the balance of nature, leading to dire consequences for relations with animals, as well as among human relationships.
At least two feature films have been made about the legendary Yahi Indian, Ishi, who wandered out of the woods near Oroville, California, in 1911. Ishi was taken by anthropologists to San Francisco, where he lived in a museum and taught his native skills to many people, and became a celebrity. In "Ishi: The Last of His Tribe" (1978) and the recent HBO movie "Ishi" starring Graham Greene and John Voight, little or no mention is made to Ishi teaching Saxton Pope and Arthur Young, the founders of the Pope and Young Society, how to make bows and arrows and hunt. The story of how Ishi passed along this tradition that today has three million followers deserves to be told.
One alarming trend in recent movies is the tendency to depict all hunters, including natives, in a negative light. An example is "Never Cry Wolf" (1983), based Farley Mowat's book by the same name. Respect is shown for the traditional Eskimo's shamanic religion, which is directly tied to hunting, but the only Eskimo hunter we see is corrupted by money into becoming a heartless market hunter. An Eskimo friend of mine says that her relatives up in Barrow have nicknamed Farley Mowat "Hardly Know It" because the story fails to describe the depth of spirituality between Eskimos and animals that continues today.

Robin Hood: A Poacher Hero

The English folk hero Robin Hood, who defies the wicked sheriff of Nottingham and kills the King's deer to feed the poor, has been the subject of at least 20 movies, beginning with the 1922 silent action film "Robin Hood" movies starring the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, and the 1938 "The Adventures of Robin Hood" starring the legendary Errol Flynn. Also, from 1955 to 1958 Richard Green starred in a very popular television series, "The Adventures of Robin Hood."
In the last decade Robin Hood's legend has been renewed by Kevin Costner, "Robin Hood" (1991) and Mel Brooks' subsequent spoof of Costner, "Robin Hood: Men In Tights" (1993). Archery is portrayed in all the Robin Hood pictures, and slain deer are displayed, but we do not learn much about deer hunting, although venison was a mainstay of Robin Hood's diet and the English are famous for their longbow marksmanship.


Many early documentary movies dealt with hunting and great safaris. "Moose Hunting In Newfoundland" (1905) and "Stalking and Shooting Caribou In Newfoundland" (1907) were both feature film classics, as were later films about Fred Bear and Howard Hill that were shown on both the silver screen and early television. Hill's feature documentary, "Tembo," (1951) describes his hunt for an African elephant with a bow and appeared in movie houses as a feature.
One of the videos listed in the Video Source Book is the extremely negative CBS Reports (1975) television documentary, "The Guns of Autumn," narrated by Dan Rather and produced by Irv Drasnin, which focused on slob hunters and tried to say they represented all hunters. A Humane Education Center in Virginia now distributes this video, incidentally, which costs $50.00. The history of this show would make a good investigative story for someone.
Two exceptions to the modern trend to portray hunting in a negative light are George Butler's "In The Blood" and Randy Eaton's "Sacred Hunt," which I will say more about shortly.

Children's Movies

Children's minds are less dominated by rational thinking and more prone to creative fantasy. Children easily see animals as humans, or having human qualities, which is a normal, natural, and healthy perception. All around the world cultural norms are taught with animal stories, because animals were universally regarded as intermediaries for divinity. Modern cartoons with Brer Rabbit, Goofy, Barney, Yogi Bear, Donald, Daisy and Daffy Duck, Roadrunner, Mickey Mouse and Wily E. Coyote continue this pattern.
The 1942 Disney animated feature "Bambi" is the best-known movie casting a negative light on hunting. Since it targets audiences of women and children, it makes daddy's recreational deer hunting trip seem cruel and it turns daddy into a bad guy. Hunters are not the only people to have trouble with "Bambi." According to movie critic Roger Ebert, "Bambi," is "a parable of sexism, nihilism, and despair, portraying absentee fathers and passive mothers in a world of violence."(7)
Some say that the anthropomorphism in "Bambi" is the problem. From a psychological standpoint this is not at all accurate. Folk tales, myths, legends, as well as numerous reports of dreams and visions portray animals in anthropomorphic terms, because this is the way our psyche works. A truth gleaned from psychotherapy is if an animal appears in a dream and it changes into a human, or quasi-human form, then this means that an unconscious element, an instinct, is ready to become conscious. Also, in the wisdom of traditional societies, if you have a vivid dream or a vision where an animal turns into a human, this is great gift; animal whose spirit wants to bestow power unto you.
In all fairness to Disney, a blanket portrayal of Walt Disney as an anti-hunting crusader is a little harsh. Yes, it's true that Disney did in 1955 make a cartoon entitled "No Hunting," but the star was Donald Duck. In 1935 Disney produced a cartoon, "Duck Hunt," starring Mickey Mouse. Let us not forget that Walt Disney also gave us the immensely popular "Davy Crockett"(1955) television series, starring Fess Parker, where a good hunter hero was the star of the show, as well as another series "Daniel Boone" (1961) and scores of other westerns with Indians, trappers and frontiersmen. Even today, decades after the last episode, thousands of kids going to Disneyland take home replicas of coonskin hats and muzzleloader rifles. In the mid-1950's Disney also made a series of documentaries, "People and Places," including a 1953 Academy-Award-winning production, "The Alaskan Eskimo," and "Lappland" (1957) about native hunters.
A common problem with the way most children's movies deal with hunting is that they romanticize ecological principles and avoid issues about who eats who. Contrast by Walt Disney's 1960's "Bear Country" with the more recent film, "The Bear" (1989), about an orphaned, cute, bear cub who is adopted by an adult grizzly. Hunters encountered are out after pelts, and the market hunters ultimately become hunted by the grizzly, who does not kill them. One lesson here is that the bear has more heart than the simple, brutish, greedy hunter. The wildlife footage in "The Bear" is beautiful, but in reality, male grizzlies often eat young cubs and bear hunters are not evil people. With the advent of animation that gave us a talking animals "Babe" it's likely we will see more and more talking animals as stars. The technique is great, but what remains to be seen is whether the animals will tell the truth or not. The 1978 Warner Brothers animated feature, "Watership Down," shows that stories about talking animals can be ecologically accurate.
While Grimm's fairy tales has many stories about hunters as heroes, modern childrens movies almost always cast hunters in a negative light. "Hill Farm" (1989) is an academy-award-winning animated short about tourists and hunters damaging a farm. The recent popular children's movie, "Jumanji," (1996) that has fantastic special effects about animals popping out of a magical book, has a hunter buffoon that dangerously shoots at everything that moves. Here the hunter is careless, reckless, trigger-happy, and wants to kill these wonderful animals, or anything else that moves. This is not a good message to give to kids if daddy is going to go out hunting.
Walking into the video stores these days, one finds stacks of videos for "Shiloh," (1996) that comes with a free children's book. "Shiloh" is a story about a hunting dog that is rescued from his abusive owner, a hunter. Contrast the plot of "Shiloh" with "The Biscuit Eater" (1940) where two young boys take the runt of a litter of bird dogs and turn him into a champion.
Then there is "Bless The Beasts and The Children" (1972) about a group of teenagers at summer camp who attempt to prevent a hunt to reduce the herd of buffalo on a wildlife reserve. The message here is that hunt-disrupters are heroes, and sound wildlife management is bad. Too bad that the title song, "Bless The Beasts and The Children," the title song from the movie, is so good.
Humor is an important part of children's programming. In cartoons, often we see hunters as laughable fools who are not nearly as smart as the animals they seek. Elmer Fudd has been trying to bag Daffy Duck for years. Donald, Daisy and Daffy Duck and Ludwig von Drake have made fools out of countless hunters. In his own humorous manner, Goofy has taught us about hunting and fishing. And who can forget Bill Murray as the gopher-hunting groundskeeper in "Caddy Shack" (1980)? Any hunter can recall a time when a deer, duck, pheasant or rabbit fooled them. Such stories are as important to hunting as successful kills, for they acknowledge the wisdom of the animals. My major criticism of cartoons that show hunters as fools is when they practice unsafe gun handling, shooting themselves and others, and then miraculously reviving. This kind of story may be more foolish than funny in the long run. You can make kids laugh and teach them to treat all guns with respect, as if they are loaded.

Hunting Animals Turns Into Humans Hunting Humans

Numerous movies start out with people hunting animals but end up hunting other people. "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932) is about two trophy hunters who end up stalking each other. The same story line has carried on in the modern classics "Hard Target" and "Surviving The Game."
In "The Big Cat" (1949), a puma steps in the middle of two feuding families. Another family feud is described in "The Voice of Bugle Ann" (1936) which takes place in the hills of Missouri where people are using hounds for night fox hunting. When a man moves in and decides to erect fences and raise sheep, a family feud begins, that escalates when a prize hound named Bugle Ann is lost.
In the 1972 award-winning movie "Deliverance" by director John Boorman where a group of men decide to go on an Appalachian wilderness canoe trip to get one last chance to see a wild river valley before it is flooded by a damn, John Voight's character comes down with "buck fever." Burt Reynolds is a more macho character with a bow, but ultimately the hunt turns into a war with primitive hill people where people are killed with hunting weapons.
Some others with a similar plot line include:
"Hunter's Blood" (1987) is a cult classic, with a plot somewhat similar to "Deliverance" where a group of men from the city go deer hunting only to be hunted, killed and tortured by a group of hillbilly poachers.
"Quigley Down Under" (1990), starring Tom Selleck, is the story of a sharp shooter bounty hunter with a six foot-long Sharps rifle who travels to Australia thinking that he is going to be hunting dingoes (wild dogs). Instead he is told to shoot Aborigines. When Quigley refuses, he ends up in a shooting war with the sheep rancher.
In the James Bond classic "Gold Finger" (1964) it is the villain, Mr. Goldfinger, goes on a driven upland game hunt. When Bond picks up a shotgun, he shoots Goldfinger's snipers, not birds. If Bond could have bagged a bird or two as well, I don't think it would have hurt Bond's image much at all. Roast pheasant goes very well with a bottle of Dom Perignone.
A implicit message in these movies is that living out in the woods reduces one to brutal savagery. Far too seldom, if ever, do we ever see movies where a retreat to nature is recreational, healing and spiritually uplifting, even though this is far more often the case in real life.

Hunters As Villains, Criminals and Slobs

All too often Hollywood has made hunters villians. "The Naked Prey" (1966) starring Cornell Wilde is an animal rights activists dream come true. In a turn of the century setting, African natives pursue a trophy hunting safari guide like an animal while his greedy client is butchered and presumably eaten without even a "fair chase" chance to escape.
"The Shooting Party" (1984), "The Rules of the Game" (1939), "Shalako" (1968), "The List of Adrian Messenger" (1963), and "A Handful of Dust" (1988) portray wealthy aristocrats on elaborate hunting trips, where murder, cruelty, sadism and divorce take place. In these movies hunters are seen as ugly, unsportsmanlike, brutal and sometimes sadistic.
"Powder" (1995) portrays a man gifted with rare paranormal powers who heals a deer shot by a hunter. The theme of hunting as a crime is strong here. Hunting is also associated with criminal activity in the box office smash hit horror movie "Scream" 1997. A series of bloody murders are committed where the victims are gutted. When suspects are questioned, they are asked if they like to hunt. The reason for the question, we learn, is that hunters like to eviscerate their prey.
If you are interested in depressing psychological dramas about obsession, "Moby Dick" (1930) and "The White Buffalo"(1977) are good, but even better is "White Hunter, Black Heart"(1990), starring Clint Eastwood portraying the legendary film director John Houston's obsession with killing an elephant. This is a good psychological portrait about ego and impotence, but it says nothing positive about hunting and we left with the feeling that hunters are ultimately immature cowards. To this category we also should add "The Stratton Story" (1949) about a baseball player who loses a leg in a hunting accident.
Movie-makers, if you want a real challenge, how about a movie with a hero who leads the crusade to reduce the skyrocketing elephant or deer population to prevent range destruction and starvation?

Foreign Films

A search of the Internet Movie Database Search, which includes some 115,000 titles, yielded 17 movies where hunting is recognized as a major theme in the plot. Many are foreign films, especially Scandinavian and German. I could not gain access to view most of these films, but reviews state that nearly all portray hunters and hunting in a negative light. One exception is the 1975 feature “Dersu Uzala,” by Akira Kurasawa, which won an Academy Award for “Best Foreign language Film.” Dersu Uzala, the lead role, is a Siberian native hunter who is a true hero. The story of his interaction with civilization as a result of saving the life of the Russian soldier is moving and beautifully shot.
I would call your attention to a 1997 full-length Dutch documentary of English fox hunting, "The Hunt," which is distributed by a Films Transit in Montreal and probably will be seen on television. The film traces a season of the Ludlow Hunt. The technical cinematography, sound and editing are professional, but the story focuses primarily on the business of running a fox hunt, and gives us precious little information about the history and heritage of fox hunting. It makes a special point to show fox hounds being fed animal carcasses, an old fox hound being killed with a pistol (well over one million animals are euthanized in the US every year by various humane groups), digging foxes from their burrows to be shot and killed after a small terrier has pretty much finished the fox already, and vigorous anti-hunting protestors. Ending with a season-finale party, we are led to believe that fox hunting is like golf at a country club. It is what is not said or explored in this film that is more important than what is.
There is a rich legacy of European folk and fairy tales where hunters are heroes, but these stories do not seem to be translated into modern films, and an important part of human culture becomes lost. Someone needs to make a popular film about the conversion of Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, who was draw to the priesthood by a vision of Christ that appeared over the head of a stag.

Rare Species: Movies that Portray Hunting In A Positive Light

Movies and television shows that have given hunting some positive support are about as common as whooping cranes, but there have been some good ones. Several early pictures show how hunting may increase self-esteem and self-confidence. "The Macomber Affair" (1947) is an African safari story that shows that by following rules of fair chase one's character can be developed. African big game hunting is portrayed in a similarly positive manner in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952), as well as in "Harry Black and The Tiger" (1958), which is about a professional hunter who tracks down man-eating tigers. This generally positive picture of the African hunting guide as a man of good character is also found in "Out of Africa" (1985) starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.
"The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1985), based on the best-selling book by Jean Auel, shows a strong woman, Ayala, who is banned from her clan because she wants to hunt. The story is set in Paleolithic times, but the immense popularity of the book and the movie show that when hunting is woven into a good story, many people will enjoy it, even if they have no experience with hunting.
The 1953 feature film "Back to God's Country" features an Alaskan trapper and his wife who are stalked by two criminals. Here the trapper-hunter is at least a hero. In "Will Penny" (1968) Charleton Heston also plays a wilderness trapper hero.
A delightful exception to the overall negative portrayal of hunting is the 1996 A&E "Pride and Prejudice Series" television series based on Jane Austin's novel, where we see shooting, and hunting is a part of aristocracy that is normal and accepted. The BBC deserves credit for producing this fine work in an age of modern politically-correctness. In a similar fashion, the classic "Tom Jones" (1960) gives a fairly accurate portrayal of hunting as part of the lifestyle associated with an old English deer hunt without trying to make any moral judgments about hunting.
In the 1997 blockbuster hit, "The Lost World," British actor Pete Postelwaite plays a wise professional hunter, the strongest character in the movie, who wants to bag a Tyrannosaurus Rex as his fee for leading an expedition to catch dinosaurs. He explains his appetite for being the first modern hunter to bag the giant carnivore by comparing his desire with climbers of Mount Everest -- "a challenge." His plan is thwarted by an eco-activist who steals his ammunition, but he succeeds in bagging the king of flesh-eaters with a tranquilizer gun. This sends a message to trophy hunters that perhaps the trophy hunting of the future will be "catch and release."
In case you are looking for a quick guide to good movies about the spirit of the hunt, the following are 12 of my all-time videos that portray hunters as heroes beyond being successful in taking game. On my rating system, Four Point bucks are the best.
  • 1) The Ghost And The Darkness (1996) -- inspired by the book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo; around the turn of the century, two lions become serial killers, preying on crews who are building an East African railroad, stopping construction. This is the best African hunting feature film of the nineties. Winner of one Academy Award, starring Val Kilmer as Colonel Patterson and Michael Douglas as Frederick Remington, the wildlife photography and sound track are as outstanding as the story. BOONE AND CROCKET -- TROPHY RACK FOUR POINTER
  • 2) Dances With Wolves (1990) -- Winner of seven academy awards, including best picture and best director, the heart of Kevin Costner's masterpiece saga about a soldier's desire to see the old west is a Indian buffalo hunt. DEFINITELY A FOUR-POINTER.
  • 3) In The Blood (1989) -- A superb docu-drama about a group of modern hunters who follow in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt's 1909 African safari to seek out the spirit of the hunt in modern life. Given strong, positive reviews by the New York Times, Variety, Audubon, and the Sundance Film Festival. Shown at the White House for a special screening by President Bush. Great family entertainment. POPE AND YOUNG FOUR POINTER. You can rent this through some video stores. You can also buy copies for $19.95 by calling 1-800-626-4277. The musical score by percussionst Olatunji, is equally good & can be purchased independently on the RYKODISC label in CD or casette tape.
  • 4) The Sacred Hunt (1997) -- Dr. Randy Eaton has recently produced a video about the spiritual and ethical aspects of hunting. There are no kills in "The Sacred Hunt," but lots of heart-spaced interviews with American Indians and ethical hunters sprinkled among some spectacular wildlife photography by Marty Stouffer. It is a little long and redundant, but this is one to show non-hunters. Video is $29.95 -- ask about the accompanying book for $19.95. . To order call: 1-541-426-2047. TWO AND A HALF POINTER
  • 5) Out of Africa (1985) -- Robert Redford and Meryl Streep star in this turn of the century romantic tale about an European woman moving to Africa and falling in love with a big game hunter. Based on the book by Danish author Isak Dineson, this winner of seven academy awards, portrays hunting as a normal part of culture in Europe and Africa, as we see Africa changing forever. Don't forget your handkerchief. FOUR POINTER
  • 6) The Wind and The Lion (1975) -- Based on a turn of the century true story about an American woman (Candace Bergen) and her two children who are kidnapped by a Moroccan rebel (Sean Connery), and Teddy Roosevelt's (Brian Keith) strategy to get her free. "The Wind and The Lion" gives us some exceptional quality time with T.R. including when he hunts and kills a monster grizzly which he then has stuffed and displayed in the White House. The movie was nominated for several Academy Awards. Definitely a FOUR POINTER. Director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn) is working on a movie about Teddy Roosevelt in his younger days. Cross your fingers.
  • 7) Tembo (1951) -- The legendary Howard Hill was probably the best stunt man archer who ever lived, as well as the best shot with a bow in the world in his time. "Tembo" is a feature documentary about an African safari where Hill bags four of the "big five" with a 115 lb. longbow. Funded in part by Hill's hunting buddy Errol Flynn, it was immensely successful picture. Copies of "Tembo" are available from Hill's nephew Jerry, who is also a superb archer and manufacturer of traditional archery equipment. The cost is $20.00, plus shipping. Order by calling 1-205-669-6134 or Jerry Hill Longbow Co., 515 McGowan Rd., Wilsonville, AL 35186. CLASSIC FOUR POINTER
  • 8) King Solomon's Mines (1937) -- They just don't make them like this any more. An epic saga of a safari in search of the fabled diamond mines of Africa, as the party treks across the "Dark Continent" they must face unruly natives, sand storms, and many wild animals. The old wildlife footage captures the golden age of African hunting safaris, and the animals killed are for real. FOUR POINTER
  • 9) The Last Safari (1967) -- Stewart Granger is an ethical African professional hunter who retires from being a guide, but decides to go on a last hunt to track down a rogue elephant that killed his partner. This is a story about changing Africa, as much as hunting. A strong subplot pairs the seasoned professional hunter with a wealthy, naive, obnoxious American wannabee trophy hunter who just won't go away. Granger's gun handling would make a Hunter Education Instructor have nightmares, and the musical score is bizarre and inappropriate, but there is solid acting, wonderful wildlife footage, and a hunter hero. TWO POINTER
  • 10) A River Runs Through It (1992) -- Robert Redford's moving treatment of Norman Macleans's novel about fly fishing won a much-deserved Academy Award for its spectacular cinematography. Many of the statements about fly fishing in this movie, especially the memorable line, "In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" could be equally applied to hunting. Let us all pray that someone, someday, will make an equally good movie about the spirit of the hunt. POPE AND YOUNG FOUR POINTER
  • 11) The 1997 feature film "The Edge" written by Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer, David Mamet, stars Anthony Hopkins as a billionaire intellectual with a trophy wife, Elle MacPherson, who is having an affair with a sleaze ball fashion photographer -- Alec Baldwin. Hopkins and Baldwin crash in the Alaskan bush. This is a smart movie that will save some lives as it teaches important lessons about the psychology of wilderness survival. Bart the Bear is awesome. FOUR POINTER
  • 12) A Year In The Life of A Bowhunter chronicles a year with country musician and professional hunter Dave Watson, formerly bass player for the Oak Ridge Boys and Lee Greenwood. Eighty-seven action-packed minutes, including concerts and hunting, filmed in Alberta, Colorado, Tennessee, Missouri and Mississippi. Includes Dave's stirring renditions of two original songs, "Call of the Wild. and "Last Stand In The Rockies," which are BOONE AND CROCKET hunting music videos that celebrate the hunter's soul and his love for nature. Available through Apollo Productions, p.o. box 2424, Hendersonville, TN 37077 $21.00 postage- paid FOUR POINTER
  • 13) Dersu Uzala (1975) by Akira Kurasawa is perhaps the best modern treatment of a hunter as a hero in a feature film. An outstanding movie classic. BOONE AND CROCKET FOUR POINTER
  • 14) Jeremiah Johnson (1972) is a classic, with John Milius' script put on the big screen with the skillful guidance of director Sydney Pollack and his taste for cinematic beauty. Robert Redford stars as a mountain man who wants to be left alone, but is forced to violate an Indian burial ground, and thus runs a gauntlet of attackers as he seeks his escape.
I recently iinterviewed veteran actor Jameson Parker, co-star of the extremely popular long-running TV series "Simon and Simon", who also has hosted the "World of Ducks Unlimited," and "Sports Afield: On Assignment." When I asked Jameson what it would take to get more positive programs about hunting, he replied: "Hollywood is a reflection of society. If the studios think something is cool, they'll shoot it."
I believe the public is hungry for some good hunting stories. The successes of "The Ghost and The Darkness" and "The Edge" supports my claim. I would also point out that the best-selling PC game in the US in January of 1998 was "Deer Hunter" by WizardWorks, which is is a realistic hunting simulation giving you choices of weapons, calls, blinds, and stalking skills to bag a buck in several parts of the US. Now if you could only eat electronic venison...
The box office successes of "The Ghost and The Darkness" and "The Edge" demonstrate that there is a market for good, positive hunting stories, and that all actors are not animal rights supporters. When Academy Award-winner Nicolas Cage ate a cockroach in "Vampire's Kiss," the picture was protested by animal rights supporters. A vote of thanks must go out to Cage, who says, "Finally I called one of them and said, 'Do you have a can of Raid?' When she said 'Yes,' I said, 'Well then what's the problem?'" When they were casting for "The Ghost In The Darkness," originally Kevin Costner was going to play Colonel Patterson. Then it was Tom Cruise before Val Kilmer. Anthony Hopkins kills the bear in "The Edge." These are some of the best and most popular actors of our times.
Outdoor writers, you have tremendous power to get good hunting stories in the hands and hearts of the public. Hunt stories are fine, but in addition to articles about kills and technique, we need to address the entire cultural context of hunting: myths, legends, history, philosophy, literature, psychology, and religion, as well as wildlife ecology. This information needs to communicated to hunters, and it must be communicated to the public at large. In the videos, "The Guns of Autumn," "What's Wrong With Hunting?" and "The Hunt," hunters make statements that are ultimately self-destructive to their image. In "Guns of Autumn" when the CBS interviewer asks one hunter why he hunts, he replies that hunting is "like gambling and drinking, it kinda gets in your blood."
One of the reasons I wrote my book, In Defense of Hunting, was to help the hunter cut-through the mis-information about hunting, especially about its psychological roots, so he or she can feel proud. I encourage each of you to arm your readers with facts that show the cultural, spiritual, ethical, and biological basis for hunting, in addition to statistics on money spent and lands preserved. To be a hunter is not a dirty secret.

Wagging The Dog

William Shakespeare once said that the artist must "hold the mirror up to Nature." There are some 350 feature films made every year and many times that many television shows and series. Stories about slob hunters and sadism need to be told, but modern audiences need to appreciate the real motivation of the passion that drives ethical hunters. It's easy to make a film about a bad hunter. Film makers, if you want a real challenge, show us how hunting is ultimately one of mankind's most deeply spiritual.
It can be done, even with the American Humane Association now having jurisdiction to monitor all films with animals. In fact there are now more laws covering animal actors than child actors. The AHA can shut a film down if a animal is harmed in the production, but they can’t shut it down if the script calls for an animal to be shot and you don’t shoot real animal. This is how movies like “Dances With Wolves” get made. You shoot the animatronic animals, or use other special visual effects. It raises the budget, but gets you a clean bill of health from AHA and a rating that won’t keep you from being shown in television. (See their website for how AHA influences movies.)
Popular films and television shows often tell us that modern heroes can shoot whoever they want in the name of what they decide is justice; the more people the better seems to be rule of thumb, but no one but the bad guys can shoot an animal. In light of the recent rash of shootings that have taken place across the US, especially where kids have shot playmates and teachers, I would like to invite the Outdoor Writers of America to raise the ethical standards of journalism to help curb violence, because there is a copycat element in these kinds of incidents. I propose a moratorium on all humor making reference to hunters killing people, including anti-hunters. I would call on the anti-hunters to also cease all reference, in jest or otherwise, to people hunting hunters.
If hunters as a group begin to vote with their wallets for films, videos and television programs that give them a fair shake, things will change. Hunters may be a minority group, but if you add up all the 15 million hunters, their families and friends, that's enough people to make a moderate budget feature film be a financial success. Outdoor writers have more power than they think to influence content of feature films and television. Considering that the advertising budget for a typical feature film is one-third or more of its production cost, and the close knit nature of the hunting community, if a film does come out that gives a good honest portrayal, outdoor writers have the potential to mobilize this large audience (who will tell their friends) for a fraction of the normal advertising costs.
As some of you who have written books about hunting or made videos or movies about hunting know, getting publicity for them is not easy. (I want to thank all the outdoor writers who reviewed my book, In Defense of Hunting. Without you, it would have probably never been seen by a lot of people.) I invite you to join me in making films, videos and television shows fair game for reviewing. If the hunting community can be mobilized to support general programming that at least gives a balanced picture of who are hunters and what they do, then hunters may find themselves wagging the dog, instead of being one.
Speaking of truth, at the end of each picture that includes animals there are statements assuring that no animals were harmed in the making of the film. A more accurate statement would add the following line: "But the cast and crew ate a few thousand pounds of beef, pork, chicken and fish during the filming of this picture and it sure was good."


(1) Mark Damian Duda, Steven J. Bissell and Kira C. Young Factors Related to Hunting and Fishing Participation In the United States Phase V: Final Report. Responsive Management, P.O. Box 389, Harrisonburg, Virginia 22801.
(2) James Swan Nature As Teacher and Healer, (sec. ed.) Minocqua, WI: Willow Creek Press, 1998.
(3) Erich Fromm The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, NY, NY: Fawcett, 1973.
(4) Joseph Campbell The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.
(5) Roger Ebert Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion (1990 edition) NY, NY: Andrew and McMeel, 1989, p.53.
(6) Syd Field Four Screenplays: Studies In The American Screenplay NY, NY: Dell, 1994.
(7) Roger Ebert, Op. Cit., pp. 192-193.