The Top Five Outdoor Films…..Ever

It's hard to define what qualifies a motion picture as an "outdoor" film. To make this list the film must center on hunting and/or the outdoors. One of these two elements must be central to the plot, theme, tone and overall narrative of the flick. The movie gets more points if it has more than one—and a lot of shooting. Sure, a good film about love, loss and triumph that has outdoor-based cinematography might seem to fit, but we need to dig a little deeper here. Same goes for Westerns, they have their own category.

Truth is, I'm 25 years old, and my fresh-out-of-college mind couldn't drudge up more than few sorry excuses for outdoor movies that have debuted in the last 15 years. I quite possibly missed out on the seminal movies of the outdoor variety because my parents were still in diapers when the productions hit the scene. This inconvenient truth (pun intended) highlights the fact that the outdoor and the Western genres in their true form have been left out in the cold as long as I've been around. When they do show up on the silver screen it's a trite, overblown remake (see 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit).

Let's not get started on depictions of hunting in feature films in my short lifetime. Honestly, there wouldn't be a place to start if we tried. American Hunter's Editor-in-Chief Scott Olmsted summed it up pretty well during a recent e-mail exchange on the subject: "The sad truth is the best movie that depicts the outdoors, the camaraderie of it, is A River Runs Through It. But it's about fishing. We need a good movie that does the same thing for hunting." 

We don't have one, so we'll go with my made up definition. Feel free to add your top five or even 20 and your candid opinions on the choices below.

1. Jeremiah Johnson (1972) - Director Sydney Pollack's take on jaded army vet Jeremiah Johnson's battle with an unforgiving Colorado Territory in the 1840's is the ultimate expression of a man's thirst to test his limits against the wild. If only every outdoorsman could reach the epic beardedness of Robert Redford, we'd all be that much closer to the hardcore mountain man. From the appearance of the Hawken rifle (.30 and .50 cal.) to the battles with ruthless indians, this outdoor movie is in a league of its own.

2. Dances with Wolves (1990) -  With a plot quite similar to our top outdoor film, “Dances with Wolves” has become possibly the greatest outdoor film of what can be labeled the "modern era." Why? Director/actor Kevin Costner reinvigorated the genre at a time when such films were said to be dead. The buffalo hunt featured is as thrilling a piece of outdoor cinema as there has ever been. The sweeping shot of Costner on horseback dodging tumbling blurs of hair and flesh with his polished brass frame Henry 1860 rifle in hand gives me goose bumps every time.

3. The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) -
If Jeremiah Johnson met his ultimate challenge against a mountain, the hunters in this film met their challenge against a pair of bloodthirsty lions. While critics like Roger Ebert bashed this film when it debuted, others have called it "a land-locked ‘Jaws.’" The true story pits man versus beast in the wild—advantage beast. The hunting is fast-paced and chaotic and it gets intense when Col. John Patterson (played by Val Kilmer) and grizzled P.H. Remington (Michael Douglas) track the marauders into the bush. All topped off by the scenic shots of the Dark Continent and its rugged beauty. I leave this movie each time with the great urge to test my luck against Africa's most dangerous game. 

4. Deliverance (1972) - This film, as many others on this list do, centers on man's ability to survive against primitive challenges while alone in the wilderness. These tests just happen to be a bunch of crazy hillbillies and unforgiving rapids in the Cahulawassee River. Not only does this movie feature some of the best actors of its day—Ned Beatty, Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds—but it depicts quite flawlessly how a civilized man can survive when put to the test. Again, no hunting in this film but the principal shots were of the outdoor-adventure variety.

5. A River Runs Through It (1992) - As Mr. Olmsted stated above, this film has no match when it comes to depicting what we love about the outdoors. The movie, based on Norman Maclean's 1976 book, features stunning shots of the Montana countryside and offers true nostalgia for those yearning to be lost in the simple pleasures found not far from one's front door. If only Brad Pitt had been carrying a Remington 700 and not a fly rod, it might be No. 1. Not to mention that Redford makes another appearance on the list—but this time as director/narrator.

Honorable Mention: The Deer Hunter (1978), Open Range (2003), Legends of the Fall (1994), Where the Red Fern Grows (1974), Into the Wild (2007)

Worst Hunting Movie Ever

 1. Bambi (1942) -  Need I say more?

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34 Responses to The Top Five Outdoor Films…..Ever

s cook wrote:
June 02, 2011

Jeremiah Johnson is number one, but I don't think a true mountain would have hung a front door that opens outward. Also, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit.

j marler wrote:
April 17, 2011

Just watched the dvd of Jeremiah Johnson last night with my wife. My absolute favorite though, Lonesome Dove. Of course A River Runs Through It is up there though! Why cant someone do a movie about The Old Man and the Boy or The Everlasting Stream or The Earth Is Enough? Get on it Redford

mark bartholomay wrote:
April 04, 2011

How about home from the hill. the family is a little disfunctional but the hunting theme is there

broknaxl wrote:
April 02, 2011

One that is on par or maybe even better than Jerimiah Johnson is The Mountain Men with Charlton Heston.

Jeff - Fremont, NE wrote:
March 22, 2011

"Hatari" directed by Howard Hawks, with John Wayne, Hardy Kruger, Red Buttons, Bruce Cabot and more. A great movie.

Stan wrote:
March 21, 2011

The Edge.

Earl wrote:
February 27, 2011

I love Jeremiah Johnson! This year when i got my deer I sent a pic along with the line "Skin 'em pilgrim I"ll get you another" to my better half. It got a big laugh.

Chuck wrote:
February 21, 2011

Brian Kieth was a much better mountain man than he was an Uncle Bill. "ya call this fightin?"

Rocko wrote:
February 19, 2011

How could "Escanaba in Da Moonlight" not make this list? One mans quest to finally bag a buck before becoming the oldest member in the history of his family to never bag a buck. It has all the trappings of Deer Camp, (and then some).

Karl wrote:
February 18, 2011

The Snow Walker. I recently saw this and it is a great add to the list.

Lance C. wrote:
February 13, 2011

Roger Ebert has no clue on movies. The Ghost and the Darkness is a great movie especially since it is a true story.

Joe W wrote:
February 12, 2011

Tried to rmember the name and turn tv on this morning and there it was, "Last of the Dogmen", 1995 movie about a lost tribe of Indians. I'm a John Wayne buff, but love this movie

Tad wrote:
February 10, 2011

Check out a movie titled "Alone In The Wilderness" (2004) and its companion book "One Man's Wilderness" by Richard Proenneke. Richard lived alone in Alaska for over 30 years and documented his living of the land. Hunting, fishing, cureing his meat, and building his log cabin totally by hand. With his journals he kept and the films that he mad it is truely one of the most beautiful outdoor movies I have ever had the pleasure to watch. The book is also great and fills in many of the details of his self sufficiency in living with what God provided in the wilderness. Amust read and watch.

Paul wrote:
February 10, 2011

I agree with "Jeremiah Johnson" as number 1, but I would put "Out of Africa" as number 2. The common thread of course is Robert Redford. He can pull it off.

Rich wrote:
February 10, 2011

My memory was telling me "Jeremiah Johnson" belongs on this list before I scrolled down the page! I have to beg off on the "Deer Hunter" though. The cinematography may have been impressive but the movie was supposed to take place in Pennsylvania and THAT mountain shown in the hunt IS NOT in PA. Also, being a Vietnam combat vet, A 1/28, 1st Inf Div 68 - 69, the Hollywood version of that war got on my nerves, extremely!

William Voelkle wrote:
February 10, 2011

a rare one from 30-40 years ago, "Dersu Uzala" about Siberia, with a memorable storm survival sequence of two ill-prepared outdoorsmen.

TB wrote:
February 09, 2011

At the time when I was about 12 I thought Jeremiah Johnson was the best movie and still think its great. But now, on nights back at the camp trailer while on hunts with my young boys we always watch The Mountain Men, what a great movie about trapping and hunting.

Chris L wrote:
February 09, 2011

I have to agree with Jeremiah Johnson (AKA Liver eating Johnson); However Dances with Wolves is perhaps the most boring movie ever shot. Pretty much like most of Costners movies (I liked Water World but that was due to Hopper). You totally missed "Last of the Mohicans","The Edge" and "Death Hunt".

Cliff wrote:
February 09, 2011

Good choices & all the posted add on's. I agree with J S regarding "Dersu Uzala"...outstanding film of subsistence hunter. I'll add some real old ones made when hunting wasn't politically incorrect. 'Trader Horn' [1931] 1st full length movie filmed in Africa. Made by W.S.Van Dyke who also made 'Eskimo'[1933]on location in the arctic.You can also add 'King Solomons Mines' both the 1937 and technicolor 1950 version both shot in Africa. One more, 'The Last Hunt'[1956] action flick about buffalo hunters,shot in South Dakota. There's alot more really but I'll end here.

Ben O wrote:
February 09, 2011

Well, it seems there is a consensus that "The Mountain Men" should have been included on the list. Does anyone think it was better than "Jeremiah Johnson?"

Bill wrote:
February 09, 2011

Out of Africa, with Redford and Meryl Streep taking down those two charging lions makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Very real.....

2 Locks wrote:
February 09, 2011

Gotta aggree with y'all on The Mounten Men

Wolf wrote:
February 09, 2011

Mountain Men is the absolute best Charlton Heston and Brian Keith

JGM wrote:
February 09, 2011

The choices are good but I can't believe that "The Mountain Men" and "Lonesome Dove" weren't in there somewhere.

Richard wrote:
February 09, 2011

How about "Harry Black and the Tiger"?

sprint20 wrote:
February 09, 2011

The original, "Biscuit Eater" was the only bird dog movie I am aware of. I have the remake, but cannot find the original anywhere.

MM wrote:
February 09, 2011

Deaf, blind and possibly stupid. My vote goes to 'The Mountain Men' staring Charlton Heston and Brian Keith as the all time best.

Patrick Young wrote:
February 09, 2011

Move River Runs Through It to number 1. The rest is accurate.

Paul W. wrote:
February 09, 2011

Actually hunting is a part of Deliverance, not only bow hunting fish but Jon Voight's inability to shoot a deer.

Steve wrote:
February 09, 2011

Safari with Victor Mature & Janet Leighh Hatari with John Wayne. It's got "The Duke" - enough said.

j s wrote:
February 07, 2011

it's obscure but - check out "Dersu Uzala" by Japanese director Akira Kurasawa. -

Chris Hall wrote:
February 07, 2011

That's fine. (Really a good thing it wasn't in one of the magazines,you would have probably never been able to live that one down!) I was amazed how fast you changed it though. I guess it goes to show how hard working the people at American Hunter and the NRA really are. And oh yeah got to love the internet!

Ben O wrote:
February 07, 2011

Apologies, Chris. I saw that right as it was posted and got it changed. Glad it wasn't a magazine. Got to love the internet!

Chris Hall wrote:
February 07, 2011

Ben, you might want to check the description you gave the Dances with Wolves movie. Great Choices Though!!