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 whenCol. 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)