Hollywood has not been a friend of the American hunter since at least the early ’50s, when a large entertainment corporation noted happily that Davy Crockett “kilt himself a ba’ar when he was only 3.”
It was considered a good thing, an exemplar of the hunting ethos as a foreshadowing of greatness to come. It spoke of the prodigy’s gift—Crockett was seen as a kind of Bobby Fisher of the wilderness—with the early attributes of strength, cunning, high woodscraft, superb marksmanship, patience and character that would find its highest expression in his gallant last stand, swinging Ol’ Betsy as the Mexican infantry closed in with bayonets. It was understood that it was the hunter in him that created the hero in him.
I suppose Jed Clampett must be considered an heir to Crockett’s legacy, a last stand of sorts for the icon of the huntsman as heroic. Played by no less than Fess Parker’s affable pal, Buddy Ebsen, Jed was a poor mountaineer, but he kept his family fed. Indeed, he is hunting when a shotgun blast aimed at—what, turkey, goose, fox?—penetrates and reveals the oil wealth that underlies his mountain hollow. The subtext: hunter as provider.
But it didn’t last. Indeed, it was more of a last hurrah. It is beyond my scope to consider the reason the hunter has become far more a figure of menace than sustenance in the movies but chronologically, it seems to have begun in 1942 with “Bambi,” which the Disney company moved from Felix Salten’s Vienna woods to America, changing the hero’s species from the spindly reddish roe of Europe to the magnificent whitetail, and envisioned the hunter as despoiler, bearer and deliverer of sin via death packed in a .30-30. Though it was released in 1942 (the book was written in 1923), the animated feature was re-released at regular intervals for the next half century, and then enjoyed an afterlife on television, tape, disc and now in cyberspace.
That means an entire generation heard the lone echoing shot that made Bambi’s ma disappear forever, and tracked the loneliness of the young buck as he desperately searched for the old gal, and the realization, as communicated by the Prince of the Forest—a mythically beautiful stag—that ma is gone.
Note the absence of context and detail. The Prince, for example, doesn’t communicate as deer do, by peeing on a certain gland in his leg, to which Bambi responds by peeing on his leg. No, it’s done in whispers and mutters, presumably muting some higher form of Shakespearian dialogue. Moreover we only experience the fate of ma from the deer’s point of view, and, after all, deer don’t have points of view, or memory, culture, fast food or even cable TV. They only have bundles of fast-firing nerves that envision existence in 30-second units. But “Bambi” wasn’t really about deer as animals but about deer as superior moral beings.
And, for the longest time you could say that the one thing hunting movies were never about was animals but only superior moral beings with four legs, and with two, who wrote and made them. Thus the drama of the hunt was used metaphorically to represent some higher form of mischief, like infidelity, capitalism, debauchery, capitalism, upper-class cowardice and, of course, capitalism. This was particularly true of the long-vanished genre known as the safari movie, where some uberstud in khakis and pith helmet bedded his rich clients’ wives, killed their wounded lions for them and even, if necessary, fought the Mau Mau on their behalf.
In 1947, the best of these movies, “The Macomber Affair,” appeared from a story by an actual hunter named Hemingway. It clung to the paradigm, or maybe it invented it: Macomber (Robert Preston, the prissiest of leading men) is unmanly in the face of a lion, is shunned by wife who then sleeps with pro hunter Greg Peck. But the next day, Macomber finds his courage facing a really nasty m’bogo and in a fit of pique, his wife (Ava Gardner) puts a 6.5mm Mannlicher through his skull, because she knows that if he’s found the courage to face 2 tons of nasty black death on hoof, he’ll soon find it to dump her. But the movie isn’t in any fashion about hunting; it’s about the decadence of the rich.
My favorite is the wildly politically incorrect “Safari,” of ’55. First of all it stars Victor Mature, who is always so irredeemably bad he’s fun to watch. It also stars Janet Leigh, whose breasts are captured in a brassiere shaped like a couple of V-2 meplats. (Why a woman on safari is wearing a sweater is only something a Hollywood B-grade script writer can justify as he soaks in vodka over his squandered talent.) It’s another tale of the bad rich, of whom Leigh is initially a member by marriage. Her husband, coward and blackguard, falls prey to lion and she defaults to Victor’s loving biceps and strangely purple face as they fight the dreaded Mau Mau. I saw it at 8 and my memories are any 8-year-old’s: the Leigh bosom and the Sten gun Mature used in the climactic firefight.
Mature may have been the last heroic hunter on land until “The Ghost and the Darkness” came along in 1996. I have a feeling it was green-lighted, somewhat out of time, on the reputation of its screenwriter, William (“The Sting,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) Goldman, who had to try for over a decade to get it made. I think the final deciding factor in its favor was that it was perceived as a land-shark version of the phenomenally successful “Jaws.”
It certainly followed the structure of “Jaws,” with a naïve hunter (Val Kilmer in the Roy Scheider role) assisted by a garrulous showboat old salt (Michael Douglas as Robert Shaw). It even managed visual replications, as the two man-eaters of Tsavo, famous for eating railroad builders before World War I in British East Africa, slither through the high grass of the savannah invisible save for ripples very much like the great white did under the placid waters of Amity Bay. The more placid the surface of either grassland or wetland is, the more you know that within lurks the beast and if you don’t get that, the music will tell you.
I’m actually not crazy about it, not because it’s so derivative, but because the gun handling is so sloppy, not because it parts way with the truth in vast ways, but because it personifies the animals as evil. They weren’t evil: They were hungry and old, just like me, and they ate the railway workers because they were easy pickings. That’s why I go to Popeye’s, and there’s really not much difference. “The Ghost and the Darkness” commits Ahab’s mistake: Like him, it projects human attributes on brute nature, when the lesson is that in nature, nothing is personal. It’s just a matter of getting through to the next day.
But far more often the hunter is psychopath. In “Joe Kidd,” a party of hunters is really a party of man-hunters, and it’s up to Eastwood’s title character to hunt them back. In “The Bear,” a French-Canadian nimrod actually cuts X’s into his pure lead bullets, and then demonstrates their hideous evil by shooting one into a tree. It looks like a tactical nuke detonating.
“Jeremiah Johnson” has the lone honor of defending the hunting lifestyle, but it is famously oppositional in conception, written by Hollywood bad boy and outcast John Milius. Then there’s “The Deer Hunter,” not about deer hunting, and “The Shooting Party,” not about a shooting party, and “Track of the Cat,” not about tracking a cat.But let us cease complaining and advance an argument. What would in fact be a great hunting movie, one about the process, the art, the honor, the passion and the necessity? I’m thinking of something that goes back to the beginning: Call it a remake, if you will, but in my dream picture, “Bambi” is remade, this time from the point of view of the hunter.Since Disney moved the story to America and the species to whitetail, we’ll do the same. Let’s say Tennessee, but let’s keep it in Salten’s 1923. Let’s say Uncle Walt decided to go all out, and so his animators indulged fully in their incomparable gift, the lushness of their color, the multi-plane camera that gave depth to form and detail to focus. Let’s say the forest universe is realized as it was in “Bambi,” with a painter’s sense of composition and texture and light, a sort of cathedral to the skill of the hand of the artist.
But who would our hunter be?
I see a man of simple but rugged faith, raised in the woods and hollows and at home in them. He fought for his country in the Great War, and came back seeking peace, quiet, love and land, and an escape from loud noise and dead friends forever.
He has a family, a gaggle of kids now that he’s 36. He needs to keep them fed. He has a tradition. He has a god. He has a country, a civilization. He has responsibilities. He embraces them all, in the name of something he could never define, but we would call duty.
Most Harvard grads, then and now, would find him rustic, even comical. Swells in L.A. or Hollywood wouldn’t find him anything, because he’d be invisible to them. They wouldn’t care that he can move silently, read sign, use his imagination and wisdom to project 3-D where on the mountain father or mother deer will be this frosty autumn morning. They wouldn’t understand how crucial the next hours will be, for many mouths need what he must provide, and he doesn’t want to go to sleep to the moans of hungry kids. That would be his definition of failure: To him, manhood is about words that begin with “P”, provision and protection.
But he doesn’t care what others think. He is far into the craft of it, his mind is closed to all that. He is using superb eyesight to look deep into the woods for shapes not common to vegetation, for flashes of movement, for the white emblem of his prey, and he believes that if God did not want the animal hunted, he would not have painted tail and throat so brightly as target designators.
Maybe he catches a flash, a scent, maybe it’s predictive instinct, some special gift given to a few, but whatever, as happens every year, a plump doe is before him. She is Bambi’s mom, but—guess what?—she doesn’t know some human named the child “Bambi.” She just knows her instinct compels protection of the young for the first few months. Is it love?
Who can say?
The hunter could wait for a buck, but he doesn’t care about trophies; to him the best trophy is the smile on one of his children’s faces after the hunger has been slaked.
Let’s give him a Springfield, sporterized by a good custom ’smith in the city. Let’s imagine the grace by which rifle comes to shoulder, the steadiness of the hold, the delicacy of the squeeze. Let’s imagine the animal down, perfectly, one shot, not even time for a death rush.
Now the gutting. It’s his duty; it means nothing. Now the hauling, the long pull downhill, maybe two or three. Now the butchering.
Now the eating, now the salting, now the storing, the provisioning, now, many months later when it’s so cold and snowy in February and he can’t get down the mountain, there’s still jerky in the larder and it makes all the difference.
In words no sophisticate would understand, he thanks the deer for allowing him the privilege of the hunt and he sees the eating of the flesh as a natural sacrament.
Oh, yes, let’s give him a name. Let’s call him Alvin York.
Stephen Hunter is a best-selling novelist and essayist. As chief film critic for The Washington Post, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Film Criticism in 2003. His new novel is "The Third Bullet." (Simon & Schuster; simonandschuster.com)