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Hunting on the big screen

5/31/2006

A recent article in the entertainment trade newspaper "Daily Variety"
reports that Warner Brothers has optioned the mystery novel, "Open Season,"
by C. J. Box (Putnam, 2001). Bruce Willis' Cheyenne Enterprises plans to
produce the movie, presumably with Willis starring. "Open Season" is a
murder mystery featuring the protagonist, Joe Pickett, who is a Wyoming
Game Warden. The story begins with the discovery of the body of a
well-known poacher, and proceeds through a trail of more bodies that puts
the warden in peril.

I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next guy, and Bruce Willis is one of
my favorite actors (because he is a good actor and he has the guts to stand
up and say that he owns and shoots guns). I hope the picture is as good as
the book, which really captures the color of life in the backwoods.

"Open Season" is not specifically about hunting, but in the process of
reading the book the reader learns about hunting. This book, and hopefully
the movie, are important for hunters because the general non-hunting public
knows little about hunting and general audience books and movies are
probably the best way to reach them.

Hunting magazines churn out plenty of hunting stories, but regardless how
good these yarns are, they are not read by many non-hunters. Once upon a
time the major writers of the time did write about hunting — Ernest
Hemingway, William Faulkner, Gene Hill, Teddy Roosevelt, etc. Today good
hunting stories that get out to the general public are about as scarce as
albino deer, but there are some notable exceptions.

Since the earliest times hunting stories have been an important link
between the hunter and the rest of his culture. The following are some suggested books
and movies where hunting is an important part of the story as hunters are
portrayed as heroes.

Treestand reading

If you're looking for a real page-turner thriller about hunting, get Mark
T. Sullivan's "The Purification Ceremony" (Random House, 1998). "The
Purification Ceremony" is the story of Diana Jackman, a half-Indian woman
from Maine who goes on a 10-day deer hunt in Canada to search for the roots
of her soul. What starts out as a hunt for monster bucks turns into a
spine-chilling thriller, as the hunters become the hunted. Diana must call
upon all her ancestry, including training in shamanism, to confront a
madman who knows as much natural magic as she does.

A few good films

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, and
Wally Taber's personally-narrated wildlife shows got top billing. In the
l940s and '50s master archer-stunt man Howard Hill was regularly
featured at the theater in shorts about hunting.

Hill starred in "The Last
Wilderness" (1934) and the feature-length documentary "Tembo" (1951) that
describes his successful hunt for a bull elephant with a long bow. In those
days, hunting was a subject that was largely unquestioned, and hunters were
heroes, celebrated in such classic African safari movies as "The Snows of
Kilimanjaro
" (1952); "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (l936) where a
tiger is killed by Errol Flynn; the l966 "The Night of the Grizzly" where a
Wyoming ex-sheriff kills a marauding bear and wins the respect of his son;
and "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972) where a man retreats from civilization and
returns to nature.

Movies that are related to hunting and show hunting in a positive light
are not nearly as common as they used to be, but there are some notable
exceptions.
The widely-heralded Japanese director Akira Kurasowa gave us one of the
most touching stories of hunting ever told on the screen in "Dersu Uzala"
(l974), which is about a Russian army explorer who is rescued in the
Siberian wilderness by a native hunter. When the hunter follows the
explorer back to modern civilization, he discovers his woods lore is of
little value, which shows how alienated modern society is from nature and
human nature. Until "The Ghost and the Darkness" (l996) won an Oscar for
"Best Sound Editing," this is the only movie about hunting that has won an
academy award — "Best Foreign Language Picture."

Anyone who is of Scandinavian descent must see the l988 feature film
"Pathfinder" that describes life among the Lapps, or Saami as they prefer
to be called, the indigenous peoples of the European Arctic. The first
feature film ever to be made in the Saami dialect, in "Pathfinder" one
learns about Saami beliefs about nature and animals, and sees a lifestyle
and culture with many parallels to American Indians. The often-stunning
cinematography itself makes the picture worth seeing.

The 1990 feature-length docu-drama "In The Blood," by George Butler, is a
warm-hearted story about a boy coming of age in an African hunt that
retraces a legendary safari by Teddy Roosevelt. Filled with nostalgia,
humor, and an in-depth, honest portrayal of hunting, this picture gets my
two camouflaged thumbs way up. The sound track by the legendary African
drummer Olatunji is fabulous and can be purchased by itself on the Rykodisc
label.

"The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael
Douglas, is a heart-thumping thriller based on an actual historical event
that took place in Africa around the turn of the century when two lions
turned into serial killers as engineers were building a railroad across the
African veldt. Deviating from normal behavior patterns, the marauding lions
go berserk and kill 120 people before a British Engineer (Val Kilmer) and a
professional big game hunter, Frederick Remington, (Michael Douglas),
finally dispatch the man-eaters, after many of the native workers have run
off because they feel the lions are supernatural evil spirits.

This is one of those good, old-fashioned cast of thousands pictures that
sweeps you into the past and the magic that was once wild Africa, and lets
you see and feel why the African big game hunter has been a heroic
character for so many years. When asked why he hunts, Michael Douglas
character simply replies that he has a "a talent" for it. Val Kilmer as the
British engineer, also openly admits that he is a hunter. Neither express
any guilt, nor show any signs of being crazy, greedy or reckless. In fact,
they both show immense respect for wildness and wild creatures.

Last but not least is the hilarious comedy "Escanaba in da Moonlight"
written, produced by and starring Jeff Daniels. "It's basically the story
of five people in a deer camp," Jeff explained to me in a recent interview.
"The lead character is Reuben Soady (played by Jeff), who is 43 and has
never shot a buck, so he's a 'buckless yooper.' ("yooper" stands for
resident of the Upper Peninsula) If Ruben doesn't get one this year, he
will be the oldest person in the Soady family to not have bagged a buck,
except for an uncle who is missing a few screws. His father, Albert, (Harve
Presnell) and the others all want to help Ruben break his jinx. As a
result, in Albert's Finnish dialect, 'Dat year camp was as tense as a
moose's butt durin' fly season.'"

Jeff describes it as "'Jeremiah Johnson' meets 'Dumb and 'Dumber, but
'Escanaba in da Moonlight' is basically a hero's journey, where Reuben is
guided by his Indian wife, 'Hawk Moon,' (Kimberly Norris Guerro), who is a
better shot and very woods-wise. It's not just about deer hunting, it's a
spiritual quest with hunting as a metaphor."

Comedy gives us license to be outrageous, so if you see this movie be
open-minded. Some of "Escanaba in da Moonlight's" most memorable moments
include: a father-son counseling session in a two-holer outhouse, a
10-minute fart joke, porcupine urine as a cover scent, visitations from
aliens and spirits of ancient hunters, and a wild tavern scene.

When no distributors or festivals would take a comedy about a deer camp,
Daniels became his own distributor. The general release started out in
January in selected theaters in Michigan. It grossed $250,000 the first
weekend, more than any big budget studio release playing in the same area.
News spread, and so did bookings, stretching out into other nearby Midwest
states. During its initial 13-week run, "Escanaba In Da Moonlight" made it
to the Variety charts, by grossing more than $2.2 million. It now ranks
600th in the highest grossing 1000 films produced in the last three years.
To check for a schedule of local showings, posters, and a trailer, see:
www.escanabathemovie.com/.


James Swan is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting."

To purchase a copy visit his website.

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