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'Bambi' revisited

8/17/2005

At a recent conference I met an Eskimo, or Inuit, from Greenland. Hunting, he told me, was essential to Inuit culture, and the key to the survival of hunting was telling good hunting stories.

"A good hunting story," he said, "passes along the accumulated wisdom of our people and conveys the spirit of the hunt.

"It brings a sense of meaning and purpose into our lives and ties the present to the past to keep the human spirit vital, as well as us well-fed. And it teaches the next generation how to provide for itself."

The hunting story is one of the most basic elements of culture, as basic as the love story, and even older.

Even today, when most people do not have to hunt for food, the power of the hunting story lives on, because the hunter is a hero — mythically as well as in real life — and heroes are very important to establishing role models and setting cultural standards.

One cannot help but wonder if the decline in the telling of tales of the hunt to the general public is a contributing factor to the confusion among young people about what is heroic, as well as a root cause of unfounded criticism of hunters.

The most pervasive storytellers of our times are TV and feature films. Heroic hunting tales on these mediums do exist, such as "Jeremiah Johnson," "Dances With Wolves," "In the Blood" or "Escanaba In Da Moonlight," but they are outnumbered by films casting hunters as outlaws.

In two of the most popular modern deer-hunting tales, "Bambi" and "The Deer Hunter," hunters are villains. A closer examination of these films shows that these tales are really not about hunting at all.

The 1942 Disney animated feature "Bambi" targets audiences of women and children. The hunter kills the daddy of Bambi, the hero. Taken literally, it makes daddy's recreational deer-hunting trip seem cruel and it turns daddy into a bad guy.

Released in the midst of World War II, Bambi's daddy and the enemy become confused in the metaphoric minds of young children because daddy has been taken away to war and is being hunted by an evil man with a gun.

Movie critic Roger Ebert hit the bull's-eye when he observed that "Bambi" is ultimately "a parable of sexism, nihilism and despair, portraying absentee fathers and passive mothers in a world of violence" and less of a hunting tale.

I once spent a delightful afternoon with Fess Parker talking about Walt Disney's motivation for making "Bambi" into a movie.

Parker should know more about Walt Disney and hunting more than anyone else, because Disney made Parker into two of the most memorable heroic hunters that have ever appeared on TV or in films.

Who was born on a mountain top in Tennessee and kilt him a bar when he was only 3? Everyone born before 1950 will know the answer: Davy Crockett.

Probably a lot of you also can remember the rest of the words to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," which was on at the top of charts in the mid-1950's when "Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier" (1955) and "Davy Crockett and The River Pilots" (1956) were among the top grossing movies in the world. A hunter as a hero on the big screen! Those there are the good, old days!

A 6-foot-6 gentleman who grew up in Texas, Parker was introduced to hunting in the 1930s by his uncle who hunted with hounds — sometimes for food and other times for animal skins to pay the bills.

After a stint in the Navy, Parker went to college to study acting. Walt Disney himself picked Parker for the role of Davy Crockett, when he saw Parker in the sci-fi thriller "Them!"(1954).

After "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier" hit the big screen in 1955, Parker didn't have much time to hunt or fish, because he skyrocketed into international movie stardom, traveling all around the world in his famous coonskin cap and buckskins.

Parker was the main attraction at the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim and numerous other Disney functions. During this era, Parker also flew to Washington, D.C., as the guest of the National Rifle Association to present a replica of his rifle, "Old Betsy," to Deputy Defense director Robert Anderson.

At the height of the Davy Crockett phenomenon, which swept around the world in the mid- to late 1950s, Parker says that he became a little concerned that the raccoon would be driven to extinction by the demand for coonskin caps.

He chuckles about that worry now, for as the owner of a popular vineyard in Los Olivos, California, raccoons are an all-too-plentiful nuisance.

During his 20-year screen- and television-acting career Parker appeared in 30 productions, including "Davy Crockett" and the memorable six-year run of the "Daniel Boone" television series. Parker says that he never received any criticism for hunting, wearing a coonskin cap and buckskin or even selling coonskin caps. How things have changed!

Parker is very proud of the fact that when he was playing Davy Crockett he was personally under contract to Walt Disney himself. I asked Parker about Disney, and "Bambi."

Parker emphatically asserts that Disney was not an animal-rights sympathizer.

Disney grew up in Missouri, where he learned about hunting and farming first-hand. He later played polo. And he apparently had no qualms about showing Parker as a hunter on-screen in Davy Crockett, and in several other pictures.

Disney also made a killing selling coonskin hats, replicas of which (now fake fur) are still popular with visitors to "Frontier Land" in Disneyland.

"What Walt knew how to do was romanticize animals," Parker told me. "He knew all about the food chain from growing up in Missouri, and he respected animals."

This in turn is thought to have inspired Disney's many nature movies, such as "Bear Country," and his award-winning documentaries about native cultures, such as those of the Eskimos and the Lapps, in which hunting is depicted.

Parker described Disney as a gifted artist and real gentleman, but "not someone who had a message in his work." Disney simply told the "story of the moment," focusing on how to best portray stories to be economically successful, Parker said. He was not an anti, Parker added.

Another film that capitalizes on confusion about hunting is the 1978 classic, "The Deer Hunter," where soldiers returning home from the Viet Nam War find that shooting deer brings up troubling guilt feelings and flashbacks. The title suggests that the movie is about deer hunting, but the actual story is about post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The motivations of the hunter and the warrior or soldier are quite different, though both carry lethal weapons into the field and are heroes.

The soldier defends his culture against evil and kills people. He is fighting against fear. The hunter extracts both food and spirit from nature to nourish his culture.

The motivations of the hunter are positive, pleasurable and cultivate respect for nature that is the root of a true conservationist. If you hunt, you know that.

But if you don't hunt, then the only way you know anything about hunting that is positive is through good hunting stories.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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