In praise of two flicks that break the mold


In this column and elsewhere, I've often spoken of the lack of contemporary movies and TV shows that portray hunters and shooting sports in a positive light. It wasn't always this way.

"The Rifleman" TV series of the 1950s created by the legendary director Sam Peckinpah starred Chuck Connors as New Mexico sheriff Lucas McCain. McCain's rifle, a specially modified Winchester lever-action rifle with which he could fire three shells a second, was the co-star of the show.

Also in the 1950s and 1960s, tall Texas gentleman Fess Parker brought us Davy Crockett at the movies and Daniel Boone on TV.

When "Davy Crockett" was at its peak, Parker traveled all around the world in his famous coonskin cap and buckskins, carrying his favorite rifle, "Old Betsy."

Parker was the main attraction at the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim and he flew to Washington, D.C., as the guest of the NRA to present a replica of "Old Betsy" to then Deputy Defense Director Robert Anderson. Parker tells me he never got any complaints about hunting or the rifle in those days.

In "Suddenly" (1954), starring Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden, a widow whose husband was killed in the war has become a pacifist. When she finds her house taken over by a thug who wants to kill the president, she ends up shooting the ruffian, which frees her to love again.

In most modern films and TV shows, except for those shown on outdoor TV channels, guns and weapons are seldom given the starring role of Chuck Connors' rifle, Davy Crockett's "Old Betsy" or Buffalo Bill's favorite rifle, "Lucretia Borgia." And heroic sport shooters are virtually nonexistent.

Usually, modern movies portray weapons and their owners as inherently evil. There are some exceptions, however, such as Crocodile Dundee's (1986) huge knife; Kevin Costner's samurai sword in "The Bodyguard" (1992); Zorro's sword in the "The Mask of Zorro" (1998) or Costner's "Dances With Wolves" (1990), where a buffalo hunt is a major plot point.

The 1992 film "American Gun," starring James Coburn, traces the path of ownership of a handgun. There is some balance, but the incident that starts the whole story is the accidental shooting of Coburn's daughter. In the end, tracing the gun leads him to find his granddaughter, but it's a pretty tragic story.

Then there's "Runaway Jury" (2003), a film adapted from a John Grisham novel, in which a member of a jury and an outside woman try to manipulate a trial. In Grisham's book, a tobacco company was on trial. In the movie the bad company being sued is a gun manufacturer.

And, let's not forget the 2002 film, "The City of God," about the slums of Rio de Janeiro, where kids are armed and live lives of crime, drugs, gangs and violence.

Two flicks that break the negative stereotype

In the last year two movies broke negative stereotypes of hunting and shooting sports, and both of them are pushing a lot of buttons.

"Brokeback Mountain" (2005) has received a lot of attention because it's a love story about two gay cowboys. This may turn off some folks, but did you know that they shoot and eat an elk, with relish?

The American Humane Association, which has a policy of opposing all sport hunting, monitors all motion pictures shot in the United States that use animal actors. "Brokeback Mountain," however, was shot in Canada, where the AHA does not have to be on the set.

According to the AHA Web site, "Brokeback Mountain has generated a flood of calls and e-mails to American Humane from moviegoers concerned about the treatment of the animals in the film." The Web page goes on to state that "the filmmakers declined our monitoring services, though they did register with American Humane and submit the appropriate documentation, scripts and call sheets."

Unlike outdoor TV shows, where you shoot and eat your co-star, there is no way that the AHA would let the makers of "Brokeback Mountain" shoot an elk for the camera. But because it was shot in Canada and the AHA didn't monitor the picture, it got a "Not Monitored" rating.

Academy Award-winning actor, Nicolas Cage, who is a member of the NRA, stars in the 2005 film, "The Weather Man."

This is the story of a Chicago TV weatherman who is a local celebrity, but whose personal life is a mess. He and his wife are divorced, the kids are in trouble, his cold, dying father won't acknowledge his success and people throw food at him on the street.

Trying to find some way to connect with his overweight teen-age daughter, father and daughter try archery. The girl soon loses interest, but Cage gradually finds archery as therapy and a place to learn to get control of his mind as his life descends into madness.

On one occasion, he is faced with the chance to use the bow to shoot the man who plans to marry his ex-wife, but he doesn't.

This shows how maturity can come with mastery of the lethal potential of a weapon. As he begins to make life and career decisions that honor him, his archery accuracy improves and his increased proficiency with a bow becomes a metaphor for his life in general.

The movie ends with him in New York as national broadcast weatherman. He shoots in Central Park and sometimes walking the streets, he carries the bow and arrows. This suggests that not only has he integrated the archer into his life, but also he no longer is a wimp.

This picture is rated "R" for foul language and some nudity, but it's a pretty honest portrayal of what might happen in the life of someone like this.

The acting is excellent and the story works, but the script passes up a chance to delve into some meaty depth. When Cage asks his daughter why she doesn't like target archery, she says that she wanted to learn to hunt. Cage responds that he doesn't want to kill animals. That's the end of her archery, and they go off to buy her new clothes.

"Brokeback Mountain" is an enormous and international box-office success. "The Weather Man's" international box office is only about half of its $22 million budget; one reason, I think, is the script could have taken even more risks.

What about this scenario, for example: Cage's character honors his daughter's wish and takes her to a Becoming An Outdoors-Woman seminar, where he discovers that hunting is a lot more than what he thought and he meets and falls for a lady hunter.

They then go hunting as a family and shoot a deer, which is an enormously profound, even spiritual, experience that changes all their lives. It would be an especially powerful contrast with his choice not to shoot at his ex-wife's new lover.

Coupled with his father's death, and the death and rebirth of his career, the weatherman would grow much wiser about life and death, rather than just accepting himself and moving on to a new job in a new town with a bigger paycheck.

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 to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.