I don’t want this to sound like one of those “when I was a kid, we hiked five miles through the snow to get to school” stories, (actually we skated five miles when the Detroit River froze over), but back when I was growing up in the 1950s we had a real on-screen hunter hero, 6’5” Texan Fess Parker. Fess first broke into the limelight when he starred in the blockbuster hit feature film Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955), which resulted not only in a huge box office success, but also a world-wide swarm of young fans wearing coonskin caps and singing “Davy Crockett ” A little later Fess played Daniel Boone in the massively popular series of the sane name from 1964 to 1970. Before he hung up his coonskin cap, Fess parker bagged 40 films and TV shows total.
Fess Parker passed away in 2010 at the age of 86, leaving behind many fans, a winery, inn and spa in Los Olivos, CA, and a steady flow of fine wines available today produced by his sons.
Fess was my hero when I was a kid. Later my respect for him grew as I had the good fortune to visit him several times, among other things to talk about hunting on the big and small screens.
As the hunter’s moon rises in the skies, thanks to Netflix you can watch Fess and some other great all-time hunting hero movies to get in the spirit of things and share them with family and friends regardless if they join you in the field or not. Here’s my list of favorites.
1) Davey Crockett: King of The Wild Frontier (1955): Fess Parker is Crockett, the hunter hero, whose exploits swept the world on both TV and films. When I talked with Fess he admitted that for awhile the demand for coonskin caps was so high when Davey Crockett came out that he was worried that raccoons would go extinct. He quickly added that that surely did not happen and he noted that he knew that from the trouble they had keeping raccoons out of his vineyards.
2) Jeremiah Johnson (1972): From the pen of avid hunter and target shooter John Milius (who gave us the original Conan: The Barbarian, Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn, and many more classics) came Sydney Pollack’s 1972 epic with Robert Redford starring as the classic mountain man trapper and hunter who retreats from civilization to find his soul and runs afoul of Indian sacred lands.
3) The Ghost and the Darkness (1996): Inspired by the book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, with a screenplay written by William Goldman and produced by Michael Douglas, this film is based on a true story of two lions that terrorized construction crews trying to build a railroad through East Africa. The characters of both Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas are hunter-heroes.
4) Dances with Wolves (1990): Winner of seven Academy Awards, Kevin Costner’s masterpiece about a frontier soldier in the 1800s who wants to see the Old West before it passes away features a buffalo hunt by American Indians, as well as showing market hunters as thoughtlessly devastating wildlife. The wolf that befriended Costner could have done what it did, although Lewis and Clark reported that they had problems with wolves attacking them during their expedition.
5) Avatar (2009): Winner of three Oscars and nominated for six more, James Cameron’s animated 3-D masterpiece features a tribe of hunter heroes , the Na’vi, on a faraway planet, who are attacked by ruthless commandos out to pillage rare natural resources on the tribe’s lands.
6) In The Blood (1989): George Butler, who also made Pumping Iron, produced a superb docu-drama about modern descendants of Teddy Roosevelt following in the footsteps of TR’s 1909 African safari. With a musical score by Olatunje, and rave reviews by Variety, the New York Times, Audubon and Outdoor Life, the movie unfortunately had a tough time making it to TV and theaters because they actually killed a cape buffalo on screen, and the American Humane Association gave the film a “U” rating. Yah, I know, guys and gals kill game on screen on all the outdoor channels all the time, but it is written in the contract that the American Humane Association’s TV Unit must supervise any theatrical release film with animal actors, including live ones, to give that “No Animals Were Harmed” rating that appears at the end.
7) Out of Africa (1985): Robert Redford and Meryl Streep star in this turn of the century romantic tale about a European woman moving to Africa and falling in love with a professional big game hunter. Winner of seven academy awards.
8) Will Penny (1968): Charlton Heston plays a range-wandering loner who escapes from a family of outlaws by retreating to the wilderness to become a hunter-trapper. He then runs into another trap set by a love-hungry woman (Joan Hackett). Outstanding cinematography. Heston considered this his personal best work.
9) The Clan of the Cave Bear (1985): Based on the best-selling book by Jean Auel, the movie features a strong woman, Ayala, who is banned from her clan because she wants to hunt. The story is set in Paleolithic times, but the immense popularity of the book and the movie show that when hunting is woven into a good story, many people will enjoy it, even if they have no experience with hunting.
10) The Lost World (1997): Pete Postelwaite plays a wise professional hunter who wants to bag a Tyrannosaurus rex as his fee for leading an expedition to catch dinosaurs. He explains his appetite for bagging the giant carnivore by comparing his desire with climbers of Mount Everest — “a challenge.” His plan is thwarted by an eco-activist who steals his ammunition, but he still succeeds in bagging the king of flesh-eaters with a tranquilizer gun.
11) Tembo (1951): World-renown archer Howard Hill travels to Africa to bag an elephant with a longbow. In those days there were no censors or animal ratings.
12) Escanaba in da Moonlight (2001): Written, directed, and produced by and starring Jeff Daniels, this hilarious slapstick comedy is the story of Ruben Sody, who at 43 has never bagged a buck. Set in a Michigan Upper Peninsula deer camp, this may well be the funniest hunting movie ever made.
13) The Last Safari (1967): An ethical African professional hunter retires, but decides to go on one last hunt to track down a rouge elephant that killed his partner. The musical score is bizarre, but the acting is first-rate and the wildlife footage is great.
14) Dersu Uzala (1975): Akira Kurosawa gave us many fabulous films, including this Academy Award-winner (Best Foreign Language) about a Siberian native hunter and a Russian army captain. This is a touching, heart-felt story about man and nature, with outstanding cinematography.
15) Atarnarjuat: The Fast-Runner (2001): Winner of 6 Genie Awards (Canadian Oscars), and numerous other awards internationally, Atarnarjuat is Canada’s first feature-length fiction film, written, produced, directed and acted in by Inuit. It is based on a real story and the actors are actual Inuit.
16) The Snow Walker (2003): Set in 1953, Charlie Halliday, a former WWII fighter pilot, is a Yellowknife-based bush pilot who flies to an Eskimo village to pick up a woman suffering from tuberculosis to take her to treatment. The plane crashes on the tundra and the two seek to survive without a common language. A haunting movie with lots of real-life drama, including hunting.
17) Brokeback Mountain (2005): What made this film, which won three Oscars, special was a gay romance between two cowboys, but inserted in the film by Ang Lee is a very honest scene about them shooting and eating an elk. It’s probably one of the best big game on-camera shots you can find in recent feature films (The movie was shot in Canada and AHA did not get to review it on the set).
18) King Solomon’s Mines (1937): An epic safari in search of a fabled diamond mine in Africa, the party treks across Africa encountering natives, sandstorms, and many wild animals.
19) Gosford Park (2001): Robert Altman gave us Dr. T. and The Women whose lead was a doctor-hunter. The multiple award-winning Gosford Park is about a week-end pheasant shoot in England where a murder takes place. Hunting is the MacGuffin here as the story is about class and caste.
20) Ofelas (Pathfinder) (1987): A group of the reindeer herding Saami (or Lapps) of northern Scandinavia are attacked by some big people (the “Tsude”) who want to kill them off and steal their furs. Beautifully shot, directed and produced by Saami filmmaker Nils Gaup, if you love wild places and people, this is a must see. The Pathfinder saves the day by using his intuition for guidance and spirits. If you have any Scandinavian roots in your family tree, this is a must movie for you. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1988 for Best Foreign Language Film. There is also a more recent western adaptation of Pathfinder (2007), where a Viking boy is left behind after his clan battles a Native American tribe. Raised within the tribe, he ultimately becomes their savior in a fight against a new wave of Norsemen.
21) The Wind and The Lion (1975): Based on a turn of the century true story about an American woman and her two children who are kidnapped by a Moroccan rebel, and Teddy Roosevelt’s actions to get them set free. The film includes Roosevelt hunting a grizzly bear and bringing the mounted bear back to Washington.
Image of Fess Parker courtesy Fess Parker, poster for In The Blood courtesy George Butler, slider image copyright iStockPhoto.com/Michael Olson