In trying to think about great hunting-focused movies, I came up woefully short, and the few movies I could conjure were mostly period pieces specifically about hunting in Africa. The most current movie I could muster is Wind River (2017), though that’s mostly about a murder investigation. If you think about it, most famous hunting movies aren’t really about hunting.
Sure, The Deer Hunter is partly about hunting and it has a couple of hunting scenes, but it uses hunting in a mostly symbolic way as a thematic element in a wonderful, sprawling movie about the Vietnam War and its particular effects on veterans from small towns. Plus, the hunting scenes aren’t particularly realistic and most of the hunters are depicted as fat drunks who don’t particularly care much about what they shoot, repeating what has been a very popular depiction of hunters for a very long time. But the scenery is goddamn gorgeous, even if it is apparently filled with the wrong species of deer.
Let’s be up front about something: We can be pretty sure that there aren’t many hunting-focused movies because “loving” animals is a Hollywood tradition at this point, and people who have never been exposed to real-life hunting have a tendency to categorize it as just another awful thing people do to animals without making an effort to understand it further. These are also the same folks who end up making movies. There are a few actors here and there who have been public about being avid hunters — Chris Pratt is a recent example — but they regularly catch a lot of shit for it, especially in the social media age.
Even movies that are about something else but feature a hunting scene or two often don’t seem to make any effort to get the tactics, equipment, or quarry right, even if the hunters aren’t painfully on-the-nose stereotypes — and they usually are.
Maybe this isn’t so much a hunting thing as it is a general Hollywood thing. There have been countless movies made about cops doing cop stuff — but I imagine very few of them get the day-to-day details of being a police officer right. Same with lawyers and doctors and military personnel. There’s even an entire YouTube series dedicated to that last one. Just think about how many movies get simple firearm use or archery completely wrong. In fact, anyone who sees their profession or hobby in a movie or show will notice at least something is way off, if not the entire depiction.
But it can’t be denied that some movies seem to get hunting willfully wrong. Steve Rinella once said that he asked a friend of his who knows the film industry why filmmakers don’t bring in hunting experts as advisers the way they do with everything else, and his friend said they do, but the filmmakers ultimately don’t listen to them.
Stereotypical Movie Hunters
When movies do depict hunters, filmmakers like to hit up a small array of old-standby archetypes instead of writing actual characters. These are the ones you’ll run into most:
1. The Drunken Poachers
At best, these hunters are reckless drunks who shoot animals by sheer luck or happenstance if at all, like exaggerated reverse caricatures of Elmer Fudd.
When found in a group, there’s usually some kind of shithead alpha male who bosses them around like it’s a little street gang. Sometimes these characters won’t be drunks, but merely sadistic poachers who trap and/or kill animals in the most unethical ways possible. For them their cruelty when hunting is indicative of a deeper bloodlust or just a generally evil nature. Looking at you, Straw Dogs (2011).
Sometimes they’ll be annoying drunken poachers in the form of slack-jawed yokels, of course. Either way, they are guaranteed to flag one another with their muzzles constantly, say weird, callous, bloodthirsty things, and ensure a negligent discharge is likely when they’re around, all while being really bad hunters.
2. Weekend Warriors
These bumbling fools will often be found in more lighthearted fare like comedies or rom-coms. Expect them to have a super white collar profession, possibly in the field of dentistry.
They will be decked out in an array of brand-new, crisp clothing, usually head-to-toe matching camo or a whole lot of blaze orange. Their gear will include all kinds of high-tech gadgets adorning their vest and gun, but when the time comes, they won’t know how to use any of it.
These characters are basically LARPing as hunters and may or may not shoot a member of their hunting party, probably in the ass.
3. The Über Hunter
Sometimes, a movie calls for a character who is the ultimate hunter when the filmmakers have no idea what a good hunter, from any era, actually does. And we end up with Daniel Day-Lewis literally sprinting through a dense forest while supposedly trailing a deer in Last of the Mohicans. Also, he ends up shooting a majestic European stag on the run … in upstate New York circa 1825.
If this character is a good guy, he will often have some kind of nearly supernatural connection to nature, and there’s a 50-50 chance he will have some percentage of Native American heritage. If he does, it will be displayed prominently and mentioned in dialogue at least twice.
In an early 1900s period piece, the character will be a clone of Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, or some improbable mixture of both — i.e., the Great White Hunter.
When this character is played by someone over 45, he’s hunted so much that he’s developed a level of distaste for killing, yet he continues doing it because it’s the only thing he’s ever really been good at. This is the most favorable of hunter stereotypes in movies.
4. “I’ve Called in an Expert…”
This could be considered a subset of the Über Hunter with a twist. This guy is a haunted, grizzled seen-it-all-shot-it-all world-weary hunter who has done so much killing that he’s constantly searching for some kind of game that will give him a rush once again, because he’s so dead inside. Instead of a strong connection to nature, he defies nature with brute force.
He’s going to be called in to go after some giant / supernatural / superintelligent / government-engineered creature. (Psssst, he is always an asshole and will probably die second or third if it’s a horror movie — though he may first sacrifice one of his compatriots or use them as unwitting bait.) This is also the character who ends up crossing some imaginary line and begins hunting people, if that’s the kind of movie it is.
A notably positive exception to this one is Remington (Michael Douglas) in The Ghost and the Darkness.
5. The Walk-and-Talk Hunters
These guys come in groups. They stroll through the woods on a supposed drive with a gun, preferably a scoped rifle while upland hunting, shoulder to shoulder with one another. The one “serious” hunter usually walks in front of everyone else, constantly being muzzled.
Everyone always talks at full volume, so the audience can hear the mind-numbing exposition until something — anything — pops out. They then blast away with a fast offhand shot, not even knowing what they’re aiming at. If it’s a comedy, they’ll shoot at the same time, and possibly shoot each other. Likely in the ass. I’m looking at you, Wedding Crashers and Parks and Recreation.
Why All This Sucks
Do these stereotypes have some basis in fact? Sure. Most stereotypes do. Are there unethical hunters and poachers out there who do bad things? Of course. Do most people look utterly ridiculous in blaze orange? Absolutely. But there are nearly 16 million hunters in the United States, and the vast majority of them are ethical hunters who do things by the book.
This isn’t just a bitch-fest about how movies don’t get the thing I like right — there is a real disservice done by constant, unnecessarily negative depictions of hunting and hunters in movies.
Say some kid, who has never had exposure to hunting, watches The Wolverine (2013) for some ungodly reason and sees the dreadful sequence about hunters dipping their arrows in poison. Off screen, the hunters shoot a grizzly in the back with one of these arrows, and instead of killing the animal, the poison leaches into its blood and makes it crazy, according to Logan (Hugh Jackman), who has to woefully put the bear out of its misery with his CG claws. Earlier, the hunters are shown dancing around on the sidewalk of a small Alaskan town in pre-hunt murderous glee before negligently discharging a hunting rifle in the street to Logan’s disgust. The store clerk’s attitude says, “That’s just hunters being hunters.”
If this nonsense is the first depiction of hunters that kid sees in her life, ham-fisted and absurd as it is, it’s going to stick.
(By the way, this movie is truly absurd, and I’m not talking about the giant samurai robot fight at the end. The bear, supposedly driven mad by arrow poison, kills the hunter’s entire group of friends in a fit of rage, mauling them in their tents. Then Logan shows up at a bar and stabs the lone survivor through the hand with the poisoned arrow … to teach him a lesson? WTF?!)
Maybe one day we’ll get a feature film that’s actually about hunting that is also accurate throughout — until then, we’ll always have Jeremiah Johnson.