Hunting for Hunter Heroes on the Big Screen

Jul 8, 2016
Editor's Note: Today, a little incentive for you get some time blocked out for going to the movies.

As you read this article, realize that if you are a hunter, fisherman or even a wildlife watcher, you are part of a minority group.

According to USFWS, in 2011, 13.7 million people, or 6% of the U.S. population 16 years old and older, went hunting. More than 33 million people 16 and older fished in 2011. If we also add in wildlife watchers, nearly 38% of all Americans participated in wildlife-related recreation in 2011.

That means that at least 60% of the US population doesn't participate in wildlife-related recreation of any kind. The majority of Americans who don't hunt, fish or watch wildlife, still have attitudes about hunting and 80% of them approve of ethical hunting. However, since the Cecil the Lion incident in 2015, 80% of Americans say they are opposed to trophy hunting.

The good old days when most people hunted or knew someone who did are gone. The way that most people today develop their attitudes about hunting is either by knowing someone who hunts, or by watching hunting on TV and in feature films.

Thanks to cable TV and the Internet there now are more outdoor TV shows with hunting than any time in history. Hunting shows on outdoor channels, however, are watched almost entirely by people who already hunt.

There are exceptions. "Duck Dynasty" a reality show on A&E, featuring a family of hunters, holds the title of being the most-watched unscripted series in cable TV history. The Season 4 premiere a year ago drew 11.8 million viewers. However the audience size has gone down since then, and I'd guess that the audiences are primarily hunters and fishermen.

Mainstream media, which has become 10-17 times more negative and sensation than positive, has dwelled on the killing of "Cecil the Lion", bringing hunting into the global spotlight, resulting in intensifying opposition to hunters, who have been called "crazy," "sadistic," "egotists" and "narcissists," and worse. More than ever before, hunters and hunting need some heroes who are visible to mainstream people.

As if an answer to hunters' prayers, about to open in theaters across America is a New Zealand film, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" which has already broken box office records in New Zealand. Following the biggest opening weekend ever for a local film, it has made more at the NZ box office than Fast & Furious 7, The Avengers or any Harry Potter or Hunger Games movie. At least one in nine New Zealanders have seen it so far, and it's still in the theaters in kiwi land.

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is based on the 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress by the late, iconic New Zealand writer Barry Crump.

The film begins as defiant city kid Ricky (Julian Dennison), raised on hip-hop and foster care, gets a fresh start in the country with his new foster family: the loving Aunt Bella, the cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neil), and a dog Tupac. When a tragedy strikes that threatens to force Ricky to move to another foster home, both Ricky and Hec escape to the wilds of NZ, where they survive eating wild game. As a national manhunt ensues, the newly branded outlaws face their options: go out in a blaze of glory or overcome their differences and survive as a family. Equal parts road comedy and rousing adventure story, director Taika Waititi (a Maori) masterfully tells a hilarious, touching story that reminds us about the journey of growing up and the importance of those who help along the way.

Hunting plays an important role in this film. Sam Neil as Hec first appears carrying a wild boar that he has shot for dinner. Later, as Ricky and Hec flee into the wilderness they must bag wild game for food as they elude capture, becoming unlikely hunter heroes. (To insure there was no problem with the American Humane Association which monitors all films to insure that "no animals were harmed in the making of this movie", New Zealand hunters donated some of the game animals they bagged for use in the film.)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople will go to national release in the US on July 15. There have been at least 66 reviews of this 1:41 minute film, which started its US tour with to two standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival. In addition to what the critics are saying, which is very positive, the film opened in five theaters in the US on June 24, with a total box office of $77,000. The US domestic total as of Jul. 4, 2016, has risen to $291,335.

Rotten Tomatoes finds 100% of the 66 critics have liked it so far, and 92% of the audience did. This is what the critics are saying:

A young orphan and his very reluctant keeper "go bush" on the lam from authorities in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople.". Dennis Harvey·Variety

Taika Waititi works fast, setting a bright, light comic mood that owes something to Wes Anderson but is organically his own. Manohla Dargis·The New York Times

Watching this lovely little lark from New Zealand, you may feel like a happy camper on a twisty trail blazed by a cockeyed comic prodigy. Joe Morgenstern·Wall Street Journal

Rotten Tomatoes concludes that critics' consensus is "The charmingly offbeat Hunt for the Wilderpeople unites a solid cast, a talented filmmaker, and a poignant, funny, deeply affecting message."

See the trailer for yourself.

If a significant number of hunters and their families see this film, it will be a huge success, not just at the box office, but in Hollywood, and when a movie is a financial success, it opens the door for more films and TV about similar stories.

I tried to track down Sam Neil for an interview, but he's on location in another part of the world, so reading some of his previous interviews what emerged is that at first Neil, who has starred in The Hunt for Red October and Jurassic Park, and many other films and TV shows, didn't want to read the script. He says that he thought it was a sequel to The Hunt for Red October, where his character wanted to raise rabbits.

When he did look at it, and saw that it was about him running around the New Zealand bush with a 12-year-old Maori kid, and they were the target of massive national man-hunt, he still had reservations. But, as he got into the script he saw that it was a story about his character, Uncle Hec — a stoic and self-sufficient alcoholic ex-con, who is softer and more golden-hearted than expected -- teaming up with a kid who has become a victim of modern society and they let the wilds of New Zealand help them escape, so he decided he wanted the part.

People call the film hilarious, but Neil feels the story is heart-warming, and that's why it touches so many people. Director Waititi refers to the film, made over five weeks last winter, as "The Revenant with no money". (The total budget was $2.5 million, which is coffee money compared to big tentpole features.)

In real life, Sam Neil is a conservationist and an avid fly fisherman who has fished all over the world. He learned about fishing early in life, going to a school that taught kids to fish and instructed them in wilderness skills. These days Neil spends holidays camping, fishing or skiing in the Central Otago region of New Zealand where he owns a winery.

If you feel drawn to look for other recent films that feature hunter heroes, check out Big Game, (2015) which is available on Netflix. Shot in Finland, Big Game is the story of teenage boy who is sent into the mountains for his first big game hunt, as a rite of passage. After a ceremony by his father and friends, the boy rides off into the wilds on an ATV. While he is looking for stag, a plane flying over the area is carrying the President of the US played by Samuel Jackson. Terrorists shoot down the plane, but the President survives the crash and is picked up by the boy who uses his wilderness hunting skills to bring Jackson back to safety, while being pursed by the terrorists. This is a thriller with moments of hilarity. Again, a hunter hero. We need more of them.

Movies about hunting heroes were not always a rare species. Long before TV was created, people flocked to theaters to see films about hunting. From the very beginning of modern cinema, many of the most popular films featured wildlife and hunting, especially African safaris led by people including Theodore Roosevelt, Fairfield Osborn, Martin and Osa Johnson, and Paul Rainey. Rainey's feature documentary "Paul Rainey's African Hunt" (1912) was one of the biggest box office successes of that decade.

As time has passed, the number of heroic hunters in scripted TV and feature films has gradually declined, but there have been some exceptions such as:

1) The Ghost and The Darkness (1996) -- inspired by the book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo; around the turn of the century, two lions become serial killers, preying on crews who are building an East African railroad, stopping construction. It was a winner of one Academy Award, starring Val Kilmer as Colonel Patterson and Michael Douglas as Frederick Remington.

2) Dances With Wolves (1990) -- Winner of seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, the heart of Kevin Costner's masterpiece saga about a soldier's desire to see the old west is an Indian buffalo hunt.

3) In The Blood (1989) -- A superb docu-drama by George Butler (Pumping Iron) about a group of modern hunters who follow in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt's 1909 African safari to seek out the spirit of the hunt in modern life.

4) The Wind and The Lion (1975) -- Based on a turn of the century true story about an American woman (Candace Bergen) and her two children who are kidnapped by a Moroccan rebel (Sean Connery), and Teddy Roosevelt's (Brian Keith) strategy to get her free. The Wind and The Lion includes some quality time with T.R. including when he hunts and kills a monster grizzly which he displayed in the White House. The movie was nominated for several Academy Awards.

5) Tembo (1951) -- The legendary archer Howard Hill was probably the best stunt man archer who ever lived, as well as the best shot with a bow in the world in his time. Tembo is a feature documentary about an African safari where Hill bags four of the "big five", including an elephant, with a 115 lb. longbow.

6) The Last Safari (1967) -- Stewart Granger is an ethical African professional hunter who retires from being a guide, but decides to go on a last hunt to track down a rogue elephant that killed his partner.

7) Dersu Uzala (1975) by Akira Kurasawa is one of the best modern stories of a hunter as a hero in a feature film. An outstanding movie classic, it won an Oscar for best foreign language film.

8) Jeremiah Johnson (1972) is a classic, with John Milius' script put on the big screen with the skillful guidance of director Sydney Pollack. Robert Redford stars as a mountain man who wants to be left alone, but is forced to violate an Indian burial ground, and thus runs a gauntlet of attackers as he seeks his escape.

9) Ofelas or Pathfinder (1987) by Nils Gaup, is a Norwegian action-adventure film about a group of traditional hunters who are attacked by a band of raiders in the middle of winter. The first feature film about the Saami people of northern Scandinavia, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film.

—James Swan