A fair level of character conception and realism in film can be built on the several – sometimes contrasting, sometimes consonant – relations between humans and their environment. This often involves not only the contact with their urban imaginary, but also their relation to Nature and its various forces and manifestations of life.
Animals are amongst the commonest elements of Nature present in films that explore these themes, and although honest depictions of animals have not been common – when they do occur, they often fall into the category of activism –, they can be found in several different dimensions and with different representations, either allegorical or concrete.
Some works choose to cater to mainstream audiences and follow the path of humanistic depictions of beasts, others stick to believable portraits of animal behavior and perspective; some sit in-between. Other films bear facets of fantasy and turn beasts into imaginary beings, sometimes a blend of more than one animal, sometimes a whole new creature.
Films such as The Neverending Story brings traits of a child’s tale with an ultimate psychological message, all of that through unique representations of fictional creatures bearing features of mythology. Films such as Marley and Me attempt to cater to viewers seeking a melodramatic narrative that entices conventional human feelings of pity and longing, and the image of the dog just serves to activate the apex of these feelings from time to time.
Whether an animal is represented as a threat, a possible companion, an allegory (sometimes a national one, even), the crude mimesis of their predation by human hands, or simply the traces of bonding within their own communities, cinema has touched the subject plenty of times. Animals as killers, animals as innocuous victims of civilisation, animals as improvements in social interaction, or animals as the very voice of the wild trying to sink in human minds; you name it, someone has done it.
This list carries twenty titles that can be considered important and diverse films whose takes on animal issues and our perception of them have been instigating or relevant. I am here looking for works with a more daring and thoughtful depiction of the theme, so films with overly dramatic or overly mellow approaches to human-animal camaraderie should not be expected. What should be expected, however, are spoilers, so readers who have not seen some of the films listed here must go through the text carefully.
1. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
This is a cult classic, and the visual wonders of this film are a testament to the grandeur of its special effects and set proportions, as well as the art direction creativity in dealing with a titanic depiction of an exotic wilderness, far away from the Western eyes, and which the very same film industry of the West is trying to brave.
The story is a classic rescue mission, with the sex symbol Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) being captured by a giant gorilla, while the film crew that accompanies the actress attempts to avoid conflicts with the indigenous people on a mysterious island off the African coast, and find a way to get the lady from the wild grasp of the gargantuan primate.
Bruce Cabot brilliantly plays the brave male figure Jack Driscoll, a sailor who is aiding Cpt. Englehorn in transporting the film crew to the island to shoot the production.
The giant beast is eventually captured and taken to New York, where it is displayed at a theatre for the amazement of an avid audience. The animal here is represented as an uncanny gift of nature, whose physical capacities astonish the human mind. The creature becomes a challenge to notions of normality, as it evokes fear and wonder, but ultimately frees itself from its chains to escape and is merely deemed to be causing mayhem, thus turning into a target.
The freak from the jungle that man brought to civilisation is now hunted by man. The scenes on top of the Empire State Building are amongst some of the most recognisable in the history of cinema.
2. Call of the Wild (William Wellman, 1935)
Clark Gable stars in this tidy narrative adapted from one of the most acclaimed works written by Jack London. London’s venture into the story of a dog with a comfortable life whose destiny takes a turn for the worse and leads him to delve into the primitive survival of snowy landscapes is told differently – and interestingly – in this silver screen rendition.
This is the perfect specimen of the Classic Hollywood Narrative offspring, with heterosexual love in bloom while a startling adventure takes place. The adventure, however, is rendered in the perfect proportion, as the relationship between Thornton and Buck is that of mutual understanding, even in the worst of conditions; not only that of blind, common-place camaraderie.
Beautiful acting is found all over this film. Gable does his usual job as a male symbol of the early sound cinema, just like in his iconic performances of Gone with the Wind or The Misfits. Loretta Young does not surpass the mediocre level, but fits in her role just fine. Katherine DeMille performs nicely, and the English actor Reginald Owen is superb as the nemesis of the film. London’s novel may not have received an impacting adaptation thus far, but this 1935 production is a pleasant spectacle to watch.
3. Animal Farm (Joy Batchelor and John Halas, 1954)
A rather grim cartoon adapted from a politically cynical novella. The source text is a famous allegorical writing by English novelist George Orwell, and symbolically condemns the opportunism of some political coalitions in times of social distress.
In the fiction, this is indicated through personifications of animals, each one with their farm-related personality. Sheep are the alienated mass, whereas horses are the labour force, dogs are security enforcers, and pigs are bureaucrats and nobility. The entire allegory projected onto the animal kingdom by Orwell is beautifully transferred to the audiovisual mode with this sarcastically humorous work.
This is an animation made when animations were not common in Great Britain. Even so, Batchelor and Halas dare in this production, adding voice and graphic charisma to the characters that were conceived as images of a satire directed towards the rise of Soviet communism. The Animalism of both pieces is a way of making the audience imagine how the animal kingdom would fare under the circumstances of a coup-d’état.
The plots of Napoleon and Snowball gain continuity life, and receive the adornments of a modest, but down-to-earth soundtrack and nice editing. The death of the first creature to stand up for animal freedom gives way to successive misinterpretations and ideological manipulation to create an aura of revolution and justice. Seriousness and animation have been walking together since fairly early in the history of cinema.
4. Moby Dick (John Huston, 1956)
As one watches through this epic drama adapted from one of the most memorable novels in English-language literature, it is impossible not to notice its glimpses of grandeur in cinematography and lighting, as well as costume and set. It is also impossible not to notice the flawed choice for Gregory Peck to play Cpt. Ahab, something which was allegedly imposed on director John Huston by Warner.
The result is a cringing performance by a great actor, but too young and too unfit for the genre and the character himself. The makeup and costume cannot undo the visual effects of his age applying uncanniness to a key character that was supposed to be a far cry older than what the film presents.
Acting choices aside, it is an almost orchestral filmic narrative about the tale of the obsessed captain for his nemesis from the seas, the sperm whale Moby Dick. The first-person narrative by the “protagonist” Ishmael adds value to the always timely verbal suspense.
The one-dimensional human-creature obsession is displayed here more strongly, as the whale itself carries the weight of Nature on its back, as well as the fury of dozens of hunters. The animal is not only a prey for human utility and survival purposes, but also a trophy of preposterous vendetta.
5. Old Yeller (Robert Stevenson, 1957)
Children have a lot to learn from dogs, is not that what many say? Old Yeller attests to that by narrating the special moment in the life of a boy whose father has gone to work for days, while he has to keep the ranch in order with his mom and his little brother. A yellow mastiff shows up one day, and the boy’s life is changed.
The true evidence of an emotional bond comes in the form of a slow process of familiarisation; slow but very hearty. The relation they nurture together, while also interacting with other animals in the wild, expresses a mutual sincerity, as well as respect for the instinctual freedom of the dog from the boy’s part.
The film culminates into a crescendo of emotions towards the end. I prefer not to reveal the crucial moment of this portion, but needless to say that it recreates the value of a proximity between an animal and a person in a very warm manner. It is impossible not to let oneself be carried away by the idea that life is better lived when we do not restrict our routine to our fellow humans only.
6. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
Making a film about the social elite of San Francisco just is not Hitchcock’s style; so he added his spice to the mix. The bizarre happenings disturbing the Californian city begin to terrorise the citizens and affect the life of the well-off and spoiled Melanie Daniels. Her demeanour in the first half of the film is soon met with reconciliation by the viewer as she suffers from the fear of a barrage of strange birds invading San Fran. It all begins with a few attacks to become a full-fledged urban plague. So much for Nature’s retribution.
Hitchcock plays with the timing of his suspense, as he always did. A perfectly chosen framing throughout the film grants the viewer the pleasure and fright of a multitude of camera angles and evocative action. The birds may be the “enemies” in the film, but the director has sensibility in not letting the antagonism become gratuitous villainy.
There is a constant struggle for survival, and it becomes ever harder to avoid the thought that such a survival may be a call from the wild; Nature expelling some of the heat and rage that it has accumulated over the ages onto a prime model of American civilisation. It begins with a few incidents in the countryside, increasing in viciousness and human progress – in terms of setting – to become a battle in a big city.