The hunter is captured by his prey.
In 1908, President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt decided against a third term in office and, instead, embarked on a two-year long big game safari with his son, Kermit. Chronicling this adventure in a voluminous tome to tracking wild beasts, the rites and rituals of hunting have been a tradition in the Roosevelt family ever since. In 1989, great grandson Teddy Roosevelt V ventured to retrace his famous relative's footsteps and bring his own offspring, Ted Roosevelt VI, along for the journey. Filmmaker George Butler, himself spawned from a noteworthy legacy of an African adventurer (his father was a famous British officer and game tracker) offered to capture the expedition on film and brought his son Tyssen along for a lesson in ancestral heritage. Together with a group of experienced trackers and explorers, the three-week excursion became a bonding experience between families and the ages. As animals are stalked and slaughtered, we learn that the key to conservation is an active hunting culture. And as Butler makes clear, the desire to hunt is definitely In the Blood.
In the Blood is a documentary without a soul. It is a superficial, vignette style look at a very complicated subject. Trying to tie the 1909-10 African safari of Theodore Roosevelt with a modern day excursion into the region by his great grandchildren, it is a film that wants to say something profound about man's instinct towards hunting and the natural bloodlust that flows through all humans. Problem is, it offers a theoretical position (that all true hunters are conservationists) as the foundation for its story and then never once logically explains it. Sure, there are attempts by several of the parties involved to resolve the internal flaw that results from arguing that those who want to kill animals are only interested in their preservation, but the debate is never clear and when further efforts are made to explain it, the conversation turns confusing and very one sided. It's as if the only way one can accept this description of hunting as the ultimate preservation is to treat it as a religion, a rite of personal passage in which you must have absolute blind faith. The members of the modern safari surely fit this bill; men so disconnected to the ethos they are upholding, the primordial desire to stalk and slay that they "trust" they are at one with nature, even as they try to destroy a small part of it. The twisted philosophical statements that never seem to add up to a coherent focus cause the film to lose its way. In the Blood wants to convince you of the noble heritage it's championing. Unfortunately, the methodology used to deliver the sermon is garbled and incoherent.
At its heart, In the Blood wants to feature young Tyssen Butler's coming of age, both as a male and as a member of the Bridges family. He's the open-faced youth during a recreation of Roosevelt's fabled journey. Tyssen is our narrator, our guide, and our gateway to the events that occur. His purpose is to provide a juvenilia version of a journal that Roosevelt wrote during his travels as well as play a carnal Candide to all the killing. Pen in hand and thoughts full of simple sentences, he tells us about the nature of hunting, the vistas along the veldt, and the pseudo psychobabble significance of all that is happening. He is, however, the ultimate unreliable narrator, a kind of McGuffin magpie portraying the facts his way as the camera illustrates something completely different. Perhaps this is because of his unsophisticated naïveté about what is happening around him. Perhaps it's the insurmountable pressure placed on him to be "like Dad and Grandpa." Or maybe it's the fact that, as seen through a child's eyes, hunting still maintains some of its mystical wonder. As the movie maneuvers through slow bits of swamp drudgery and lightly skips over any geo-political ideas (like how the Africans like all this "white bwana" bullspit), we follow the lad as Africa opens up to him like a theme park with gunplay privileges. When we finally learn Tyssen's proficiency with a weapon and his final goal of killing a water buffalo (a chance to join an out of step notion of maturity), his virtue becomes awash in blood and his closing act keeps In the Blood from being anything other than mindless machismo.
Indeed, In the Blood is trying to say something sincere about the lost social subgenre of testosterone-filled big game hunters, of trophy kills, man versus nature, and moralistic standards that seem to exist within a bubble of wealth and class. Yet it also wants to challenge the nostalgic notion of stalking wild game with the modern idealism of political correctness and animal rights. There's even a fireside mêlée where hunting's low profile as a pastime is blamed on "liberal (agitators) from the East, trying to tell everyone what to do." This sermonizing is supposed to spark interest and investment in the audience, giving them the chance to choose sides and pray for man/nature to win. But again, there is nothing here to really get involved in. The meandering methodology, the causal crawl from story to subplot here gives us no one to accept or root for. It is as if the filmmaker walked into the editing room with hours of footage and found that he really had nothing significant to say. All he had was a collection of nicely shot home movies that hardly made a point. If there is a position to In the Blood however, it is a pseudo-compelling storyline disguised and treated in a throwaway manner. One group of hunters has heard a rumor of an enormous crocodile that is killing the Masai tribe's cattle (and a few tribesmen as well) and the men determine to kill this massive water monster. Their elaborate preparation and Zen-like attitude towards bagging the beast slowly starts to wear thin and accusations, subtle but sure, start to fly. The rest of the film lacks this conflict, the clear dramatic arch with a goal oriented narrative that keeps the viewer engaged and guessing. Even the tie-in to Roosevelt is soon lost as In the Blood turns into Tyssen Kills Something.
The DVD package for In the Blood is also a fancy phantom. Of all the extra content offered here, most is derivative (the slideshow photos from the trip) or odd (the tributes to the musician behind the soundtrack and the Holland and Holland rifle Roosevelt used during his excursion). The only item of substance is a commentary by director George Butler (Pumping Iron, Pumping Iron II: The Women) that plays like the positive review his film, perhaps, never received. Though very sparse and occasionally repetitive, Butler wants you to understand the significance of his film and throughout his comments he points to onscreen items that supposedly "prove" his point. Butler can read anything into almost everything, so his self-congratulatory praise for catching certain implications in the most mundane of shots is strange. When he praises an old timer for "accurately" explaining the conservation/hunting dichotomy, you realize you are listing to the preacher and the converted. While offering the occasional behind the scenes information on how the film was conceived and created, it is really just another sermon on the sanctity of the hunt and the hunter, and it's really not needed.
As for the image and sound, this is 1989 filmmaking at its best and worst. The footage all has a drab, flat feel and the 1.33:1 full frame image is badly matted. You can look along the top edge of the image and see the numerous negative flaws do their animated arabesques. Sonically, the score is prominent, along with Tyssen's pedestrian narrative. Some of the scenes "on location" suffer from incredibly loud "environmental" elements (and we learn, via the commentary, that Butler actually added bird calls to the soundtrack to up the "primitive" factor) but, overall, as a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, the film sounds acceptable.
Too bad the same can't be said for the saga being sold. If Butler and his band of beast blasters had taken ten minutes to explain their "hunting is conservation" theory in full and complete terms, In the Blood could have worked as a laudable life lesson. But unless you're Ted Nugent, or enjoy the scent of a duck blind in the morning, this movie will leave you as cold and lifeless as the animal carcasses these rich retreads spread across Africa.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Central Park Media
• Audio Commentary by Director George Butler
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