The 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game depicts an arrogant big game hunter who is trapped on an island where he becomes the prey of another hunter, Count Zaroff, who has a trophy room with human heads on walls and in jars (censored and now lost footage included humans subjected to taxidermy).
The makers of The Most Dangerous Game were most famous for the 1933 film King Kong, about a prehistoric ape taken out of his environment by human greed. The sequel, Son of Kong, is noteworthy for a few timeless/progressive ideas—the theme of kindness to animals is presented, including a sequence where a character releases monkeys and seals from cages during a fire (and significantly, before she attends to her own injured father, thus we have an example of the “who would you save? human or nonhumans?” in a 1930s Hollywood movie).
Tarzan movies usually depicted the great white hunter as a villain, although there were safari films, such as those centering on the zoo animal collector Frank Buck, where taking animals out of their natural environment to spend their lives in a cage was not portrayed negatively at all. Legend has it that the earliest screen Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, killed a tame, toothless elderly lion who had been the studio mascot with a knife after the lion became too aggressive. In 1920 such a story was used to excite audiences, not repulse them.
Animated media involving nonhuman animals made the topic of hunting almost inevitable. Even the North American deer hunter came under criticism in films like Bambi, but these were exceptions. Recreational hunting was not considered in the same way as African safari hunting–perhaps because that involved wealth and class or more exotic animals.
In the 1950s and 60s, anti-hunting stories could be found in comic books, including the Count Zaroff-inspired Spider-man villain Kraven the Hunter. Craven means coward.
A forgotten 1957 film The Roots of Heaven concerns an ex-soldier who campaigns to save the African elephant from extinction.
Similarly, in 1981 a docu-drama Roar concerns the plight of African big cats. The end credits inform the viewer about the decimation of the animals from hunting and calls for protests against, fur, ivory, and animal trafficking.
In the mid 1990s, despite increasing focus on animal concerns in Hollywood film, there were anomalies. The 1990 comedy The Freshman, presents an anti-hunting animal rights activist as an annoying fool, and the film ends with a banquet of endangered species.
The 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness recounts the exploits of two lions who were claimed to have killed over a hundred railroad workers. Recent evidence suggests the number was exaggerated by the hunter (surprise!) who took credit for killing them. It is devoid of sympathy for the lions, or any animals, and in one scene mocks vegetarianism. When an American visitor is told by his African guide that the Muslim and Hindu railroad workers argue about the killing of cattle (the Muslims eat them and the Hindus don’t), the guide is asked if he eats the cattle and his response is “of course.” The Hindu workers remain anonymous throughout, and yet near the end it is the Muslim foreman who is shown making a friendly gesture towards the departing American. It must be noted that a fictional big game hunter is introduced into the story who is later killed by the lions.
A 2001 tv movie based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World features a heroic big game hunter named Lord Roxton. To add insult to injury he is also anti-slavery.
But such a depiction is a rarity, and it is most likely that we won’t be seeing any positive portrayals of trophy hunters unless financed by the the NRA or Safari Club.
In the final analysis, as wild animal numbers decrease due to hunting and deforestation (for animal agriculture), “canned hunting ranches” have sprung up to provide opportunity for sadistic humans to kill animals who could easily kill them in a fair fight. But should the African lion or any other animals go extinct in the wild, the pressure to shut down these slaughter sport enterprises will be massive. Already there is evidence that with this latest celebrity lion death, the recreational hunter is entering the realm of the pedophile. Better late than never.