“Ask not what tracking can do for cinema, ask what cinema can do for tracking.”
This list is intended to be an invitation to check out these films that including tracking or anti-tracking. Not all the movies mentioned here are masterpieces, but there are some scenes (good or bad reconstructions, it depends) based on tracking and/or anti-tracking.
I graduated as a film critic, but I am not picky at all. A good movie doesn’t necessarily have to be hyper-hermetic or hyper-produced. I appreciate the brilliance in its simplicity.
I will try to explain only the main plot in order to avoid spoilers. Enjoy and please leave a comment if you have some other good titles to suggest!
#1 – Man In The Wilderness, 1971
Man in the Wilderness is by Richard C. Sarafian, featuring Richard Harris and John Huston
An American western film about a group of mountain men crossing the Northwestern United States during the 1820s.
A scout, loosely based on Hugh Glass, is mauled by a bear and left to die by his companions who took away all his tools and weapons. The scout survives and starts to frantically track his former companions, forcing an affray over his abandonment.
All the scenes of the follow up have been depicted with utter realism. The interpretation offered by Harris is of rare power. This has nothing to do with The Revenant (also a good movie) featuring Di Caprio as Hugh Glass.
#2 – Ulzana’s Raid, 1972
Ulzana’s Raid by Robert Aldrich, featuring Burt Lancaster, Richard Jaeckel, Bruce Davison and Joaquin Martinez.
This is another American western movie. The plot is about a ferocious raid by Chiricahua Apaches at the expense of some European colonists in 1880s. Allegedly, Robert Aldrich’s inspiration moved from an allegory to the United States participation in the Vietnam War.
The tracking scenes which involved Chiricahua Apaches are treated consistently.
#3 – The Deadly Trackers, 1973
The Deadly Trackers by Barry Shear, featuring Richard Harris, Rod Taylor
Based on the novel Riata by Samuel Fuller, Sheriff Sean Kilpatrick is a pacifist but he is forced to go against his beliefs in order to bring death to a gang of outlaws, led by a cruel character, Brand. Kilpatrick’s mission is to avenge the deaths of his wife and son, murdered by the gang during a robbery.
In Mexico, his hunt is challenged by his noble sheriff counterpart, who is interested only in carrying out the law; not vengeance.
The interesting tracking topic of this unconventional Western film is the figure of Gutierrez, a methodical and analytical Mexican Policeman, who tracked down the gang by his total trust in law.
#4 – Borderline, 1980
Borderline by Jarrod Feerdman, featuring Charles Bronson, Bruno Kirby, Ed Harris
The United States Border Patrol Agent in charge, Jeb Maynard (Bronson), tracks down the killers of a young Mexican boy and his colleague and friend, a veteran Senior Patrol Agent, “Scooter” Jackson.
The movie happens to be one of the more realistic portrayals of U.S. Border Patrol Agents, as it received the technical support of the United States Border Patrol and the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“Veteran United States Border Patrol Agents served as technical advisors during the making of the film. The Border Patrol uniforms, firearms, “sign-cutting” techniques, and vehicles used during the film were all accurate.“
Source: “RELIVING THE PANIC AT ‘BORDERLINE’ Vasquez, Richard E. Los Angeles Times 5 Oct 1980: r3.”
#5 – The Shining, 1980
The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, featuring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
Who doesn’t like this masterpiece by Kubrick?
Nicholson, the main character, is an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who works as the off-season caretaker of the isolated historic Overlook Hotel, located in the Colorado Rockies.
The epic ending portrays his son concealing his own tracks in an effort to deceive his father inside a frozen maze.
#6 – Death Hunt, 1981
Death Hunt by Peter R. Hunt, featuring Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin
The film is a fictionalized account of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) pursuit of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River.
Charles Bronson performed magnificently as Johnson, and the anti-tracking scenes as well as evasion techniques portrayed are pretty accurate.
#7 – Predator, 1987
Predator by John Mc.Tiernan, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers
An elite paramilitary rescue team is on a mission to save hostages in guerrilla-held territory located in Central America. Eventually they encounter the deadly Predator, a technologically-advanced alien who begins to stalks and hunt them.
This masterpiece offers very valuable scenes of tracking featured by Sonny Landham as Billy, the scout.
#8 – Misery, 1990
Misery by Rob Reiner, featuring Kathy Bates, James Caan
This brilliant adaptation of the novel by Stephen King made Misery a really good psychological thriller, along with the sublime interpretation offered by the main actors.
I am pretty sure that you’re all familiar with the plot, but even if tracking isn’t as present, can you quote a scene which contains a nice “aerial spoor” (disturbances of vegetation which confirmed the passage of a man/animal or vehicle?).
#9 – The Edge, 1997
The Edge by Lee Tamahori, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin
Wealthy Charles Morse (Hopkins) is flying on board a plane when it crashes down in the Canadian wilderness. The survivors set up a plan to help them reach civilization. After a while they realize a large Kodiak bear is actually stalking them.
Besides the majestic appearance of Bart the Bear, the movie shows very briefly some survival techniques (fire starting, orientation as well as tracking) without ever reaching the goal of being consistent.
#10 – Point Last Seen, 1998
Point Last Seen by Elodie Keene, featuring Linda Hamilton, Kevin Kilner
This is based on a real story of a tracker who looks for signs of a little girl who is lost in the desert. A rare film, but worse than mediocre even if the plot is all about tracking.
#11 – Rabbit Proof Fence, 2002
Rabbit Proof Fence by Philipp Noyce, featuring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Kenneth Branagh
An Australian drama film loosely based on a true story concerning the author’s mother Molly, as well as two other mixed-race Aboriginal girls, Daisy Kadibil and Gracie. They escaped from the Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth (Western Australia) to make their way back to their Aboriginal families.
The Aboriginal girls walk for nine weeks, about 1,500 miles of the Australian rabbit-proof fence but they are pursued by white law enforcement authorities as well as by an Aboriginal tracker. A touching movie with brilliant sequences of tracking.
#12 – The Tracker, 2002
The Tracker by Rolf De Heer, featuring David Gulpilil, Damon Gameau, Gary Sweet
Another Australian dramatic film (with a touch of Western) set in 1922 in the wide, epic and desolated Australian Outback.
A white policeman, admittedly racist, employs an indigenous Australian tracker in order to find a man who murdered a white woman.
As for Rabbit Proof Fence, Aussie cinema demonstrates a deep respect for trackers as well a distinctive ability to film sequences based on cutting signs and following a track-line.
#13 – The Hunted, 2003
The Hunted by William Friedkin, featuring Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro
This well renowned action-thriller movie depicts the story of an FBI tracker who attempts to capture a highly trained murderer whose vocation and mission in life is hunting humans.
The famous tracker and wilderness survival expert Tom Brown, Jr., was summoned as technical adviser for the film. The plot itself is loosely inspired by a real-life incident which involved Brown. One of his tasks was focused on tracking down a former pupil, and Special Forces sergeant, who had evaded capture by authorities.
This story is told in Tom Brown, Jr.’s book, Case Files Of The Tracker (2003)
#14 – The Missing, 2003
The Missing by Ron Howard, featuring Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Evan Rachel Wood
Based on the 1996 Novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson, the plot is set in New Mexico territory in 1885. A frontier medicine woman forms a troubled alliance with her estranged father in order to find her daughter, kidnapped by an Apache brujo.
The movie is certainly a gem of rare beauty, starting from the authentic use of the Apache language by various actors to the staging of some precious scenes on tracking.
#15 – Tracker, 2010
Tracker by Ian Sharp, featuring Ray Winston, Temuera Morrison
A British–New Zealand co-production gave birth to this action-thriller film set in 1903 New Zealand. An Afrikaner veteran of the Boer War who just immigrated to New Zealand, is hired to track down a man accused of killing a soldier.
I am aware of some criticism of this movie, but at the end, Tracker is an enjoyable film, plenty of stars and properly layered.
#16 – Jurassic World, 2015
Jurassic World by Colin Trevorrow, featuring Vincent D’Onofrio, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard
Fourth installment of the Jurassic Park film series as well as the first installment of the so planned Jurassic World trilogy.
There’s not so much tracking in it, except for one scene. Do you remember that? It had to do with the Navy and Navajo.
#17 – Wind River, 2017
Wind River by Taylor Sheridan, featuring Kelsey Asbille, Jeremy Renner
The most recent film of this list portrays a veteran hunter who helps an FBI agent to investigate the murder of a young woman inside the fences of a Wyoming Native American reservation.
The movie contains a lot of scenes dedicated to Tracking but I heard a lot of conflicting opinions on the goodness of Wind River. Personally I didn’t find it that bad!
Bonus Tracking – TV Series
It would be impossible to mention all the TV shows that contained scenes based on trackers. So let me briefly suggest only the most famous ones where the presence of tracking has been pretty consistent:
THE UNIT, 2006 – by David Mamet, featuring Max Martini, Scott Foley, Dennis Haysbert
THE WALKING DEAD, 2010 – by Frank Darabont, featuring Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus
TRUE DETECTIVE, 2014 – by Nic Pizzolatto, featuring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson
What are some of your favorite tracking or anti-tracking movies or TV shows?