Americans have had a long-standing love affair with the wilderness. As cities grew and frontiers disappeared, film emerged to feed an insatiable curiosity about wildlife. The camera promised to bring us into contact with the animal world, undetected and unarmed. Yet the camera's penetration of this world has inevitably brought human artifice and technology into the picture as well. In the first major analysis of American nature films in the twentieth century, Gregg Mitman shows how our cultural values, scientific needs, and new technologies produced the images that have shaped our contemporary view of wildlife.
Like the museum and the zoo, the nature film sought to recreate the experience of unspoiled nature while appealing to a popular audience, through a blend of scientific research and commercial promotion, education and entertainment, authenticity and artifice. Travelogue-expedition films, like Teddy Roosevelt's African safari, catered to upper- and middle-class patrons who were intrigued by the exotic and entertained by the thrill of big-game hunting and collecting. The proliferation of nature movies and television shows in the 1950s, such as Disney's True-Life Adventures and Marlin Perkins's Wild Kingdom, made nature familiar and accessible to America's baby-boom generation, fostering the environmental activism of the latter part of the twentieth century. Reel Nature reveals the shifting conventions of nature films and their enormous impact on our perceptions of, and politics about, the environment.
Whether crafted to elicit thrills or to educate audiences about the real-life drama of threatened wildlife, nature films then and now reveal much about the yearnings of Americans to be both close to nature and yet distinctly apart.