There are few acts that occur in the rural landscape that are as vile or as brutal as fox hunting. It is an act that highlights the class divisions still present in this country and one that does so more powerfully than most other “country pursuits”. Aside from the obvious power on display by those of the upper classes who still, quite illegally, partake in the blood sport, even before its ban in 2004 it had become a symbol of the ultimate violence of the land-owning classes of Britain. Thankfully, the arts have always seen fox hunting for what it is – outside of the clearly inane arguments for it as either pest control or the upkeep of tradition – and no medium has torn the practice to social shreds more brilliantly than cinema. Films of the “wyrd landscape” mode especially have tapped into the nasty hypocrisies and exertions of power displayed in fox hunting on screen and have been providing damning critiques of it, and by extension its social power, for a number of years now. Fox hunting is forever the symbol of an elite exercising its power through bullying and violence.
Thoughts of this idea first began to reverberate when first watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s underrated classic, Gone To Earth (1950). The film follows the doomed romance between a Gypsy (Jennifer Jones) and a fox-hunting squire (David Farrar), all taking place in the rural landscape. Fox hunting takes centre stage in the drama, the title even referring to the call given when the fox has disappeared on the hunt. But Powell and Pressburger knew that there was symbolic potential in the act, especially as a tool to comment on class divides in the landscape and misogyny. The Gypsy, who has a pet fox which is later killed, equally plays the role of another object to possess with the overtly masculine act resorting to violence and coercion to obtain her, even after she is married to a local vicar. Aptly, she shares the same fate as her beloved animal. As is often the case in such films, the landowners and the rich treat everything on their land as theirs to do what they want with, even if those things are actually living, sentient beings.
This is heightened several years later in Terence Fisher’s adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959) for Hammer Studios. There is, of course, a natural horror to the act of fox hunting that lends itself well to the genre but Fisher does something more than just use it as a backdrop. The film’s opening is almost entirely centred on a group of young men, back from the hunt and dangerously high on the kill. Fisher shows the natural escalation of the vile characters where they see the local servant girl (Judi Moyens) as just another creature to be taken. She is literally chased across the moor, no doubt in the same way as the chase they took part in earlier though a more sexual charge comes to light. There’s a clear link in both of these films between the act of taking an animal for granted – killing it needlessly for some inconceivable pleasure – and the taking of a woman’s body against her will – both for sexual and violent pleasures, though the line between the two is deliberately blurred. This is merely another facet of the same class behaviour, unsurprising in the characterisation but also in the likelihood of the actions of genuine land-owning gentry.
Horror would find another interesting use for the act in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964). After the initial opening scene, the first post-credit sequence is a detailed portrayal of a fox hunt which really frames the first quarter of the film. This is partly to show the difference in character of the lead who uses the hunt as a ruse to meet a woman. But the whole sequence then has later consequences, the framing of the individuals as almost deserving the horror to come (especially as it is animal-based, albeit in the form of a cat). There are few better shorthands for grotesque upper-class English characterisation than to have a character waving the corpse of a fox about as Derek Francis’ Lord Trevanion does. There are undoubtedly other examples; Disney even used the nastiness of this violence to build a message of social cohesion in their underrated 1981 animation, The Fox And The Hound. But the final example I want to draw attention to is not a film but a music video and addresses a further inequality easily equated with the clear unfairness of fox hunting: race.
For Dizzee Rascal’s 2007 single, Sirens, fox hunting is used as an effective framing of inner city racial inequality and the inherent violence suffered by people of colour at the hands of an official white power. What’s so effective about the video, apart from its stunning 35mm aesthetic, is that it manages to displace the act of fox hunting into an overt urban environment and still make it seem plausible; the rich effectively exerting their violence and will everywhere. The most powerful shot is one of a mounted hunter in a small urban flat, attempting to attack the rapper, though the final sequences of privileged white men and women dousing their faces with blood (hinted at potentially being that of a working-class black man) is one of the most powerful and stark images of twenty-first-century music videos. What is clear from this and all of the previous uses is that fox hunting, whilst commenting on a number of inequalities, is ultimately a symbol of several basic principles; power, bullying, unfairness, privilege and the belief that finance gives a free pass to just about any action. With the still prevalent occurrences of hunting with dogs on private land even after the ban, it has never had a more potent ability to comment on the inequalities that still ravage British society today.