The second of this month’s releases from Network distributing is the restoration of the countryside drama The Belstone Fox. it is based of the novel The Ballad Of The Belstone Fox by David Rook and would later be the main inspiration for the Disney cartoon The Fox and The Hound. It was initially released at a time when there was a real market for the type of film that looked to wildlife for its inspiration. The late Sixties and early Seventies saw a number of adaptations including Ring Of Bright Water and Kes which successfully connected with cinema audiences and proved to be an economically way to produce popular movies. They are now regarded as family fayre but often they have a slightly darker undertone and touched on some serious and adult subjects.
In that mood the film begins in a very dark way. In the first scene we see two gamekeepers hunt down and kill a fox and her cubs on the most brutal and efficient way possible. From the litter one survives and is taken to the local gamekeeper in charge of the dogs (Eric Porter). He takes pity on the fox cub and places it with a litter of hounds. It soon adapts to its environment and flourishes. The fox, now named Tag, forms a bond with Merlin, one of the hound pups. Despite a growing affection for the fox, the gamekeeper has to cast out Tag as he is having a negative impact on the hounds ability to hunt. This leads to Tag becoming the fox to catch. Try as they might, the hunt just seem unable to catch the crafty fox.
The film was ahead of its time in the way it tackled the subject of fox-hunting. In the early Seventies it was still a large part of country life and there was not much of a resistance to the sport. The film dares to look at it from both angles and has a strong anti-hunt leaning to it in the form of some of the younger characters. It doesn’t go so far as to totally condemn the killing of the foxes for sport but it raises the question and leaves it up to the viewer to form their own opinion.
It must have been a frustrating shoot as there are a fair number of scenes where the fox is centre stage. It is a real feat of film making that they had so much footage of the fox doing just what was required of it. The animal acting is central to the success of the film and they way in which it is brought to the screen is impressive.
As well as the animals there are some very good performances from the human actors. Eric Porter, who was one of those actors who seemed to pop up on so many things, is excellent here. He brings real depth to the part of the gamekeeper who is torn between his duty to the hunt and his fondness and admiration for the fox. He takes a certain amount of delight in the way the fox outwits the hunt at every turn and it is only when things get far more serious does he find that he has to choose where his loyalties lie.
The Belstone Fox is very much a film of its time but it still holds some relevance today as it tackles the issues that arise when tradition clashes with progress.