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Five Great Outdoors Movies to Watch This Spring

April 17, 2024

Connor Merritt

Connor Merritt

Most Americans have, at one point in their life, fantasized about what it would have been like to live as a frontiersman and it’s easy to understand why. The Old West, while absolutely part of history, is also a big part of our collective mythology as well. Think about it: While most genres are broad, and encompass many different settings and styles, when I say Western, you immediately know what I mean. From the cowboys to the Native Americans, westward expansion and the promise of gold, Westerns (and many outdoors movies) embody so much of what makes America America (that means everything, including the good, the bad, and the ugly).

Here’s a list of five excellent outdoors movies that embody the spirit of the American Frontier. While not all of them take place in the Old West, they all personify some element of the romantic American yearning for freedom, romance, and the great outdoors.

Five Great Outdoors Movies

How the West Was Won (1962)

There’s perhaps no other movie that singlehandedly covers every aspect of the Western myth than How the West Was Won. Where most Westerns choose one lane and stick to it, such as survival stories (The Revenant), Civil War tales (The Outlaw Josey Wales), gunslinging cowboys (For a Few Dollars More), or Native American narratives (Dances With Wolves), How the West Was Won tackles them all.

The film spans decades, covering the trials and tribulations of a family heading out west on the Erie Canal on rafts all the way through to the then-present-day San Fransisco, it is the definition of epic. To properly tell this story, the directors filled out the cast with many of the biggest Golden Age Hollywood stars like James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Carrol Baker, Lee J. Cobb and more.

Each section of the film covers a different era of westward expansion, giving a comprehensive insight into what it was like to live during the time.

While there are some historical inaccuracies here and there, the mythology of the story is compelling — I’ve never wanted to give up my modern life and try my hand at being a frontiersman more than after experiencing this marvel (though I know I would give up after a week, and I would have a difficult time convincing my wife to come with me!)

Currently available to rent or buy on Amazon starting at $3.99.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

While How the West Was Won detailed the experiences of an entire family unit traveling westward, sometimes it’s nice to just enjoy the peace of solitude that nature offers. That’s where Jeremiah Johnson comes in. This is the ultimate tale in learning to live by yourself as a mountain man in the American wilds — subsistence style.

The Revenant, from my last movie list, is a somewhat similar survival tale, but where that film had a much more tragic and somber tone, Jeremiah Johnson is the romantic antithesis. Jeremiah, played by a young and very bearded Robert Redford (the source of a viral meme that not many are aware comes from this movie), starts out just like many soldiers I’ve interview over the years: He’s a veteran of the Mexican–American War and feels disconnected from modern life. He takes this frustration with his loss of self-identity and trauma from man-on-man violence and decides to reconnect with nature by becoming a solitary trapper in the Rocky Mountains.

While he nearly perishes during his first winter in the mountains — just like the audience, he’s no expert in this new venture of his — he eventually learns everything he needs to know and finds peace in nature. Check this one out if you’re similarly feeling like you need to reconnect with nature, and vicariously live out your own mountain man dreams.

Currently available to rent or buy on Amazon starting at $3.59.

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Another family epic like the first movie on this list; however, this one finds the epic in the minutiae. Rather than a sprawling story covering multiple generations of a family settling various parts of the outdoors, Legends of the Fall focuses on the relationship between three brothers on a well-established family farm in the early 1900s.

Just like Jeremiah Johnson, this film starts out with military man Colonel William Ludlow (played by an always-excellent Anthony Hopkins) as he leaves the army. He too is tired of the violence and dehumanizing effects it can have on the psyche, so he decides to head westward to a remote part of Montana in hopes of building a peaceful life among mother nature (a common trope in American Westerns and myths of the frontier).

While the father adapts to this life of relative solitude (his wife couldn’t handle the harsh winters and left them for the modern excess of the East Coast), his sons hunger for more as they grow up.

They yearn to participate in in world affairs and fight for American values, with all three sons leaving to fight the Germans in World War I. They also yearn for love.

The joy of this film is that it combines the beauty of the great outdoors with the beauty of romantic love, mixing multiple ideas and themes together to culminate in a great date movie. A large part of this is thanks to a charismatic Brad Pitt in his prime, who I’m sure singlehandedly helped this movie gross five times its budget during it’s original theatrical run (there’s a reason my mom loves this movie so much, and that goes for moms everywhere).

You can stream it on Hulu right now or rent it from Amazon.

The New World (2005)

My personal favorite film on this list, The New World tells the story of the genesis of the United States as we know it today: The colonization and establishment of Virginia and the Jamestown settlement.

Maybe it’s because I’m from Virginia and live right next to where the original Jamestown settlement was (it’s cool to think I’ve walked the same lands these people did all those years ago) and the film was shot on location with realistic props and production design (I’ve also been on the very same boats they use in the movie: they are replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery that were on loan from the Jamestown Settlement living history museum), but you can enjoy this story no matter where you’re from.

The New World follows well-known historical figures Captain John Smith, Pocohontas and John Rolfe over the course of the early years of the Jamestown settlement. While you may know the history behind the core of the movie, you’ve never seen it presented like this.

With a meticulous attention to detail — the budget for The New World included linguist Blair Rudes reconstructing and reviving the dead Virginia Algonquian language that Pocohontas used — and an intuitive vision for capturing the beauty of the Virginian landscapes and settlements, the movie is one of the most fully realized achievements of capturing a time and place in history. When you watch, you’re going to feel like you’ve been transported to another era, and it will give you a new level of respect for both the settlers and the Powhatan people.

The New World doesn’t get bogged down in the details though (don’t worry, it’s not a history lesson from school), instead it uses all these elements to effortlessly tell the story of the encroachment of modern life on a pure way of life that’s more in tune with nature.

The title itself doesn’t even refer to America as the New World; instead, the titular new world is the one that the European settlers bring to this fertile land, complete with disease, industry, currency, and all the good and bad that comes with it. If you ever long for simpler times when people lived off the land, hunted and farmed all their own food, and shared the joy of life with a likeminded community, then this film will take you there.

The New World starts with this quote from John Smith, “How much they err, that think every one which has been at Virginia understands or knows what Virginia is.” This suggests that no matter how much experience one has of a place, understanding its core values requires sincere and considered empathy, and not surface-level tourism or selfish exploitation. In this way, The New World displays the American values of true freedom, conservation, and courage that are essential to our modern mythology.

I highly recommend the extended director’s cut available for $3.59 on Amazon. You can also stream the theatrical cut on Max right now.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

I feel a special connection to this film for many reasons. It came out right when I was first getting into movies and was the first Wes Anderson film I saw in a theater. It also centers around a fictional Boy Scout troop (they don’t use the term “Boy Scout”, but we all know what a Khaki Scout is) in New England in the 1960s. While I didn’t grow up in the 1960s, I am an Eagle Scout and spent my fair share of time participating in scouting activities, and there’s no other movie that comes close to capturing the feeling of being part of a scout troop at summer vacation.

Moonrise Kingdom follows a social outcast as he absconds with his crush. The rest of his troop are tasked with using all their skills to find the two runaways, and wacky adventures ensue. It’s not without heart though, as the film is surprisingly moving, with some particularly tender moments between the young boy and the local police officer in charge of the search party. Thematically, it’s about how it can sometimes be a struggle to fit in, whether you’re an adult or a child, and how important it is for parents (and other adults) to openly communicate and build relationships with their children and vice versa.

While the story focuses on one scout who develops a crush on a local girl, the movie is filled to the brim with scouting culture, references, and humor. Anyone who’s been a part of the organization is guaranteed to enjoy the experience. From early morning line ups and roll calls to tent and uniform inspections, this film is sure to bring back some memories — or make you wish that you had been a scout when you were younger.

Moonrise Kingdom is also one of the most family-friendly outdoors movies on this list, so if you want a taste of the nature inside your very own living room but want to share the experience with the whole family, then this is one of your best bets.

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon starting at $3.79.

Also check out my recommendations for some of the best hunting films from last year.
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