I’ll never forget the first time I was introduced to the work of Gordon Eastman. I was around 10 years old and had been stuck in our family’s lake house one afternoon, unable to go fishing or wandering the mountains because of a continuous heavy rain. Having exhausted the supply of Disney movies on the shelf, I started digging around in a bin of old VHS tapes I found beneath it. Most of the tapes were simply old home movies and recordings of baseball games from the mid-80s, which I nonchalantly tossed aside as I dug deeper into the box. I didn’t find much of interest and was resigning myself to watching “The Lion King” for the hundredth time, when at the very bottom of the bin I found a tape. The title, “High, Wild and Free,” had been written on a piece of medical tape with a marker and stuck to the front of the tape. Shrugging, I put the tape in the VCR, sat down on the couch, and pressed play. My life changed forever.
“High, Wild and Free” is only one of the many early films Gordon Eastman made during his long career as a filmmaker. It revealed to me a world of wilderness and majesty that I had only dreamed of and showed me a level of adventure that helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life. Despite Eastman’s films’ lackluster cinematic quality, they depict the wilderness, hunting, and fishing in a way that was so far ahead of their time, they helped defined the genre of outdoor film and shaped it into what it is today.
Eastman’s career in filmmaking began in the 1950s—at a time when returning GIs became curious about the hunting world—and continued all the way into the 1980s. Eastman himself was a pioneer, not just of documentary filmmaking, but of big-game hunting itself. From “High, Wild and Free” to “The Savage Wild” to “High Country Calling,” Eastman revealed to the world areas of wilderness and species of animals that very few of the general public knew about at the time. What was more, he showed people how to live within and with the wilderness in those early films. His earliest work “Hunting Alaska Today,” proved a landmark documentary. In his later work, “Gordon Eastman’s Hunting Journal” and “The Phantom Ram,” he proved to be a pioneer in the hunting world, introducing techniques and methods such as spotting and stalking that, up to that point, had never been captured or shown on film.
From his native Wyoming, Eastman toured the country making films, hunting, and showing the general public how vital our wild places should be to all of us. He showed the citified world the wonders of the wilderness and revealed the very heart of a hunter and conservationist. He believed in fair-chase hunting and protecting the wildlife he filmed so passionately that dozens of different states and Canadian territories began to use his films to petition different wildlife agencies for protection. His work was so well received that Walt Disney himself took notice, recruiting Eastman to help in the Disney company’s own series of nature films. These included “Run, Appaloosa, Run,” and “One Day in the Teton Marsh.” As with all his other films, Gordon directed, wrote, filmed, and edited all the films himself.
In the 1980s, Gordon transferred all of his old 16mm films to video format and began a new series of films about the west, filming mostly in his home state of Wyoming. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, Eastman produced more than 30 hunting and fly-fishing films about the west, during which time he was selling roughly 20,000 videos per year, making him the biggest producer of hunting videos on the planet at the time. Eventually his video sales and magazine articles gave him enough leverage to create his own media company, Eastman’s Hunting Inc., which has grown to become one of the largest, most successful media corporations in the hunting world today.
After Gordon Eastman’s death in 1997, his son, Mike Eastman, continued his father’s legacy by bringing hunting to the world via Eastman’s Hunting Journal and Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal. Two years later Mike began producing his own television show, Eastman’s Hunting Television. This long-running television series continues the legacy of Gordon Eastman, promoting fair-chase hunting and conservation to the hunting public. But it all started with Gordon, the man with a camera and a love for the outdoors who wanted to share his passion with the world.
Featured image courtesy of the Helena Independent Record