In the Somerset countryside members of the fox hunting brigade are seeking out their earths with the hound puppies and digging them up, killing the vixens and cubs with a spade. But as one of the men who wander the land, Tod (Bill Travers), discovers, they have not done as good a job as they thought, and he rescues one of the still living cubs to nurture back to health, or that's the idea at any rate. The best man to go to is the hunt master, Asher (Eric Porter), and he suggests offering the cub to one of his hounds who is suckling her young...
If you've seen Disney's The Fox and the Hound, then you will have seen a far more sentimental version of this tale, based upon the novel by David Rook, which had the benefit of a voiceover by Kurt Russell. Nobody thought to give the animals their own voices in this, which was less keen on the anthropomorphism and more keen in showing nature red in tooth and claw, except that the question of exactly how natural fox hunting was appeared to be on the agenda. The film begins with a bunch of cute cubs being squashed, which offers some indication that this is weighted in favour of the humans.
Not a fair fight, then, but as the plot progresses, it seems the humans have met their match in the Belstone Fox, who is named Tag by Asher's daughter Jenny (Heather Wright) and brought up with the offspring of his surrogate mother, especially another "brother" named Merlin. Although Asher seems aware that what he is doing is not quite natural as far as mixing the animals up goes, he does it anyway as if paying penance for all those years of seeing the foxes torn apart in the name of sport. However, the people are depicted fairly sympathetically, and the pasttime of the hunt shown with an insider's eye for detail.
So whose side are we meant to be on, the fox's or the hunters'? This is where it gets murky, because Merlin is taken away from his best friend when it comes time to join his fellow dogs, yet there remains a strong bond between them so that the hound refuses to kill any of the foxes it leads the pack to - although it is good at tracking the animals down. Tag, however, is as cunning as his kind's reputation and always evades capture, often through novel ways (escaping in a van for one - you half expect to see him driving it), and this becomes a source of embarrassment for Asher as it was he who raised the cub.
A yarn about animals sounds as if it should be appropriate for children, and there are scenes of the creatures getting up to cute and photogenic behaviour, yet there are also scenes in this Disney would not dream of including, such as the caught foxes being ripped to pieces and the youngest member of the hunt being "blooded", a tradition that sees the boy daubed with the blood of the dead animal's tail. For outsiders, it's hard to see where the entertainment in this stems from, but Tag turns the tables when he forces his pursuers to chase him onto a railway track whereupon most of the hounds are run over by the oncoming train. Now Asher feels, if he did not before, that this battle of wills is personal, which is either strange or melodramatic or both, but director James Hill, whose other wild beast movie Born Free was far less ambiguous, fails to clue us into how he expects us to react. Most likely you'll enjoy the scenery and muse over its mixed messages. Music by Laurie Johnson.
[The Belstone Fox has been restored and released by Network on Blu-ray as part of their extensive British Film brand.]