A guest post provided by former TCM intern, Alexandra Greenway.
To view A Boy and His Dog click here.
A Boy and His Dog follows 18-year-old Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog, Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), as they scavenge for women in the dystopian Wild West in the year 2024. The film is directed by L. Q. Jones, who is probably best known as a member of Sam Peckinpaw’s troop of stock actors, appearing in his Klondike series (1960–1961), Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Peckinpaw was known for his violent films, some of which including Straw Dogs (1971), garnered controversy based on their content. It follows then that Jones would take the same violent approach to his own filmmaking, as A Boy and His Dog is equally gruesome. It opens with Vic finding a woman after she’s been raped and beaten to near death. Vic, despondent, makes no effort to save her and instead whines that the previous party could have at least left her alive so that he, too, could rape her. So despite the innocuous title, Jones’s film deals with some disturbing material, especially with regard to its treatment of women.
The movie isn’t all about rape (thank God?). Blood sniffs out Quilla June (Susanne Benton) in an underground bunker. Vic captures her while she’s undressing and after interruptions by some raiders and possible mutants, they have sex. Quilla June seems strangely enthusiastic about their copulating and talks about “love” in their post-coital pillow talk, or rather, dirty mattress on the floor of an abandoned gymnasium talk. Vic engages and agrees that, sure – they can be in love. And then Quilla June conks him on the head and escapes to her home “Downunder.”
Less “G’day mate” and more “God Bless the U.S.A.,” Downunder is a colony of survivors who have created their own status quo in simulated small town America. Vic, again despondent – now at the escape of his “lover” – abandons Blood and sneaks into Downunder in attempt to find and re-capture Quilla June. Well, it turns out she had lured him down there in order for her father, The Mayor (Jason Robards), to use him as a human sperm bank for all of the town’s young brides. It turns out, unfortunately, that the artificial biosphere created for Downunder has rendered all the men impotent.
Well, Quilla June, attempting to usurp power from her father, rescues Vic. In their escape, she commands him to shoot The Mayor and his cabinet, including their massive robot executioner (because what sci-fi film is not complete without at least one robot). For reasons unexplained, Vic does nothing. Vic and Quilla June narrowly escape and find Blood, starving and on the verge of death. Quilla June suggests they leave him behind, and then Vic and Blood decide that no, instead they will kill Quilla June and then eat her. I wish that I were kidding.
Now, despite my perhaps…harsh…review, the movie does have some interesting aspects. The overall mise-en-scène has gone on to inspire the entire sci-fi drama. In 1975, A Boy and His Dog was four years ahead of George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) – the seminal sci-fi meets Wild West blockbuster. Aesthetically, A Boy and His Dog was way ahead of its time. What’s more, the surrealist Americana of Downunder seems an apt, and somewhat ageless critique of culture and politics in the U.S. The film could be read as an allegory for toxic masculinity, the American Revolution, the Civil War and probably much, much more. In these respects it’s an important film to be aware of.
But, gosh darnit, it’s about rape. And as a woman and a human being, I don’t really like rape as a central theme. Actually, I abhore it. As a woman especially, I find it hard not to take this film personally. When I see a woman dying and the main character whine about not having anything left to rape, I immediately think this movie isn’t for me. When I see Quilla June used as bait and surrendering herself to Vic, I question her motives and those of the filmmakers. And, when I see her attempt to usurp power fail (because Vic can’t shoot straight), I wonder the real reasons behind these narrative decisions (as a point of fact, the film ends in similar fashion to the novel of the same name by Harlan Ellison). Movies like this, about worlds where women clearly do not belong, are not meant for me. They weren’t created with me in mind. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. And I’m a white woman. People of color and especially women of color have to endure this treatment in film All. The. Time. So what? We just don’t watch any movies made before a certain time? That’s an option, but then you’d also lose an entire wealth of cinema. Some movies have inspired American culture so much that cutting them out entirely seems impossible. And hard. Especially because some of them, we love. And let’s be honest, we don’t need to look back that far to see objectionable material. John Hughes, for example. Those movies? Hella sexist, hella racist. Remember that the beloved classic Sixteen Candles (1984) includes a parodic Asian character (Long Duck Dong…which is a real name because…?) and suggests date rape (heartthrob Jake leaves his drunk girlfriend with fourteen-year-old Ted who ends up making out with…the nearly incapacitated girlfriend).
The truth is, most of our culturally beloved movies are extremely problematic. I’m not suggesting we stop watching them, but instead lovingly critique them. As James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other county in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” As film lovers it is our right and, particularly, our responsibility, to criticize film as a historical document. To hold it to a certain standard. We all understand, probably more than non-film lovers, the power of representation. It’s our job to make sure that if a film is meant to be viewed by everyone, it should take everyone into account. And if it doesn’t that we point out the flaws. I’m addressing A Boy and His Dog for this reason. I know people will continue to see it for a myriad of reasons, but I feel obligated to at least point out a glaring issue and question its inclusion. I’m sure others in the film community will do the same and I appreciate those efforts, so that we know what we are in for as we screen a film, regardless of when it was released.
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