(1975) Written and directed by L.Q. Jones; Based on a novella by Harlan Ellison; Starring: Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, Jason Robards, Tim McIntire and Hal Baylor; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime
“I’m getting the hell out of here. I wanna see Blood again. I wanna get in a good straightforward fight with some son of a bitch over a can of beans. I gotta get back in the dirt so I feel clean!” – Vic (Don Johnson)
“The picture gives you a choice. The choice: Do you live above ground with these people, or do you live below ground in Topeka?” – L.Q. Jones (from Shout Factory Blu-ray commentary)
Prior to A Boy and His Dog, most cinematic depictions of future society imagined an idealistic, gleaming city. More often than not, there was something explicitly dystopian, but the future civilization appeared as if it had been freshly unwrapped. In L.Q. Jones’ film, based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, all the gloves are off, depicting a bleak, inhospitable Earth, left barren after a global nuclear war. When Ellison failed to produce a complete screenplay, Jones took the chore upon himself – the results are quite faithful to the original story. Even the notoriously cantankerous Ellison, who bristled at previous attempts to adapt one of his favorite stories,* was generally pleased with the results (read on for a couple of notable exceptions).
* Fun Fact #1: Before being produced as an independent production, Ellison’s story was considered by three major studios. According to L.Q. Jones, one of the studios wanted Don Siegel to direct.
Vic and Blood roam the post-apocalyptic landscape in a buddy movie like no other. They enjoy a symbiosis of sorts, communicating without words and keeping each other company. Blood the dog (played by Tiger and voiced by Tim McIntire), bioengineered for super intelligence and telepathic communication,* can detect trouble from far away. Vic (Don Johnson),** on the other hand, relies on his brute strength to keep them safe. They scour the land for sustenance, while avoiding vicious warlords and deadly radioactive mutants called “screamers.” One evening, while taking in an old movie, Blood spots a woman disguised as a “rover,” (the term for scavengers like Vic, who roam the surface). Quilla June (Susanne Benton), a resident of the “downunder” (an underground city) is introduced into their dyad, enticing Vic with sex. Vic is taken off his guard when she whacks him over the head, but leaves a souvenir behind – a card key. Despite Blood’s admonitions that it’s little more than a ruse, Vic decides to pursue her, descending into the subterranean city of Topeka.
* Fun Fact #2: Ellison angrily objected to one studio’s suggestion that they would make the dog’s mouth move.
** Fun Fact #3: In the original story, Vic was 15 years old, which would be problematic, considering the events that take place in the film. In the film, he’s approximately 18 (Johnson was 25 at the time the film was shot).
A Boy and His Dog reinforces how cheap human life has become, distilled to its bare essentials. Strength and subjugation are the new paradigm. Survival takes precedence over respect, with social progress sliding back a century. Women have become second-class citizens* – a commodity to be used and discarded. Sex is something to be enjoyed by men and endured by women. Quilla June provides a sharp counterargument to the new norm (a point made abundantly clear in the original story). Her forthright demeanor and assertiveness frighten Vic, who’s accustomed to taking what he wants, when he wants it.
* Fun Fact #4: One of the more troubling aspects for the film, according to Ellison, were some misogynistic comments, spoken by Blood in the original cut. Ellison raised the $1,500 necessary to change some of the words.
The underground society of Topeka values preservation of the status quo above all else. The residents with mime-painted faces and rosy cheeks put on a façade of cheerfulness amidst the oppressive, sterile environment. They’re safe from the chaos above, trapped in a stagnant Norman Rockwell-inspired bubble. The city is a bastardized vision of Americana, featuring Sousa music playing incessantly over loudspeakers, a barbershop quartet, and picnics in the park. Free thought or dissent is shunned, in a world that Anthony from the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” might have endorsed. Their version of progress is for the resident women to produce viable offspring, with some help from Vic. A Boy and His Dog presents two extremes: a choice between anarchy and fascism. On the surface, the closest things to government are roving gangs and warlords. In Topeka, there is the illusion of peace, which comes at the expense of personal freedom. Given the choice, many of us would probably take our chances topside.
* Fun Fact #5: The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex stands in for the upper levels of the subterranean city. The complex appeared several years previously in Ice Station Zebra (1968).
The film takes a dim view of humanity. It’s no accident that the most noble creature in the film is a dog. By far, the smartest, most rational character is Blood*/** He’s a good deal smarter than Vic, who admits he wouldn’t last very long without the skills of his canine companion. The thread that consistently links all the humans in A Boy and His Dog is their amorality. Vic isn’t particularly likable, but we root for him, nonetheless. He’s a package deal with Blood. Blood, on the other hand, serves as his conscience, attempting to keep him from stepping too far out of line. Quilla June operates predominately out of self-interest. It’s only when her goals converge with Vic that they reach anything resembling cooperation. Down in Topeka, Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) heads an elite group of town leaders, who impassively cast judgment on the city’s residents, making life or death decisions like they’re handing out traffic tickets. If anyone becomes too much of a problem, they’re sent to the farm (a euphemism for execution).
* Fun Fact #6: According to Jones, Tiger, the animal actor, was almost nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as Blood.
** Fun Fact #7: In order to make Blood appear more ferocious in one scene, the filmmakers used false teeth, much to the dog’s disdain.
A Boy and his Dog features an unconventional dynamic, in which the canine is clearly in charge. The last line of the film ends on a sardonic note, punctuated by a twisted last line (Ellison objected, but was overruled by Jones). The film provides a grim reminder that love doesn’t necessarily conquer all, but self-preservation reigns supreme. A Boy and His Dog is one of the highlights of 1970s science fiction films (in a decade distinguished by many notable examples), and a must-see for enthusiasts of post-apocalyptic films.
* On a side note, if you have the Shout Factory disc in your clutches, I recommend watching the supplemental conversation between Jones and Ellison, playfully bickering about their artistic differences. It’s 50 minutes well spent.