The post-apocalyptic survivalist genre found its footing in A Boy and His Dog a science fiction film with more than enough invention and personality to transcend its exploitative nature. Only a couple of previous post-nuke titles had tried to depict living conditions in a ruined world, namely Jim McBride's 1971 Glen and Randa and Jan Schmidt's 1967 art film End of August at the Hotel Ozone. Neither was particularly audience-friendly. Adapted from an excellent novella by Harlan Ellison, the cynical survivalist-fatalist philosophy intorduced here became the standard for movies depicting how nasty life would be after World War Three. Or Four.
A Boy and His Dog premiered at the 1975 Filmex Science Fiction Marathon and became the hit of the show. It offered two things lacking in most '70s sci-fi: the voice of a real science fiction author with something to say, and even more rare, a sense of humor. The "R" rated show was given a very smart marketing campaign as well. The title sounds like it might be for small children, so the poster and the advertising emphasize its adult nature, and add the sub-title "An R-Rated, Rather Kinky Tale of Survival."
It's 2024. Vic (Don Johnson) and his dog Blood (voice: Tim McIntire) share the ability to communicate telepathically. They scavenge the desert wasteland eking out a violent living. Vic fights and steals for food, and in return Blood helps Vic locate females to rape. Blood wants to explore 'over the hill' to find a less hostile place to live, but Vic is distracted by the beautiful Quilla June Holmes (Suzanne Benton). She wants him to follow her back in an underground Utopia of survivors, a new Topeka. One problem: no dogs allowed.
A Boy and His Dog would be just another grim rags 'n shotguns post-nuke story if it weren't for the unique relationship between its human and canine heroes: the dialogue may have been rewritten, but the bickering exchanges between Don Johnson's somewhat thick-headed Vic and his intellectual mutt are pure Harlan Ellison. The disdainful & mocking Blood is practically the voice of the brilliant author Ellison, he of the sharp tongue and short-fused temper. Blood criticizes Vic's relative stupidity, lack of perspective and one-track search for 'female companionship': i.e., female victims of any stripe to ravage. They're becoming very hard to find.
The ugly-sounding premise is legitimized because A Boy and His Dog matches its apocalyptic theme with an appropriate set of warped values. Earlier doomsday pictures like Panic in Year Zero or No Blade of Grass drag us through debates about whether or not the threat of extinction justifies the abandonment of the rules of polite society: property rights, due process for criminals. It's likely that the few audiences that saw No Blade ignored Cornel Wilde's preachy ecological message and instead embraced the concept of a world gone wild, where theft and murder are prerequisites for survival.
Ellison's story begins with that situation already firmly established. A product of his times, Vic is interested only in finding canned peaches and his next female partner -- ironically, his shaggy pet is the repository of historical wisdom. If not for Blood, Vic would have long forgotten that two nuclear wars have been waged, or that there was even once a 'normal' world. Coming upon a girl butchered by another band of cutthroats, Vic is genuinely saddened -- because she clearly could have been raped some more.
The Lassie factor gets a good workout here. Blood augments his superior sense of smell with a psychic ability to mentally scan the desert for danger. This allows him to provide the gun-toting Vic with the information needed to prevail in fights. It's a boy-dog relationship unlike any other. While Vic makes love in one scene, Blood passes the time by figuring out the derivation of the word 'copulate.'
The first half of the picture is a series of savage skirmishes between Vic and various pre- Mad Max competitors in the wasteland. Everyone avoids the 'Screamers', ominous blue-glowing monsters that are presumably some kind of post-nuke mutation. The main conflict comes into play when a girl enters the picture. Comely Suzanne Benton's corn-fed princess Quilla June is not only desirable, she's actually eager to make it with Vic. Vic risks his symbiotic partnership with Blood to follow Benton into a legendary underground world of supposed luxury.
(no spoiler, as these details are revealed early on in the film)
Of course the underworld turns out to be a trap. It's a conservative recreation of pre-industrial Topeka, ruled by an authoritarian troika called 'the committee'. Alvy Moore, Helene Winston and Jason Robards maintain a strictly enforced Topeka where everyone must dress and behave as if living in a pre-industrial Middle America: the boys are in farm overalls and the girls wear schoolmarm clothing and curtsey, etc. Underground living has resulted in a pallor necessitating heavy makeup. Many wear whiteface clown-type paint, a less-than optimal attempt to cue a broader satire in this "down the rabbit hole" underworld. Vic is policed by a keeper named Michael (Hal Baylor), a robot seemingly borrowed from Westworld. Our hero's fantasy of playing super-stud to an entire race of women goes sour when the committee straps him into a mechanical semen-extracting machine. It's another element that would be in extreme bad taste, were it not such a logical part of the story.
Quilla June lures Vic into The Committee's procreation scheme, but she also has an agenda of her own. All Vic wants is to return to the surface and resume his nomadic lifestyle. The stinger ending is an underplayed but cruelly cynical twist. It carries the bond between Vic and Blood to a logical end that was a little bit beyond what the public of 1975 expected. Ten years later, when the same (if more glamorous) finale was used for John Huston's Prizzi's Honor, it was called a sophisticated black comedy.
Director L.Q. Jones' direction is surprisingly good outdoors and a little less so when the show gets to the buried city of Topeka. Jones is known mainly as an actor in Sam Peckinpah Westerns, often playing a scavenger outlaw similar to A Boy and His Dog's Vic. He and character actor / producer Alvy Moore's film is an ironclad commercial winner because it is composed of uniformly exploitable elements: violence, nudity, a totalitarian state, rebellious young leads. And of course, the unique telepathic Lassie idea. No matter how the producers released their film, word-of-mouth would surely have worked in their favor. The picture appeals to the so-called unsophisticated audiences that wants its grimy death and rough sex. It also played to critics, who were excited to find an imaginative show with actual ideas at its center.
Moore's production is slight but effective. The Mojave Desert locations are dressed mostly with random junk. The underground society is achieved via night exteriors in ordinary, sterile-looking modern buildings. After Vic's initial entrance through some industrial corridors, it's interesting how quickly we accept, without mattes or other effects, a perpetually dark underworld with green grass and trees. The costuming underground can be a little severe, but the dozen farm girls all dressed in wedding gowns make for a strangely disturbing image.
Blood's handlers do a superb job making the trained animal appear to be communicating with Vic. Some of the dialogue must have been tailored to the shots, as when Blood speaks, walks a few steps, speaks again, and so forth. His interesting telepathic voice is provided by the narrator, trailer-maker and all-round '70s Renaissance man Tim McIntire. After a couple of sharp exchanges between Don Johnson and his mutt, we accept the Dr. Doolittle situation entirely.
Don Johnson was at the time known as the star of cheesy exploitation pictures like The Harrad Experiment and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, so Vic's ambition to be the big stud seems almost a critique of his previous filmography. Suzanne Benton had earlier landed roles with Robert Altman and Mike Nichols. Although A Boy and His Dog is well into her career slide, it's a healthy part. Gratuitous nudity was almost a prerequisite for an actress in the '70s, something that has now completely changed.
It's tempting to think that Jason Robards came to this show through L.Q. Jones' Peckinpah connection. Robards probably was surely attracted by the ideas in the script as well. The no-nonsense casting in the underground world extends to stalwart Charles McGraw as the preacher. A Boy and His Dog is a good example of a quality picture made by actors with ambitions to produce.
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray + DVD of A Boy and His Dog is a long awaited upgrade for this one-of-a-kind independent picture. Disc companies Lumivision and First Run put out woefully inadequate DVDs in the early days of the format, which now can happily be discarded. A careful HD transfer with attention to cleaning up flaws has resulted in a fine-looking picture. The original was filmed in half-frame Techniscope. I'm not sure to what extent a restoration was done, but some unwanted splice marks are now gone and the image is also more stable. Cinematographer John Arthur Morrill would be happy to see his cinematography looking this good once again.
The original trailer copies the style of the trailer for A Clockwork Orange, which the producers wisely saw as sharing their target audience. A montage edited to classical music, the trailer elevates the picture above the A.I.P./New World level of exploitation, and actually makes it look important.
L.Q. Jones, cameraman John Morrill, and critic Charles Champlin provide a lively commentary. The talkative Jones tends to dominate but fills in plenty of production detail. He also exaggerates wildly, telling us that there were five hundred auditions for Blood's voice, and that the dog was almost nominated for an Oscar.
Fans will greatly appreciate a new, lengthy interview piece billed as In Conversation: Harlan Ellison and L.Q. Jones. Jones is certainly looking older but has not lost his ability to overhype his picture. He begins by telling us that "some critics" call it the best science fiction film ever made... and then says "that's just B.S.". Although Jones tends to dominate, Harlan Ellison gets more than enough opportunities to talk about his commitment to the picture and the things about it that he thought worked well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Boy and His Dog Blu-ray rates:
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