Lovely, little-seen family movie with some unexpected edge. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released 1947's Thunder in the Valley, which was first briefly released by Fox as Bob, Son of Battle (the onscreen title card featured on this transfer)...and then subsequently renamed for the third and last time as Shepherd of the Valley. With all those name changes, it isn't hard to figure out that Thunder in the Valley, starring Lon McCallister, Edmund Gwenn, Peggy Ann Garner, Reginald Owen, Jean Prescott, and Charles Irwin, didn't have an easy go of it at the box office. That's a pity, because it's a beautifully sentimental--in the very best sense of that frequently misunderstood word--coming-of-age/man-and-his-dog story, based on the world-famous young adult novel, Owd Bob - Being the story of Bob, Son of Battle, from English novelist, Alfred Ollivant. Too bad Fox doesn't restore these Cinema Archives transfers; I would imagine Thunder in the Valley's Technicolor was spectacular...but at least this long-hidden gem is now widely available. It's a winner.
In the beautiful Highland hills of Border Shire, a rogue herding dog is killing sheep, and farmers Long Kirby (Charles Irwin), Samuel Thornton (David Thursby), MacKenzie (John Rogers), and Ferguson (Leyland Hodgson) think they know who the culprit is: the wild, brutal mongrel, Red Wull, owned by the frequently violent, cantankerous loner, Adam M'Adam (Edmund Gwenn). Wily, manipulative M'Adam is easily able to disingenuously deflect the furious farmers' demand that Red Wull be put down, but he's increasingly unable to control his maturing son, Davie (Lon McCallister), who resents his father's brutish, drunken ways. Davie, a sensitive lad, once found peace and love in his home when his dear mother was alive; then, the house was guided by her calming force, and filled with the music of her fiddle. In her long absence, Davie has found comfort at the nearby Kenmuir farm, where caring Elizabeth Moore (Jean Prescott) treats Davie like a son (she's been teaching him how to play the fiddle), and where unruffled, kindly James Moore (Reginald Owen) offers Davie a marked contrast in fatherly influence--particularly when he offers shelter to the boy after Adam whips Davie unmercifully in a bout of drunken self-pity. Also at the Moore house is young daughter Maggie Moore (Peggy Ann Garner), who quietly pines for Davie. In Border Shire, a man's wealth is determined not only by his sheep, but by his faithful dog who helps work the herds, and in the valley, there's no greater dog than James Moore's Bob, Son of Battle, descended from generations of champions. However, Bob faces competition in the yearly sheep herding trials from the savage Red Wull, who won the competition the year before. Three wins in a row, and the owner of the dog keeps the coveted cup forever...which is exactly what the spoiler Adam wants to shove back in the faces of the hated community that spurns him.
I came into Thunder in the Valley completely clean; I sort of recall the title of the famous book, but I don't remember reading it (from what I can gather, Zanuck and company changed it considerably for the screen here, anyway), nor do I recollect ever seeing this particular movie version (apparently, the story was filmed twice before in 1924 and 1938, and again as recently as 1998 it was remade as Owd Bob, with Babe's James Cromwell). To be honest, having grown up on endless reruns of the more famous Lassie TV series and big-screen movies, I wasn't expecting much from Thunder in the Valley, particularly after reading about how poorly it was received by audiences back in 1947--audiences who, one must admit, were probably far more open back then to a warm, sentimental tale about fathers and sons and dogs (and by that I don't mean those ticket buyers were less sophisticated--just less self-conscious and "ironic," and more readily receptive to that kind of story, and storytelling). Very probably the specter of Lassie, in the form of rival M-G-M's highly successful series of dog pictures starring the preternaturally intelligent pooch--1943's Lassie Come Home, in which Edmund Gwenn appeared, 1945's Son of Lassie, and 1946's Courage of Lassie--influenced Darryl Zanuck and Fox to pick up Owd Bob again for a third movie version. According to studio records, Fox initially wanted to spend some of its WWII-frozen English assets and film Thunder in the Valley on location there, with Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald in the lead (as M'Adam, not Bob...), along with Peggy Cummins and Donald Crisp. Instead, various other performers were attached to the project, including Vanessa Brown and Anne Revere, before the current cast was locked in (Gwenn wasn't quite an Oscar-winner at this point; his Miracle on 34th Street would be released the same year as Thunder in the Valley), while a rather remarkably convincing Highland village was constructed in Blue Springs Valley, Utah, for the Technicolor location shooting (it certainly fooled me at first).
When filming and post-production were finished, the movie was initially released on a limited basis in July, 1947 (the studio considered the expensive color product a prestigious one, deserving of a careful build), under its original title, Bob, Son of Battle--a title that, unless you're familiar with the original novel, understandably sounds a bit awkward to the ear. Initial grosses were disastrous. According to what I've read, the studio largely blamed the b.o. failure on the title (an iffy theory, most of the time), contending ticket buyers were going in to Bob, Son of Battle expecting a war picture, of all things. So, the movie was unceremoniously yanked out of distribution, retitled to the more generic Thunder in the Valley, and released again in November, 1947 (no doubt to also capitalize on Gwenn's new-found fame with his holiday hit, Miracle). Box office receipts, however, were again anemic for Thunder in the Valley, so the movie was pulled a second time, retitled to the more gentle-sounding--but still vague and unrelated--Shepherd in the Valley, and released for the third time in 1948...to no business whatsoever (clearly Fox's Zanuck, a savvy mogul who would spend money fixing and promoting a movie if he thought it deserved it, believed in Thunder in the Valley--they didn't routinely do this kind of extensive monkeying with every title that bombed).
It's always guesswork at best as to why an audience doesn't cotton to a movie--and Thunder in the Valley's three failed released would seem to prove without a shadow of a doubt that audiences weren't interested in it. An easy conjecture might be the lack of big stars here, but I wonder if Thunder in the Valley's underlying tone of sadness and violence, particularly within Gwenn's character, may have turned off some viewers expecting a more warm-hearted family drama. Scripted by Jerome Cady (Guadalcanal Diary, Forever Amber, Call Northside 777), Thunder in the Valley has quite a few light-hearted, lovely moments that one might expect from such a story, particularly an inspired scene of tranquil, lyrical rural bliss when the beleaguered Davie plays the fiddle at the cozy Moore house, as Maggie literally swoons and closes her eyes in heady, romantic supplication to the moment (the inserted shots of a contented Bob at his master's feet, laying by the fire, while James Moore smiles in appreciation of his home life, tops off the scene). Unabashedly, unashamedly sentimental moments like that frequently crop up within the well-structured script (Mrs. Moore dying to the strains of Davie's Those Endearing Young Charms, followed by an achingly beautiful shot of Bob, standing in the pouring rain by a gravestone at her funeral, should put a lump in your throat...if you're at least human).
Satisfying the action/adventure element audiences frequently expect with an animal picture, the two climatic herding trial competitions found in Thunder in the Valley are models of suspenseful moviemaking. Prior to this assignment, competent action director Louis King (Charlie Chan in Egypt, Bulldog Drummond's Revenge, The Way of All Flesh) had scored two critical and commercial successes with animal-centered dramas Thunderhead, Son of Flicka and Smoky, so it's no surprise that Zanuck snagged him for a family drama that absolutely depended on the success of these two critical animal sequences. I couldn't find any info on who trained the dogs playing Bob and Red Wull, but they're remarkable creatures to watch, each trained to closely resemble their characters' distinct personalities (the snarling Red Wull is not a dog you'd want to hug...but, like Gwenn, you wind up feeling sorry for him when his fate is sealed...), with King giving us enough time to readily see how different each dog's temperament is in how they herd the sheep: Bob, gentle, and Red Wull, vicious and cutting. I also don't know who decided to keep incidental music off the soundtrack during these deathly-quiet scenes, but it was absolutely the right choice, with King's dynamically-arranged frames suspensefully cut with almost surgical precision by editor Nick De Maggio (and no doubt hands-on Zanuck himself, too).
Those herding scenes, while certainly gripping just from a purely visceral standpoint, are also dramatically loaded, containing the elements of pain and violence and sadness found in Jerome Cady's script (one wonders how Cady's suicide a year later factors into the movie's often pessimistic, depressing tone...particularly when he wrote a later-excised scene for this script where M'Adam contemplates killing himself). The script is very clever at the opening of the movie, tricking us into thinking that kindly, crafty, loveable Edmund Gwenn is the pacifist who doesn't want to engage the vengeful farmers in violence, while we infer that impatient Davie is the pugnacious hot-head. However, the scene turns vaguely uncomfortable--as the movie increasingly does--when Gwenn threatens McCallister with violence if he doesn't do as he's told--a threat that Gwenn later carries out to the extreme when he savagely whips the boy (I'll bet nobody wanted to see Santa Claus whipping someone in 1947...). Gwenn's portrayal of M'Adam (pronounced "MacAdam" in the movie) is far more complicated--and problematic--than it first appears. Throughout the movie, we're continually asked to understand a man most of us would avoid like the plague: a violent, drunken liar with a needling, sarcastic tongue who has nothing good to say about anyone, including his son. And yet...we can't help but feel pity for him ("the devil in him," we come to understand, is his overwhelming grief at the loss of his wife); eventually, we even come to admire the fierce consistency of his mulish obstinacy (that admiration helped along by the James Moore character's calm acceptance--and even appreciation, at times--of M'Adam's seemingly onerous faults). Gwenn effortlessly swings between pathetic self-pity, genuine regret, sincere desire to reform...and right into proud, violent rejection of those feelings, and an overriding suspicion and scorn for any indication that he might be letting his guard down--even at the movie's happy ending. It's a remarkable performance by Gwenn, miles removed from his same year's iconic Oscar-winning Santa Claus role, and one that gives Thunder in the Valley its rather unexpected--and most welcome--grit.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.