This engaging independent science fiction film makes up for its exploitative nature by being an authentic genre milestone. There had been sober and not-so-sober post-apocalypse pictures, but few took on this show's attitude. The cynical survivalist-fatalist philosophy seen here would soon become the standard for a wave of movies depicting how nasty life would be after World War Three. Or Four.
A Boy and His Dog was premiered at the 1975 Filmex Science Fiction Marathon 1 and became the hit of the show. It had two things missing 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.
A Boy and His Dog would be just another derivative 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 with the short-tempered fuse. Blood constantly makes remarks about Vic's relative stupidity, lack of perspective and one-track search for 'female companionship': i.e., female victims of any stripe to ravage.
The ugly-sounding premise is legitimized because A Boy and His Dog matches its apocalyptic theme with an appropriate warping of values. In earlier doomsday pictures like Panic in Year Zero or No Blade of Grass, entire plotlines are submerged under debate about whether the threat of extinction is a good enough excuse to bend some of the rules of polite society: property rights, or due process for crimes. It's arguable that the few audiences that saw Cornell Wilde's Blade ignored his preachy ecological message, and instead loved the concept of a world gone wild, where theft and murder were prerequisites for survival.
Ellison's story starts with that situation already firmly established; Vic is a product of his times interested only in finding some canned peaches and his next female partner - ironically, his pet is the repository of historical context - if not for Blood, Vic would have long forgotten that there were two nuclear wars, or that there was even once a 'normal' world.
The 'Lassie' equation gets a good workout here. Blood augments his ability to mentally scan his surroundings for danger with his superior sense of smell, allowing him to provide the gun-toting Vic with the information needed to prevail in fights. It's a boy-dog relationship unlike any other. In one scene Vic makes love while Blood waits, figuring out the conjugation and derivation for the word 'copulate.'
The first half of the picture is a series of savage skirmishes between Vic and various competitors in the wasteland. They avoid the 'Screamers', ominous blue-glowing monsters (unseen) 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 is not only desirable, but actually eager to make it with Vic. The resulting confusion causes Vic to risk his symbiotic partnership with Blood to chase 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, with an authoritarian troika called 'the committee' ruling a waning paradise through draconian laws. 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 girls all wear schoolmarm clothing and curtsey, etc. Underground living has resulted in a pallor necessitating heavy makeup. Many wear whiteface clown-type paint, an idea that plays as a less-than optimal attempt to cue a broader satire once the show goes underground. Vic is policed by a robotic keeper named Michael (Hal Baylor) seemingly borrowed from Westworld. Vic's dream of playing super-stud to an entire race of women goes sour when the committee hooks him up to a mechanical semen-extracting machine. It's another element that would be in extreme bad taste, if it wasn't such a logical part of the story.
Quilla June is the original bait to lure Vic into The Committee's procreation scheme. She really wants him to use his guns to stage a revolution, but all Vic wants is to return to the surface and resume his nomadic lifestyle. Again, the underplayed cynical ending is too central to the theme to be a cheap twist. It carries the bond between Vic and Blood to a logical end that in 1975 was a little bit beyond what the public expected. Ten years later, the same (if more glamorous) finale was used for the Prizzi's Honor, and it was called a sophisticated black comedy.
Director L.Q. Jones is an actor known especially for his Sam Peckinpah Westerns, often playing scavenger outlaws with a similarity to A Boy and His Dog's Vic. He and character actor / producer Alvy Moore's film is an ironclad commercial winner because its ideas are expressed in uniformly exploitable elements - violence, nudity, a totalitarian state, rebellious young leads. And, of course, the unique telepathic Lassie idea. No matter how they released their film, word-of-mouth would surely have worked in their favor. The picture appealed to the so-called unsophisticated audiences who want their 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 and a few key props. The underground society is achieved via night exteriors in ordinary, sterile-looking modern buildings. After Vic's initial entrance through some industrial settings, it's interesting how quickly we accept, without mattes or other effects, a perpetually dark underworld with green grass and trees. The costuming underground gets 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 narrator-trailermaker 70s renaissance man Tim McIntire, and after a couple of sharp exchanges between the mutt and Don Johnson, we accept the Dr. Doolittle situation faster than you can say Francis the Talking Mule.
Don Johnson was at the time known as the star of rather cheesy exploitation pictures like The Harrad Experiment and The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, so his character's enthusiasm in this film to be the big stud is almost a critique of his previous filmography. Suzanne Benton landed roles with Robert Altman and Mike Nichols earlier in her career; although A Boy and His Dog is well into her career slide, it's a healthy if exploitative part. Gratuitous nudity was almost a prerequisite for an actress in the 70s, something that now has completely changed.
It's tempting to think that Jason Robards came to this show through L.Q. Jones' Peckinpah connection, but Jones was a well-connected actor from before his association with his definitive director. Robards probably was probably attracted by the quality in the script. The no-nonsense casting extends to stalwart Charles McGraw as the preacher in the underground world. A Boy and His Dog is a good example of a quality picture from actors with ambitions to produce.
First Run Features' DVD of A Boy and His Dog is kind a re-issue of an early Lumivision/First Run disc, one that came out only in a CD-like crystal case. It's the same okay but unspectacular presentation, a clean print letterboxed to 2:35 but given an encoding that today could easily be improved upon. The menus have been changed, but it's basically the same package. It's a pleasure when an early disc substantially improved for a later edition, as with Blue Underground's Q The Winged Serpent, to name one example. This minor classic deserved better. The original Techniscope images are easy to read in dark scenes, but show a lot of grain and digital texturing overall. Color could be greatly improved as well. After my experience seeing what can be done with the restoration of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, it's easy to see that what was needed here is a new film restoration from the two-perf Techniscope original. It's entirely possible that the producers simply assigned the new DVD distribution to First Run and supplied the same old elements on a take-it-or-leave-it basis; if L.Q. Jones still has some say over his film, it would be wise for him to restore it for future use while doing so is still possible. With present technology, new 35mm prints can also probably look much better than his originals.
The DVD carries over the old extras, which include a pair of trailers. The first is a stylistic ripoff of the trailer for A Clockwork Orange, which the producers wisely saw as sharing their target audience. The second is a more conventional montage preceded by an art-film barrage of drooling critical accolades. In both cases, the marketing savvy in view is much better than if A Boy and His Dog had been released by A.I.P. or New World - the original trailer work for The Final Programme and Mad Max are nothing to hoot about.
L.Q. Jones, cameraman John Morrill, and critic Charles Champlin provide a lively commentary that has to be listened to carefully. The talkative Jones fills in the kind of detail that will make the show interesting for those who have seen it too many times. He also exaggerates wildly - 500 auditions for Blood's voice; the dog almost nominated for an Oscar, etc..
The menu graphics are the same from the older disc, but First Run has remade nice covers, using the original poster art on the back and the more familiar 'happy face' nuclear mushroom cloud on the cover. The graphic presented on Amazon says 'Special Edition' and lists Robert Heinlein for liner notes, which are not part of the present package. Was First Run originally trying to upgrade the presentation?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Boy and His Dog rates:
1. .. the Filmex marathon was
programmed, I believe,
by author-critic Bill Warren. I worked in the film prep rooms with the UCLA crew and heard his name
a lot, although at the time I never met him.