A post-apocalypse jet-black comedy drama starring Don Johnson, then in his mid twenties but playing teenager Vic, scavenging in a desert landscape under which lie buried the remains of the USA, A Boy and His Dog is a largely forgotten and unjustly neglected dusty gem despite having won the 1976 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The year is 2024, a generation after the long cold war turned very hot in the five days of World War Four.
Taken from a Harlan Ellison short story first published in 1969 and later expanded, it was released in late 1975 and directed with a certain flair by the prolific actor L Q Jones, one of only two feature films where he chose to step behind the camera, better known as the face of a hundred westerns though to genre fans as Sheriff Bill Pool of The Beast Within, and the result resembles the later Mad Max films minus the cars as directed by Federico Fellini.
Vic’s constant companion is Blood, a shaggy dog with whom he is in constant telepathic communication. Only Vic can hear the thoughts of Blood which is probably just as well as the dog, laconically and acerbically voiced by Tim McIntire, has a very low opinion of everything and everyone they encounter, particularly anyone who might come between him and Vic.
The two enjoy a mutually-beneficial relationship as Vic relies on Blood’s senses of smell and hearing to avoid danger and find food while Blood takes advantage of Vic’s opposable thumbs and his readiness with firearms. Their daily life consists of looking for food and a suitably compliant woman Vic, however he has no qualms about obtaining either of his comforts by force as is made clear.
In a derelict school near one of the shanties that dot the landscape, Vic finds the mysterious Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) but they are interrupted and trapped by the return of the marauders for whom it is home. Hiding in an air vent, Quilla tells Vic about an underground settlement with plentiful food and women, and despite Blood’s warnings Vic follows Quilla to Downunder.
Leaving Blood at the top of the entrance shaft, he discovers the pristine buried remains of a small town populated by a gallery of Fellini-esque caricatures who have in fact used Quilla, actually the daughter of the town leader (Jason Robards), to lure Vic as breeding stock for the overwhelmingly female population to whom their own men cannot provide.
As a scathing indictment of smalltown America and frontierism, this is an entertaining and bizarre comedy drama of the blackest variety, and for its breathtaking audacity the final scene alone makes the film worth watching. For some modern eyes, the apparent misogyny and the treatment of animals in the film may be difficult to stomach but given the dramatic context and the story being told it is certainly no worse than depictions in many police thrillers made in the same era.
A decade before he became an international star in Miami Vice, Johnson is a committed lead who embraces the more unsympathetic aspects of the character, particularly in a scene which demonstrates the film is as unconcerned about whether or not the audience warms it as the deliberately defiant loner Vic. Johnson went on to win the 1975 Saturn award for best actor in a science fiction film.
Even in the more permissive seventies it is unlikely a major studio would permit the ostensible hero of a film to attempt to force himself upon his leading lady at gunpoint without consequence, but independently produced by Jones’ own company LQ/JAF such interference was not a consideration, and making the most of his limited budget he delivers a stylish parable.
Interestingly, it was not this scene which the dependably vociferous Ellison apparently objected most loudly but the finale, not in the implied actions of Vic which are faithful to the source, but in the dialogue which substitutes for Vic’s originally more honest response for his choice: “A boy loves his dog,” referring to the joke where the characters now dismiss Quilla as a “moronic, hateful chauvinist last line, which I despise.”
The performance of Blood is frankly astonishing, onscreen for the majority of the film and participating fully in every scene as though he had received personal coaching from Lee Strasberg. According to the credits only one dog was used throughout the film and it has to be one of the best canine performances ever put on celluloid, displaying markedly different attitudes towards Vic and Quilla and utterly convincing when wounded.
In combination with Tim McIntire’s caustic voiceover the sum of the parts definitely exceeds the whole, nor was it his only contribution, with much of the soundtrack including the title song provided by McIntire, his band including The Doors’ Ray Manzarek on keyboards.
Sadly not currently available in the UK but easily ordered from Germany, this European Blu-ray edition presents a clean but not pristine transfer that looks very much of its time, the sole additional feature a trailer which indicates it was consciously marketed to attract the same audience as Stanley Kubrick‘s A Clockwork Orange, fresh in the memory from 1971. The non-anamorphic Techniscope format used by Jones was fashionable throughout the sixties and seventies for directors of vision working on a tight budget, and was used by Sergio Leone for all his westerns.
Unlike the more expensive anamorphic widescreen formats, Techniscope had the benefits of having no optical distortion, however, the small negative size meant images tend to be soft and grainy which is particularly noticeable in Blu-ray transfers but which also, to modern eyes, places the film firmly in the mid-seventies in look and tone, fitting easily into the canon of post-apocalypse dystopia and environmental catastrophe, a lo-fi riposte to The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973) and Silent Running (1972), the underground society built around a cult of Americana aping the patriotic speeches broadcast from home of the latter.
Released shortly before Logan’s Run (1976) and Damnation Alley (1977), based on the novels by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson and Roger Zelazny respectively, the themes of A Boy and His Dog are paid forward most specifically in the world of the aforementioned Mad Max as well as Night of the Comet (1984), an alternative look at how teenagers would behave in a dying world (sisters Reggie and Sam go shopping rather than hunting and raping) and particularly Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987) in the forced repopulation of the planet where fertile men become a valuable commodity.
Very much of its time, A Boy and His Dog reflects certain themes and preoccupations which would be impossible to replicate in a modern iteration, and it’s safe to say a modern remake or the long rumoured followup A Girl and Her Dog would lack much of the visceral impact of Jones’s film. As such, open minded fans of seventies retro will find much to enjoy in this markedly non-politically correct thriller which deserves much greater recognition.