Taking Issue with A Boy and His Dog (1975)

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A guest post provided by former TCM intern, Alexandra Greenway.

To view A Boy and His Dog click here.

A Boy and His Dog follows 18-year-old Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog, Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), as they scavenge for women in the dystopian Wild West in the year 2024. The film is directed by L. Q. Jones, who is probably best known as a member of Sam Peckinpah’s troop of stock actors, appearing in his Klondike series (1960–1961), Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Peckinpah was known for his violent films, some of which including Straw Dogs (1971), garnered controversy based on their content. It follows then that Jones would take the same violent approach to his own filmmaking, as A Boy and His Dog is equally gruesome. It opens with Vic finding a woman after she’s been raped and beaten to near death. Vic, despondent, makes no effort to save her and instead whines that the previous party could have at least left her alive so that he, too, could rape her. So despite the innocuous title, Jones’s film deals with some disturbing material, especially with regard to its treatment of women.

The movie isn’t all about rape (thank God?). Blood sniffs out Quilla June (Susanne Benton) in an underground bunker. Vic captures her while she’s undressing and after interruptions by some raiders and possible mutants, they have sex. Quilla June seems strangely enthusiastic about their copulating and talks about “love” in their post-coital pillow talk, or rather, dirty mattress on the floor of an abandoned gymnasium talk. Vic engages and agrees that, sure – they can be in love. And then Quilla June conks him on the head and escapes to her home “Downunder.”

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Less “G’day mate” and more “God Bless the U.S.A.,” Downunder is a colony of survivors who have created their own status quo in simulated small town America. Vic, again despondent – now at the escape of his “lover” – abandons Blood and sneaks into Downunder in attempt to find and re-capture Quilla June. Well, it turns out she had lured him down there in order for her father, The Mayor (Jason Robards), to use him as a human sperm bank for all of the town’s young brides. It turns out, unfortunately, that the artificial biosphere created for Downunder has rendered all the men impotent.

SPOILER ALERT

Well, Quilla June, attempting to usurp power from her father, rescues Vic. In their escape, she commands him to shoot The Mayor and his cabinet, including their massive robot executioner (because what sci-fi film is not complete without at least one robot). For reasons unexplained, Vic does nothing. Vic and Quilla June narrowly escape and find Blood, starving and on the verge of death. Quilla June suggests they leave him behind, and then Vic and Blood decide that no, instead they will kill Quilla June and then eat her. I wish that I were kidding.  

Now, despite my perhaps…harsh…review, the movie does have some interesting aspects. The overall mise-en-scène has gone on to inspire the entire sci-fi drama. In 1975, A Boy and His Dog was four years ahead of George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) – the seminal sci-fi meets Wild West blockbuster. Aesthetically, A Boy and His Dog was way ahead of its time. What’s more, the surrealist Americana of Downunder seems an apt, and somewhat ageless critique of culture and politics in the U.S. The film could be read as an allegory for toxic masculinity, the American Revolution, the Civil War and probably much, much more. In these respects it’s an important film to be aware of.

But, gosh darnit, it’s about rape. And as a woman and a human being, I don’t really like rape as a central theme. Actually, I abhor it. As a woman especially, I find it hard not to take this film personally. When I see a woman dying and the main character whine about not having anything left to rape, I immediately think this movie isn’t for me. When I see Quilla June used as bait and surrendering herself to Vic, I question her motives and those of the filmmakers. And, when I see her attempt to usurp power fail (because Vic can’t shoot straight), I wonder the real reasons behind these narrative decisions (as a point of fact, the film ends in similar fashion to the novella of the same name by Harlan Ellison). Movies like this, about worlds where women clearly do not belong, are not meant for me. They weren’t created with me in mind. But this isn’t the first time this has happened. And I’m a white woman. People of color and especially women of color have to endure this treatment in film All. The. Time. So what? We just don’t watch any movies made before a certain time? That’s an option, but then you’d also lose an entire wealth of cinema. Some movies have inspired American culture so much that cutting them out entirely seems impossible. And hard. Especially because some of them, we love. And let’s be honest, we don’t need to look back that far to see objectionable material. John Hughes, for example. Those movies? Hella sexist, hella racist. Remember that the beloved classic Sixteen Candles (1984) includes a parodic Asian character (Long Duck Dong…which is a real name because…?) and suggests date rape (heartthrob Jake leaves his drunk girlfriend with fourteen-year-old Ted who ends up making out with…the nearly incapacitated girlfriend).

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The truth is, most of our culturally beloved movies are extremely problematic. I’m not suggesting we stop watching them, but instead lovingly critique them. As James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other county in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” As film lovers it is our right and, particularly, our responsibility, to criticize film as a historical document. To hold it to a certain standard. We all understand, probably more than non-film lovers, the power of representation. It’s our job to make sure that if a film is meant to be viewed by everyone, it should take everyone into account. And if it doesn’t that we point out the flaws. I’m addressing A Boy and His Dog for this reason. I know people will continue to see it for a myriad of reasons, but I feel obligated to at least point out a glaring issue and question its inclusion. I’m sure others in the film community will do the same and I appreciate those efforts, so that we know what we are in for as we screen a film, regardless of when it was released.

Alexandra Greenway

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15 Responses Taking Issue with A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Posted By Doug : October 19, 2017 8:06 am

Alexandra (and Christian) thank you for this post about a troubling film which I’ve never liked. If anyone other than Ellison had written it, I doubt that it would ever had been made, but his name was pretty big back in the early 1970′s.
A quote from Penn Jillette:”I have Free Will, and I do all of the rape that I want, which is NONE.” That’s where I and I think most men stand on the subject-it is offensive and repellent to us.
“A Boy And His Dog”-I think that the film probably echoes the beliefs of L.Q. Jones more than Ellison-that Jones took Ellison’s basic novella and turned it to the dark side, so to speak. So what had been bleak became repugnant.
One of my favorite books from that early 1970′s era is “Assignment Nor’ Dyren” by Sydney J. Van Scyoc, which uses science fiction to explore gender roles, women vs chauvinistic “Archie Bunker”-type men
in an alien culture. It’s much better than my description, and is NOT a heavy handed Feminist (wo)manifesto. But it is sort of an antidote to the society shown in “A Boy And His Dog”.

Posted By Christine in GA : October 19, 2017 1:13 pm

Yes, the women are treated badly like in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE but I have a slightly different take on it and maybe the movie doesn’t get that point across. If I recall correctly because it has been years since I’ve seen the film or read the story, in the Harlan Ellison version, Quilla June (who, after all, did lure Vic to Downunder) is killed to save the starving, near-death Blood who had been more loyal and closer to Vic than anyone. “Who does a boy love?” asks Vic. “A boy loves his dog.” This is the story to me. It’s ultimately a story about the loyalty and love between a boy and his dog.

Posted By mdr : October 19, 2017 2:00 pm

I don’t know about your statement “truth is, most of our culturally beloved movies are extremely problematic” (most?) but I agree wholeheartedly that rape is “glorified” in far too many films that are considered classics, like the ones you and “Christine in GA” have mentioned. Real men find rape abhorrent and are saddened when some otherwise ‘respected’ directors feel the need to include (vs. imply, if truly needed for the story or character development) such scenes in their films. As far as other types of violence, I’m not a fan of movies that employ it gratuitously either.

Posted By Gamera2000 : October 19, 2017 11:52 pm

A very good reading of what has always been, at best, a problematic film. In Ellison’s story it comes across as much more of a dark tale of survival, with the bleak ending occurring because without his dog Blood, Vic was in capable of surviving in this world. The telepathic dog was, in the end, most intelligent and self aware character.

Years ago. I read a similar review of this film by the late great science fiction writer Joanna Russ, who raised exactly the same criticism. She was especially hard on what she saw as the film’s flippant treatment of both the rapes, and the fate of Quilla June which is treated in the film in a manner that can only be described as flippant. After all we have the awful last line of the film spoken by Blood: “Well I’d say she certainly had marvelous judgement, Albert, if not particularly good taste.” which Ellison hated.

Ellison later expended this into a graphic novel VIC AND BLOOD where Vic develops guilt over what happened to Quilla and dies at the end as if in atonement.

Posted By George : October 20, 2017 4:21 pm

I vote that we ban the word “problematic,” which has become an overused cliche, like “at the end of the day” or “outside the box” or “at the top of his game.”

Instead, maybe film buffs should learn something about history, and not expect a 42-year-old movie to conform to today’s “enlightened” notions. The enlightened notions of today will be considered barbaric in a few decades. Count on it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 20, 2017 4:59 pm

George, I’m at the top of my game when I use words like “problematic.” Of course, I think creating a new paradigm can be a good thing but at the end of the day I won’t cry over spilt milk so I will avoid using “problematic” like the plague. Just trying think outside of the box. Let’s run this idea up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.

Posted By Doug : October 20, 2017 5:56 pm

Comments that make me laugh? It’s a whole new day!

Posted By George : October 20, 2017 7:56 pm

Greg, this sounds like a good idea to bring to the table. Or maybe we should just kick it down the road, like we did back in the day. Of course, that might put us on a slippery slope, which may not leave us sufficiently woke.

Posted By George : October 20, 2017 8:02 pm

But maybe that ship has sailed. (Knew I had left one out.)

Posted By Greg Ferrara : October 21, 2017 8:43 am

Well that about wraps that up. Not to beat a dead horse, but tomorrow I’ll start a clean slate and turn over a new leaf. Time is of the essence, but if I play my cards right, I should have a brand new lease on life. Thanks!

Posted By George : October 21, 2017 4:21 pm

Film historian Mark Harris tweeted that he rewatched DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and wondered what would happen if it had been released in a world where Twitter existed:

“For contemporary moviegoing audiences in our more evolved society, Dressed to Kill would probably be somewhat problematic because (1/573)”

I’m afraid he’s not exaggerating.

Posted By Chris : October 25, 2017 4:07 pm

At the time the story came out, Ellison took a lot of heat over the violence towards women. The same when the movie came out. Ellison(who is a big supporter of feminism) responded with the fact that when the “Big War” comes and we’re back to fighting for scraps, the strongest will always get their way, whether it’s for food, water or rape. And, like it or not, most women couldn’t compete against men in that environment. Doesn’t make it right. It’s just the way things would be. Civilization back to Square One.

Posted By George : October 25, 2017 4:21 pm

“And, like it or not, most women couldn’t compete against men in that environment.”

A woman can kill with a gun as easily as a man. (That’s why they’re called “equalizers.”) But if we’re talking about hand to hand combat, yes, men will usually have the edge. Not always, but in most cases.

I appreciated the honesty of the movie SIRACIO for showing a woman — an FBI agent, no less — losing a physical fight with a strong and well trained man. If memory serves, Emily Blunt gets punched out by a couple of men in that movie. And there’s nothing she can do about it.

Posted By swac44 : October 28, 2017 5:40 pm

Problematic…or probleMAGIC?

OK, I’ll show myself out…

Posted By George : October 28, 2017 8:46 pm

People who complain about things being problematic — which is another way to say “politically incorrect” — should be strapped in a chair, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to watch every blaxploitation movie of the ’70s. Hopefully they won’t suffer heart attacks or strokes.

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