Retro Review: A Boy and His Dog (1975.)
After the passing of American writer Harlan Ellison, we examine the cult classic based on his work – A Boy and His Dog.
A Boy and His Dog earned a cult following from its mix of morbid satire, dark themes and imagination. I’d meant to check it out for years, but never crossed paths with a cheap copy. A few weeks back it popped up on our “What’s New on VOD” series. It is a sad coincidence that my viewing of A Boy and His Dog nearly coincided with the death of the man who created it. Harlan Ellison was a provocative, mercurial man as well as a prolific and talented writer. I’ve always had an interest in his works, if not for his politics. One of the only films directly adapted from his written work (he wrote a veritable encyclopedia’s worth of original screenplays) it has a unique place in his canon. The film is much like its author: filled with vision and incisive commentary but also with problematic ideas and some real nastiness.
A Boy and His Dog (1975.)
Decades after the Cold War got hot and blew everything to smithereens, an uneducated young man named Vic (Don Johnson) and his highly educated psychic dog named Blood wander the wasteland. Vic’s only care is to chase women and Blood’s only concern is to secure food. The two eek out a rough living until Blood discovers a young woman, Quilla June (Susanne Benton), with a strange smell. Turns out she’s from a wealthy fallout shelter…one that’s desperate for young men. It seems Vic has found his calling, but Blood also smells danger on the pretty stranger.
Nice Nuclear Wasteland You Got Here…
A Boy and His Dog manages to weave threadbare, budget settings into an intriguing world. Both the wasteland and the shelter society are striking. Dystopian films really live or die based on if the world being shown grabs you. The same goes for satires. A Boy and His Dog gets a lot out of a little thanks to its sets and well-crafted dialogue.
The concept of nuclear war driving the elite underground while the savage rule the wastes is nothing new. It wasn’t new in 1975 when Ellison penned the short story that would unfold into the novella A Boy and His Dog. Heck, the 1956 film World Without End has pretty much the same plot, where decadent but effete underground elites need to recruit strapping men from the surface. The difference is in the utter nihilism of Ellison’s story. While earlier films tried to strike up jingoistic bravado about how we’d science the heck out of the problem, Ellison assumes we’d more likely screw it up even worse. Instead of learning new lessons, A Boy and His Dog posits we’d retreat back to reliable mistakes. There’s a refreshing, unrelenting wave of misanthropy to the whole shebang, a dedicated jaundice to the ideals of the 1950’s. If only this generalized misanthropy wasn’t accompanied by rampant misogyny as well, it may have worked.
Shame If Something Happened to It!
A recurring criticism to A Boy and His Dog is that it hates women. I agree with that. Sure, the movie takes a dim view of all things human, but women are treated horrendously. Vic’s first thought upon seeing Quilla June is to rape the heck out of her. When mutants attack and he fends them off (from presumably raping her worse) she swoons into his arms and they have sex. That’s a world record for the onset time of Stockholm Syndrome!
It gets worse: June is a sleeper agent (ahem) who is headhunting sperm donors for the vault. So she’s a manipulative sex pot. I guess that excuses the ending where Vic murders her and serves her to his dog with hardly a second thought. She had it coming, amiright? The whole thing trades upon pretty much every lazy, brutish stereotype for women you can think of. I had a hard time getting invested in the adventures of Raper Vic and his amoral dog, no matter how interesting the sci-fi trappings were.
Scrapheap of Moral History.
A Boy and His Dog did put its stamp on the popular conception of post-WW3 life. From the Fallout series of games to Mad Max, you can see the conventions it laid down becoming the norms of the genre. That being said, being first isn’t always the same as being best. Despite all of the dark humor and wild visions, A Boy and His Dog is a product of a time and place that got left behind. The rampant sexism taints the product, and the satire comes off as mean-spirited. By trying to kick the generation before it in the teeth so hard, A Boy and His Dog winds up setting itself up for the disdain of the generation that follows it.