A Boy and His Dog
L.Q. Jones’ 1975 adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s award winning novella, A Boy and His Dog, is an oft-overlooked cinematic peculiarity which exists within a multi-layered world of conflict. Set in the fallout of World War IV, which we are told lasted only five days, it takes an acerbic and cynical look at the constructs of society, and the parallels that exist between civility and base desire. The film has been both lauded and maligned, both for its witty and astute vision, as well as its perceived misogynistic and, ultimately, misanthropic stance. The issue of misogyny formed a long-running disagreement between Jones and Ellison; creating yet another conflict that arose from the ashes of this post-apocalyptic nightmare.
In a dusty, barren landscape, 18 year old Vic (Don Johnson) travels alongside Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), his canine companion. The two possess the ability to communicate through telekinesis, one of the advancements of the age. It is apparent from the offset that they have a tense, but symbiotic relationship; Vic provides Blood with food, whilst Blood sniffs out women for Vic. An underground bunker is located and Blood urges Vic to leave it, stating that “They left an ugly mess”. Vic, undeterred and sexually excited makes his way inside once the coast is clear. A woman lies naked, brutally lacerated and dying. Vic sits back, looking disgusted, but the motivation behind his repulsion is not through empathy. A corpse lies suspended in the background, as the boy grimaces in annoyance and despair. Vic emerges, leaving the girl where she is. Blood jokingly states “Ain’t that a shame?” to which Vic responds, “Hell, they didn’t have to cut her. She could have been used two or three more times”.
It is this sucker punch of a line which removes us from the comfortable, boyish adventure which we may have anticipated, based on the title and initial aesthetic. The revelation that Vic is a brute and a rapist creates the first real conflict of the feature, the one between viewer and protagonist. Can Vic be blamed for satisfying his carnal desires in such an unfathomably violent manner? Will it be possible to empathise with such a creature, whose journey we are on? A Boy and His Dog is a film which contains many questions such as this. The façade of simplicity which cloaks a viper’s nest of difficult and introspective points of contemplation becomes the hub of the film.
War and conflict, society and spectatorship; this is what A Boy and His Dog is made from. Unlikely bedfellows for a standard yarn, but Ellison’s wry manipulation of title and presentation allow for the impact of the unpleasantness to be accentuated even further. Vic and Blood make their way onwards from the dying girl, as a marauding group can be seen fighting in the distance. This is a world of rags and makeshift vehicles, one which would come to influence the Mad Max series a few years later. It could be the Mojave Desert, it could be Mars. Every indication of life as we know it has been removed. Scraps and husks are all that exist. This is not the crumbling metropolis of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend; this is the perpetual nothingness of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Vic spends the opening moments observing others, but these instances are supplemented by a scene in which Vic himself is being watched. A pair of immaculate trousers, with a triple stitch and a crease; completely at odds with the threadbare garments of the film’s other inhabitants, can be seen from the knees down. Plastic protectors cover shoes from the dust and sand. It is clear that these are not ‘Rovers’, or wandering gangs, but something altogether more sinister. A simple shot of the legs, as Vic makes his way through the distance, is followed by a disembodied voice. “That’s our boy. Put out the cheese” it says.
The aforementioned moment creates an indescribable chill. Vic is unaware he is being watched. Even in the vast nothingness of the desert, where he feels he has the upper hand thanks to Blood’s abilities, he is the subject of observation. The audience are not provided with more than a glimpse either, showcasing who is in control here. The ultimate power belongs to those who can spectate without being noticed; this is how man has hunted his way to the top of the food chain, and it is how he will, ultimately, be his own undoing.
Blood speaks with Vic about going “over the hill”, to an idyll of which Vic is sceptical and unsure. Blood is adamant that it exists and urges Vic to accompany him. Here we see the dependent nature of their relationship. Blood opens up, proclaiming his fragility and age. Vic is less forthcoming, but we can tell that he would easily walk into danger, were it not for Blood’s forewarnings.
The idea that there is a better life elsewhere is a common one, especially when there is turmoil and difficulties on home soil. Vic is dubious as to whether such a utopia exists and mocks Blood for his belief in it, creating one of the rare moments in which Vic asserts intellectual superiority over his dog. There is a patriarchal nature to their relationship. Blood serves as a teacher, a guide, a disciplinarian and a friend. Vic is very much the student, but one who feels as if he is surpassing his master. Ellison has stated that Vic and Blood represent the two extremes of his personality; one being the immature oaf, the other an intellectual misanthrope.
Sex is also central element to A Boy and His Dog, and is represented in several forms throughout the feature; mainly as a perfunctionary need within the construct of the post-apocalyptic environment, such as food or arms. It can also be seen as a mechanised and solemn affair (see Vic’s fate in Topeka), or as the initial stages of a relationship. Sexual violence needs to be treated separately, for it is an act of aggression, but they all form parts of the puzzle. When Vic visits a ramshackle town, he watches a movie. It is a pornographic feature, and a collection of bored, tired looking men make up the audience (rumour has it that L.Q. Jones is one of the performers in the film being shown). The surrealism of the flickering images; cracked celluloid over fragments of nudity and suggestiveness have no effect on the weary spectators. They watch with disinterest and apathy, in the manner of which millions do today as they gaze impartially at an endless barrage of sexual images on their own screens. A strangely prophetic moment which dwells amongst this staged apocalypse. In contrast to this, men line up at another part of the encampment. One trades what appear to be machinery parts with a topless prostitute, who subsequently leads him inside. The queue of men seem no more excited at the prospect of sex than the audience at the screening.
The introduction of a female character, Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), creates a new element of conflict to the group. Vic becomes enamoured, something Blood senses as a threat. She gives herself willingly to Vic, after he saves her life. This is something new for him, and, as he slowly becomes less guarded, she persuades him to accompany her to a subterranean colony in which she lives. Her hair, clothes and skin are immaculate. She is the polar opposite of Vic; delicate, provocative and sensual, therefore, he finds it impossible to resist her. She speaks of separating Blood and Vic, suggesting that he wouldn’t ‘fit in’ down below. Blood is very vocal in expressing his displeasure at the situation, chastising Vic for his “Headlong plunge into stupidity”.
In the subterranean world, known as Topeka, Vic finds a ghostly, sterile town, straight out of ‘50s propaganda. The American Dream in full swing. An omnipotent semblance of Tannoy loudspeakers play sounds from the old world, before breaking into ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’. Topeka is a lush and fruitful world in which food is plentiful, and people live together in a structured, safe and loving society. At least at first glance that’s how it seems. Here is when Ellison and Jones take the story to a different level altogether. The Topeka segment of A Boy and His Dog contains some of the most significant political and societal analysis of ‘70s Science Fiction.
Here is a society which has chosen to distance themselves from the apocalypse by turning their back on nature (in this case, sunlight). Taking to the underground, they have attempted to rebuild what they had in the past, yet simultaneously casting off certain civilities. This allows them to act as judge, jury and executioner over their citizens, even for crimes as seemingly innocuous as ‘lack of respect’, ‘wrong attitude’ and ‘failure to obey authority’. An ostensibly perfect society used as the front for just another dictatorship. Morals and decency are hijacked and used as a means to acquire ultimate control. They click here speak of the continued growth and development of their beloved town, one which they intend to maintain at any cost.
A concurrent theme in many post-apocalyptic or dystopian features is the nature in which people regroup after their existing societal framework collapses. Some go it alone, or with a single dependent, as Vic does. Some form wild groups, such as the marauding gangs we were introduced to in the first act; constructivist anarchism. Their ties are slightly looser, and more precarious than most, with trust and dependency being pretty far down the list of priorities. The head of one group we meet amongst the dunes above ground dresses in the manner of an African chieftain, representing the tribal nature that resides in us all. These groups are presented as animalistic; dangerous and resourceful.
Topeka is the other extreme. They pretend that all is well and perfectly normal; a civilised and advanced society which is happy to have a governing body in charge. The inhabitants of the town are mostly portrayed as subservient and meek, showing signs of life only when it comes to exuding feelings of contented joy and support of their community. Subversion is not an option when the imposing concept of the ‘farm’ lies dangling above their head. This metaphorical Sword of Damocles is the imminent prospect of execution. A very real and persistent threat, bestowed upon the Topeka citizens alongside a casual array of community activities, such as pickled fruit competitions, and architectural meetings.
The women of Topeka cannot become impregnated, and it is for this reason that Vic has been lured down by Quilla June. The ‘council’, who reign supreme, have observed and selected Vic for his virility and ‘common sense’. He is manhandled by a giant servant named Michael, a grinning, brawny lout. The inhabitants of the town all wear clown makeup, something Ellison attributes to the fact that at any given point in history, there will be peculiar styles which defy both logic and good taste.
Quilla June proclaims her designs at a seat on the council, which is greeted with ambiguity and evasiveness. This causes her to regret luring Vic down, therein completing the circle of conflict which exists within the narrative. Vic is at odds with Blood from the beginning, which is accentuated by the arrival of Quilla June, with whom Blood is in conflict with, due to the likelihood that she will dissipate the existing relationship that he relies upon for survival. Quilla Jones in in conflict with Topeka, who are now warring with Vic, which brings us back to the beginning of our series of confrontations. What Ellison is doing here is highlighting the futility and ridiculousness that exists in wartime situations, and how no one can truly benefit from a self-serving sense of righteousness. It is only when characters work with one another in A Boy and His Dog that any true progress is made.
Even as Vic tries to escape from the town, Quilla June turns on him as the aggressor, switching back to helpless damsel once she is overpowered. Vic takes her to the surface; the council barely raise an eyebrow at the carnage, death and injury which he causes in his escape. He finds Blood, half dead and starving. The two share a moment. Quilla June tries; once again, to take control of the situation, but Vic has come to an important realization. The final shot of the film mirrors the title sequence; a long horizon, an uncertain future; a boy and his dog.
It was in 1970 when L.Q. Jones decided he wanted to adapt Harlan Ellison’s novella into a feature. Ellison had been approached before, but had refused to allow the potential filmmakers the rights to the story (one filmmaker had the audacity to suggest animating Blood’s mouth), but when L.Q. Jones picked up the phone, with very little to offer, Ellison saw something in the ‘shit kicking cowboy’, as he called him. Jones was a familiar face for the author, due to his work with Sam Peckinpah, as well as a number of B-Movies which he had made in the ‘60s. Jones offered what Ellison referred to as ‘bupkis’ for the story, a few hundred dollars at best (which Ellison spent going out to dinner), but the author believed in the filmmaker and set about creating a screenplay.
Disaster struck and, for the first time in his life, Ellison was hit with a horrific case of writer’s block, which he attests to having just emerged from a particularly bad marriage. This was so severe that he couldn’t finish the screenplay, getting only thirteen pages completed. Jones goaded him, threatening that if Ellison didn’t get his act together, he would write it himself. As terrifying for the author as this was, it still couldn’t happen and Jones took the task of adapting the story for the screen.
It took Jones a year to finish the screenplay and, eventually, the film was shot outside of Barstow, California. Don Johnson had been in a number of films up unto this point, but it was as Vic that his notoriety catapulted. Jones even claims that the dog almost got awarded for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards. Tim McIntire, who also supplied the music for the film along with Ray Manzerek of the Doors, provides Blood with a unique and distinctly likeable roguish charm,. He was, however, not the first choice. James Cagney was considered at one point, but the consensus was that his voice was too recognisable, and it would lift viewers out of the film. A wise move in the end.
It all seemed to be going so well, but despite several invitations, Ellison was yet to see the final cut. Things were getting close to being irrevocably finalized and eventually, Ellison attended a screening of the film. Jones was well aware of the author’s fiery reputation. When significant changes were made to The Oscar, Ellison attempted to throw the director out of a seven story window. Ellison finally agreed to attend a screening, at which Jones was the only other attendee. After the credits rolled, Ellison was delighted with how closely Jones had stuck to the original material, citing that he couldn’t have done better himself. There was only one element which he found “both personally offensive and dangerous.”
Disgusted at the misogynistic tone, he berated Jones, unaware of the traditional Hollywood hierarchy, in which the writer is close to the bottom rung. L.Q. Jones produced the movie, along with Alvy Moore, making it very much his film. This did not deter Ellison, who objected to the dog’s attitude towards Quilla Jones, and demanded the film be recut, with the sound rerecorded. On several occasions, Blood referred to her as a ‘sow’, or a ‘cow’, which incensed the writer, who did not feel that the tone was appropriate; either in representing his material, or for the times in which they lived. Jones, whose previous positions included running a ranch in Nicaragua, was an archetypal man’s man, who saw no harm in any of it, and was reluctant to make any alterations (for financial reasons as well as artistic ones). Ellison continued to voice his disapproval, and went ballistic over alterations made to the final line of the film, which was now a cannibalistic pun.
It seems that the conflict which resided on the page and celluloid of A Boy and His Dog bled through to the men behind it. Ellison was adamant that the final line changed what was a poignant and hopeful ending about love and relationships, into a cheap joke, designed to get a chuckle out of moronic frat boys. Ellison even promised to write Jones a sequel, gratis, if he would make the necessary changes. The sequel, entitled Eggsucker, never made it to the screen, but several graphic novels were published, which continued the story of Vic and Blood.
There is a unique and wry humour to A Boy and His Dog; a tragic flippancy and ridiculousness to the way that the characters act, and interact. The biggest joke, however, is that we are those characters; each one represents a facet of our lives, our personalities, beliefs and idiosyncrasies. The blind way in which the residents of Topeka follow the all-powerful committee is shown to be so facile when Vic simply runs away from them, showcasing how escape is almost always possible, if we are willing to take the chance.
This joviality and (literally) clownish aesthetic softens a very harsh and disparate story, which would be too much to bear were it not present. The affable banter which exists between Vic and Blood contains a subtle and thoughtful subtext, which permeates, lingers and troubles. We are so used to the stereotype of a post-apocalyptic world that A Boy and His Dog catches us off guard with its manner and delivery. Almost forty years on, we may now have only come to realise just how important a story it really is.