A BOY AND HIS DOG: We Don't Need Another Hero

February 5, 2020 - 10:24am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on L.Q. Jones' apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog (1975) were written by Ben Donahue, programmer for WUD Film. A newly restored DCP of A Boy and His Dog from the UCLA Film & Television Archive screeens this Saturday, February 8 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, in the UCLA Festival of Preservation on Tour. 

By Ben Donahue

“I gotta get back in the dirt so I can feel clean" (Vic, A Boy and His Dog).

A boy and his dog walk alone through a barren desert. They stand where Phoenix, Arizona once stood. Nothing remains. As far as the eye can see exists nothing more than wasteland. The boy, an 18 year old named Vic, provides food for himself and his dog. In return, the dog, an inexplicably telepathic canine named Blood, sniffs out women for Vic. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. They need each other to survive or remain sane, or at least as sane as one can remain once the whole world has gone mad.

Images of a man wandering alone through a desert wasteland might immediately evoke memories of George Miller’s 1979 classic, Mad Max. The author of the 1969 novella, A Boy and His Dog, Harlan Ellison, even reports a conversation where George Miller phoned him and said that Mad Max was a “rip-off” of the novella and the 1975 film. In fact, many wasteland-roaming post-apocalyptic novels, films, and video game franchises can have their lineage traced back to L. Q. Jones’ film. From its decayed and rough aesthetic, its sardonic tone, to its lack of conventional ‘good guys,’ A Boy and His Dog proved to be an important development in science-fiction. Before directing a number of low-budget films, L. Q. Jones was an actor who appeared in small parts in a large number of films, but Jones’ most important and long-running roles were his frequent collaborations with the gruesome and innovative filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Appearing in a number of Peckinpah’s pictures including Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch, Jones seems to have learned a thing or two from him.

While Harlan Ellison may have written the original story, Jones wrote virtually everything past the opening 10 minutes of the film, as Ellison struggled to convert his novella into a script. The resulting film is arguably equal parts Ellison and Jones. Ellison’s contributions come in the form of the sci-fi elements in the film: the nuclear fallout following not World War III but World War IV; the radioactive mutants known as Screamers that glow green and roam the surface; and the massive underground utopia referred to as Topeka amongst many other ideas. What Jones brought to the table was what he learned from his time working with Peckinpah. The hyper-clean sci-fi aesthetic that was popular in previous years is nowhere to be seen here. The breakdown of society and the degradation of humanity is visually represented with ramshackle towns constructed out of spare parts and hungry packs of animalistic scavengers wearing trash as their armor. The fights are scrappy and the landscape is desolate. The future is dirty.

The marriage of sci-fi and gritty, revisionist western isn’t solely an aesthetic leap. The tone of the movie is quite unlike most movies of the time and helps explain the cult reputation the film has enjoyed since. Consider the ingredients—a healthy helping of the grittiness that defined so many films of the late 60s and 70s, a dash of Cold War anxiety, some broad strokes about humanity's tenuous relationship with civility, and a few truly potent sprinkles of unbelievably dark humor—and the film’s staying power immediately becomes apparent. The film’s most striking moments are dripping with a venomous nihilism, but they are also the most comedic moments. For example, the relationship between Vic and Blood is an immediate clue-in to the film’s view on humanity. Don Johnson plays Vic with an irreverent worldview and a borderline feral fixation on women, as women have become a coveted resource more akin to food and water than they are to human beings. Vic is dumb and impulsive and not a good guy by any liberal stretch of the imagination. Tim McIntire voices Blood with an arrogant and intellectual tone—always talking down on everyone, but is similarly despicable in his morals. The satirical assertion that the dog is closer to humanity than the boy doesn’t bode well for our species.

Another example of the films comedy comes in the underground utopia of Topeka: a slice of All-American pie grossly oversaturated in ’50s Americana that resembles a circus more so than anything else. And the cherry on top of the pie is Jason Robards dryly playing the not-so-charismatic leader of the cult-like commune, all while wearing what is ostensibly clown makeup. But for what is hands-down the most potent moment of dark humor, you have to watch all the way till the very end, to the very last line of the film in fact. It’s a joke, but it’s not funny. At least not in the civilized sense of the word. It’s the type of joke that sucker-punches you right in the gut, catching you off-guard. In the moment, you don’t know whether to laugh out of surprise or gasp in disgust. But you’ll have to watch all the way through to hear it.

Max Rockatansky doesn’t have the cleanest conscience, but we can confidently say that he is the hero of Mad Max. Vic and Blood are the protagonists in A Boy and His Dog, but the film would scold you for being as naive as to think that heroes still exist in the future. That’s what separates this movie from its peers. Everyone is simply trying to survive. Everyone thinks solely of themselves. Everyone is bad. In spite of all this, and despite the fact that society has cannibalized itself, and that the future looks to be an especially dark shade of bleak, the film finds a weird sort of cathartic comfort in knowing that the first bond mankind ever made, a bond that predates the birth of civilization, still exists. It’s nice to know that, even in the apocalypse, dogs will always remain man’s best friend.