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Red Dog (Movie and Book)

August 13, 2011
Pilbara landscape

Pilbara landscape

First, the disclaimer: I’m a dog person and am therefore a sucker for stories about dogs and their loyalty. I know, I know, it’s their nature, but that doesn’t stop me crying over doggie devotion stories. Red Dog is one of these! If dogs don’t move you, you may not want to see this film, but that would be a shame because while the dog – and it is based on a real dog – is the central idea, the film, and novel from which it draws, are about more than “just” a dog and his devotion to a master.

I first came across Red Dog – the (apparently famous) Pilbara Wanderer – several years ago through Louis de Bernières‘ novella (of sorts) which was first published in 2001. It’s a slim little tome and is based on stories de Bernières gathered about the dog, who lived from 1971 to 1979. De Bernières claims in his Author’s Note that the stories “are all based upon what really happened” to the dog but that he invented all of the characters, partly because he knew little about the people in Red Dog’s life and partly because he did not want to offend people by misrepresenting them. John though, he says, is “real”.

There is a simple plot in the book – it tells how Red Dog decides on John as his master and it then chronicles Red Dog’s various adventures in the mining communities of the Pilbara. The film follows de Bernières’ book pretty closely, though it takes a little artistic license, including adding a romance into the mix.

The story – and the film – is set in the Pilbara, the red earth country of Western Australia where mining is the main industry. It was – particularly back in the 1970s – a male dominated place and the workers at that time were mostly migrants:

It was lucky for him [Red Dog] that the town [Dampier] was so full of lonely men … They were either rootless or uprooted. They were from Poland, New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, Greece,  England, Yugoslavia and from other parts of Australia too. … Some were rough and some gentle, some were honest and some not. There were those who got rowdy and drunk, and picked fights, there were those who were quiet and sad,  and there were those who told jokes and could be happy anywhere at all. With no women to keep an eye on them, they easily turned into eccentrics.

And it is this* that the film, directed by Kriv Stenders, does so well … capturing men’s lives in a male dominated environment, against the backdrop of the starkly beautiful Pilbara. The cinematography is gorgeous, setting the region’s natural beauty against the ugliness (or beauty, depending on your point of view) of a mining environment. The music is what you’d expect, mostly 70s rock including, of course, Daddy Cool, but is appropriate rather than clichéd. And the dog is played by 6-year old Koko with aplomb!

The central story concerns John (Josh Lucas), Red Dog and Nancy (Rachael Taylor), but there are other smaller “stories” – the publican (Noah Taylor) and his wife, the Italian (Arthur Angel) who can’t stop talking about his beautiful home town, the brawny he-man (John Batchelor) who knits in secret, the miserly caravan park owners, to name just a few. Their stories are slightly exaggerated, and there is fairly frequent use of slightly low angle close-ups that give an almost, but not quite, cartoonish larger-than-life look to the scenes. These all work effectively to convey something rather authentic about character and place.

That said, occasionally the humour is too broad and the script a little clumsy – but these are minor. Overall, the film keeps moving at a pace that ensures it never gets bogged down in too much sentiment or romance or adventure or comedy. In other words, it’s not a perfect movie and yet it perfectly captures the resilient, egalitarian spirit of those people in that time. It’s a film I’d happily, if somewhat tearily, see again.

Louis de Bernières
Red dog
London: Vintage, 2002
119pp
ISBN: 9780099429043

*POSTSCRIPT: I quoted this passage from the book for a reason, and then got carried away on another point, but Kate’s comment below reminded me of what that reason was: it was of course to refer to Red Dog’s role in this male dominated environment. Not only does he symbolise the men’s independence and spirit of adventure that brought them to the Pilbara, but he also provides an outlet for their affection. Through this, he forges a community out of a bunch of individuals. As the publican says at the beginning of the film, it’s not so much what Red Dog did as who he was …

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate permalink
    August 13, 2011 7:14 pm

    I am not a doggie person, but I can say that I found Red Dog captivating. He’s a great character for the others to bounce off, a way of men expressing their emotion and care. And he’s a real archetypal outback eccentric himself; a loner and a wanderer, but a loyal mate. I did find the story a little stretched and perhaps some of the themes laid on a little thick at times, and alas was not really convinced by John. However the character of the dog, and some of the sad stories of the miners made up for that.
    I have not read De Berniere’s story, so am inspired to do so now.

    • August 13, 2011 11:20 pm

      Oh good, kate, glad to have that confirmed. You’re right about his character and the role he plays with/for the men. Mateship is the right word to use here.

      I agree that it was a little overdone at times, but it worked overall. You are most welcome to borrow the book – just ask. I didn’t quite know what to make of it when I read it. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t leave a great impression. I only remembered it when I saw the film title and wondered if it was based on the book.

  2. August 13, 2011 10:23 pm

    I’m guessing that this was one of your Thursday night light(ish) escapism movies, and therefore I’m really, really happy that it was enjoyable. I’ve only vaguely heard of this, but then again I barely see movies these days! The Australian-ness of it, though, reminds me that I really want you and I to watch Tomorrow When the War Began one afternoon when things have calmed down, and perhaps once we’ve finished B.L. :) xo

    • August 13, 2011 11:22 pm

      Yes it was enjoyable … we all had a good laugh. I’d love to watch Tomorrow with you sometime.

  3. Jenene Brooke permalink
    August 14, 2011 3:58 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed your review and wish I could obtain the book, which seems to have sold out.
    I watched the Training of Koko snippet and he reacts to vocal requests as a human?

    • August 14, 2011 11:47 pm

      Thankyou Jenene. Have you seen the film? I wonder if the book is available through secondhand outlets? Which training snippet did you see? I’ve seen a screen test? Would love to see the training. In the screen test it looks like he is responding to vocal requests but there’s a good chance his trainer is off camera giving simple commands. Still pretty good as there’s a wide range of commands there.

  4. August 14, 2011 10:13 pm

    I’m soppy about dogs too, so of course I’ll be going to see it!

    • August 14, 2011 11:48 pm

      Tell me what you think Lisa … it has some OTT or awkward bits but overall it’s a lovely movie.

  5. August 17, 2011 2:59 am

    I prefer cats to dogs but I am an animal person in general and a sucker for any kind of animal movie. so I ahve to ask, does Red Dog die? I have to know because animal movies where the hero animal dies leave me a sobbing wreck.

    • August 17, 2011 9:51 am

      Without giving anything away – don’t want spoilers – let’s just say I was crying at the end!! I like animal movies too.

  6. John permalink
    August 18, 2011 6:58 pm

    Great movie, but unfortunate that the Polish workers seem to be speaking Russian – (SKI team).

    • August 18, 2011 10:12 pm

      Is that right? Not speaking either language I wouldn’t have known. I haven’t read many reviews but none of those I’ve read have mentioned it either. I assume you know what you are talking about – and on that basis would say it seems a silly mistake to make. Not a critical one, but a silly one nonetheless.

  7. August 21, 2011 10:48 am

    So Kokomo dies? I meant we all die butむ….

  8. August 21, 2011 10:56 am

    I guess I’m trying be prepared. Red dog dies in the movie?

    • August 21, 2011 1:45 pm

      Hi Ys … I really don’t like giving away endings to movies but if you know anything about dog movies you can probably guess what happens. Do you always like to know the end of a story before you get there?

    • August 22, 2011 2:35 pm

      He meets Ol Yeller and they have a litter of Oranges.

  9. August 27, 2011 5:48 pm

    Heavily censored and left me cringing. Pub scenes of that era were smokey dens with overflowing ash trays and hard living working class. I do hope the health mafia do not take over the film industry. I was irritated by this fact and will never look at a remake of Australian films portraying the true grit of men who knocked of for a hard earned smoko and beers. What does the film industry have to do to get funding?????

    • August 27, 2011 5:56 pm

      Fair point, de.

      Must say, I notice when there is smoking (such as in Mad Men which evokes its era with aplomb and reminds me of 1960s TV shows) but I don’t always notice its absence.

  10. delia permalink
    August 27, 2011 5:54 pm

    Censorship by the health mafia has left this film without the true pub scenes of hard working men enjoying smokos and beer in smoke filled bars with full ashtrays. It did nothing for the true Aussie mateship in pubs of old. I will be wary of future attempts by Aussie film industry which has to toe the politically correct line to get funding
    delia

  11. Leonie Underdown permalink
    December 1, 2011 12:49 pm

    You must see Red Dog for the wonderful train sequences, the outstanding cat/dog fights, and the fabulous music, but most of all for the spectacular Australian landscapes but don’t forget to take plenty of tissues – it is a dog movie of course.

  12. SparkDav permalink
    March 16, 2012 2:49 am

    Seen red dog movie as i flew from Scotland to New Zealand, Great movie for the senery,mining, music and of course the story of Red Dog, lump in throat after watching the movie 3 times, pow right to the heart strings. Well done.

    • March 16, 2012 5:24 am

      thanks SparkDav … It’s a great combination isn’t. Could so easily have gone awry but the director had just the right touch. I’d see it again.

  13. July 5, 2013 1:50 pm

    what is the name of the instrumental music in the beginning and thru the movie

    • July 8, 2013 3:34 pm

      Sorry Ron .. it’s so long since I’ve seen the movie that I can’t recollect. I’ve had a look at the album on iTunes, but it’s not really clear from that which music is which. It may be this one on You Tube? Just called Red Dog Road Music?

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  1. Red Dog – Movie Review | Wondering Pilgrim

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