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
London: Vintage, 2002
*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 …