Red Dog (Movie and Book)

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
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 …

33 thoughts on “Red Dog (Movie and Book)

  1. 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.

    • 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. 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

  3. 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?

    • 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. 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.

    • 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.

  5. Pingback: Red Dog – Movie Review | Wondering Pilgrim

  6. 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?????

    • 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Red Dog is a wonderful movie!!! It is as a roller coaster ups and downs emoties, Koko performance was EXCELLENT! I think is a must watch this movie, specially knowing that is based on a true story.

    • Thanks Marla … so glad you liked the movie and came here to say so. It’s one of my most popular posts which means that people must still be watching it. Louis de Berniere’s book is small, but a nice read.

  11. I saw the movie when I was trialling ‘Stan’: the movie is delightful but ‘Stan’ is not.
    ANYWAY ..
    I didn’t even know it came from a writer, let alone from Louis de Bernières !
    Just goes to show how superficial I yam. 😀

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