The ballad of a genuine Aussie charmer
My brother hates Braveheart –a movie he was loving for more than 170 minutes before you know what happens to William Wallace. Some folk just can’t handle the hero dying at the end, regardless of whether history or the story demands it. I’m the same when it comes to animals on screen.
Human characters can be scalped, woodchipped, eaten and set on fire before my eyes. I may flinch, I may cringe, but I won’t really mind.
But if a movie has, say, a wolf or a bear as pet or a sidekick, and it gets killed – the bad mood can last for weeks. The crux of all this is I have an unwritten rule never to review animal movies. Objectivity goes out the window.
As fond as I am of White Fang, had it ended with a dead wolfdog, I would have hated it.
Bugger me then that last week Red Dog appeared to have the cinema release schedule all to itself. Bugger me again that the film opens in a Western Australia pub in 1979 with its titular hero lying on the floor, dying.
Thankfully, and mercifully, the majority of the next 90 minutes offer more feel good moments than a dozen underdog sports movies.
Red Dog was a Kelpie/cattle cross who famously travelled Western Australia’s Pilbara region throughout the 1970s, a dog owned by everybody and nobody.
He did what he liked, when he wanted. Townships adopted him as a kind of rural mascot, he was given a bank account and made a member of the Dampier Salts Sport and Social Club and the Transport Union.
The pooch’s legend inspired Louis de Bernieres’ novel Red Dog, upon which this film is based. There is a fair amount of dramatic licence – the feud with Red Cat? Red Dog’s trip to Japan? – but it does fit nicely inside a ‘‘tall tales at the pub’’ narrative structure.
Thomas, (Luke Ford) a trucker who has stopped off in the red dirt iron mining town of Dampier, sits at a bar hearing of the antics Red Dog got away with and the hearts he touched from salt-of-the-earth punters.
This is back in the day when thirsty men simply asked for a beer, not their preferred label of pilsner or low carb lager, and Stubbies were a pair of shorts that left nothing to the imagination – particularly on the loveable bully Peeto (John Batchelor).
More than a movie about a remarkable dog, Red Dog is a nostalgic, unashamedly rose-tinted look back at rural Western Australia in the 1970, when red-blooded men from across the globe came in search of adventure, fortune and a cold beer amid the burgeoning mining industry.
Indeed, a lot of the bar scenes could be mistaken for Fosters commercials, but the characters are charmers and the picture’s commitment to two quintessential Australian virtues – freedom and mateship – never waver.
The anthropomorphism is relatively restrained by today’s standards – Red Dog doesn’t talk or drive a car – but it is present in the dog’s motivations and larrikin streak.
Of course, one gripe remains. If a movie can make mining for ore look like a fun old time, why can’t it make a loveable pooch overcome strychnine poisoning?
Mates: Red Dog spends some quality time with his one true master, John Grant, a free-spirited American played by Josh Lucas.
Starring Koko, Josh Lucas, Rachel Taylor, Noah Taylor, Luke Ford, Rohan Nichol, John Batchelor. Screenplay by Louis de Bernieres, Daniel Taplitz, directed by Kriv Stenders. 92 minutes, rated PG (coarse language). Showing at Reading Cinemas Porirua, Light House Pauatahanui.