A Boy and his Dogs – Rediscovering ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ (US 1974 – 97 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - May 23, 2014
A Boy and his Dogs – Rediscovering ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ (US 1974 – 97 mins)

The ‘Terms of Endearment’ of dog movies, ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ is a film that haunts me. I can barely make it through the final ten minutes without welling up. A heart-warming saga, it’s the movie’s finale that I find hard to watch. That said, it is an excellent family drama, and an endearing tale of a young boy’s journey into adulthood.

Based on the 1961 novel by Wilson Rawls, ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ tells the simple story of young Billy Coleman, who dreams of owning his own pair of bloodhounds. After working to save the money, he buys two redbone puppies, who he names Dan and Ann. The dogs grow into champion raccoon hunters and become inseparable. During the annual ‘Championship Coon Hunt’, things come to a head when, during a storm, his beloved Grandpa is injured, causing Billy to lose sight of his dogs, leaving one to be attacked and fatally injured, and the other heart-broken and numb.

This is where the movie takes a very emotional turn, in what is essentially a wholesome family saga. It is during this emotional ending where the meaning of the films title becomes clear.
As Billy’s Grandfather, acclaimed character actor James Whitmore is warm and enchanting. Whitmore had a long, distinguished career, and gave memorable performances in such classics as ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (’50) and ‘Battleground’ (’49), which saw him nominated for an Academy Award. Beverly Garland played Billy’s stern mother, and is best remembered for her roles in sci-fi classics; ‘It Conquered the World’ (’56) and ‘Not of this Earth’ (’57). As Billy, 14 year old Stewart Peterson made his debut here, and although he made a couple of decent movies after this (‘Against a Crooked Sky’-’75, being among the best), this movie remains the film he is most recognised from.

Director Norman Tokar, a one-time child actor, was prolific working for Disney, directing such fare as ‘The Ugly Dachshund’ (’66), ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang’ (’75) and ‘Candleshoe’ (’77). ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ was one of his rare non-Disney outings, and he had also directed many episodes of ‘Leave it to Beaver’ in the early Sixties.

A movie that affected me so much as a child, ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ remains a lovely story of childhood loyalty, painful losses and the learning of life’s stark lessons in the process.

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