HEROISM GOES to the Dogs

By Schaub, Diana | The American Enterprise, September 2000 | Go to article overview

HEROISM GOES to the Dogs


Schaub, Diana, The American Enterprise


HEROISM HAS GONE TO THE DOGS. IN THE OLD DAYS, EPIC HEROES HAD DOGS--GREAT-HEARTED AND VALIANT LIKE THEMSELVES, OF COURSE. ODYSSEUS HAD HIS ARGOS, THE DEERSLAYER HIS HECTOR. OVER THE LAST CENTURY, HOWEVER, THE DOGS HAVE DISPLACED THE HEROES.

From 1926 forward, when A Dog of the Regiment was the most popular motion picture of the year, top billing has gone to Rin-Tin-Tin, Lassie, Old Yeller, White Fang, Benji, Sounder, Beethoven, Air Bud, Shiloh, Fluke, and My Dog Skip.

This "caninization" of heroism does not necessarily mean heroism's wrack and ruin. The four-leggers have acquitted themselves rather well as celluloid role models. Marjorie Garber, in her book Dog Love, explains how "the dog becomes the repository of those model human properties that we have cynically ceased to find among humans. Where today can we find the full panoply of William Bennett's Book of Virtues--from Courage and Responsibility to Loyalty and Family Values-but in Lassie and Beethoven and Millie and Checkers and Spot?" Heroism is in the safekeeping of man's best friend.

Faithful as always, dogs keep trying to restore our heroism to us. In almost every dog movie I can think of, the dog serves as the source of instruction for various benighted, misguided, or simply young humans, especially boys. Boys need an education in the manly virtues that only a boy's dog can give. As the theme song to Old Yeller has it, "Old Yeller was a fighter, a rootin' tootin' fighter. In any scrape he knew just what to do. A rough and ready feller, and though his coat was yeller, his bold Texas heart was true blue." By movie's end, the dog has readied the boy for his passage into manhood. In the best dog movies (Where the Red Fern Grows comes to mind), that rite of passage usually includes the loss of the dog and a confrontation with mortality.

The only movie I have seen about a man (rather than a boy) and his dog is not American. (Turner and Hooch [1989] doesn't quite make it, since Tom Hanks as Turner is just an overgrown boy.) lock of the Bushveld, a 1992 South African film, tells a wonderfully non-didactic tale of two charming and scrappy runts, one canine and one human. After the man rescues the pup from the drowning tub, the film follows the pair as the man takes on South Africa's class hierarchies and the dog, a pit bull, takes on just about anything that moves, including a crocodile, a baboon, and several large game animals. The two are purely and simply soulmates. The presentation of the dog is entirely naturalistic, without any of the artificiality or sentimentality of Disney fare. Jock doesn't talk or even look meaningfully at his human partner. He just lives his dog life to the full, with herculean energy and courage. There is nothing fluffy or slobbery or good-naturedly muttly about him. His musculature and the desire that animates it are visible in his every movement.

Fighting spirit is a major component of canine heroism. It is remarkable that dogs will come to the defense of members of another species. Dogs will scorn life itself in fidelity to an enlarged conception of what constitutes "one's own." Another well-known writer on dogs, Vicki Hearne, points out that a wolf "will not have the courage of a good dog, the courage that springs from the dog's commitments to the forms and significance of our domestic virtues."

Fighting spirit continues to be on display in recent dog movies. I was worried that the 1990s

Lassie would not be much of a fighter; yet in her most recent picture she takes on a wolf, as well as two evildoers on dune bikes. Even though the staging of the fights is nowhere near as graphic as in the older dog movies (which were pre-Humane Society I suppose), the lesson remains: Goodness cannot go forth unarmed into the world. …

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