Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Old Yeller


The first question I ask myself is, if I were seeing this for the first time, at age 72, would I have cried as hard as I did when I was 10? Probably not, though I won’t rule it out. I cried again this time, just not as hard, but I can’t tell if it might have been the memory of that first, traumatic viewing that made it inevitable that I would cry. It’s even worse than Bambi, for me. I mean, losing your mother is possibly the most awful thing that can happen, ever. But Bambi was a deer, not a human. Though I felt his mother’s death strongly, it somehow wasn’t as bad as a human losing his dog. Not as bad as having to shoot your rabid dog. People can differ on this, I’m sure.

I was ten, and we had a dog at the time, some sort of mongrel terrier mix. Her name was Maggie, and she was fat as a small beer keg with legs. Later I would witness her hit by a semi going about 50 mph … but that’s another story, and don’t get me crying again here.

It’s still a good, well-made movie, with some great photography, a good performance by Tommy Kirk, and a fingernails-on-the-blackboard performance by little Kevin Corcoran. I hated that little fucker from the moment he piped up with his first line. He only get worse as the film progressed. He’s not quite enough to spoil the whole film, but he’s close.

There are those who argue that films like this and Bambi should not be shown to children, because they will upset them. Well, I was upset, but I feel I am the better for it. You can’t sugar-coat the world forever, as so many college students are demanding these days, with their “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “cultural appropriation” and similar horseshit. The world is not safe, there are no warnings that shit is about to come down on you, so you had better get used to it. The age of six seems like a pretty good place to start.

This movie and the much inferior sequel, Savage Sam, clearly could not be made today, at least as they were made in 1957 and 1963. Yeller engages in savage fights with a bear, a wildcat, raccoons, a wolf, and the scariest of the lot, a whole herd … no, it’s called a drift or a drove or a sounder of javelina hogs. (Scientific name: peccary. They are not actually pigs.) I used to see them all the time in the southeast corner of Texas and north as far as Dallas, but I’m told they are seldom seen there now. But worldwide, wild swine are flourishing, according to a story I just read.

These fights are clearly not mediated to any great degree by trainers. They really are snapping and clawing at each other, trying to kill. The representative of the ASPCA (No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Picture!) would have fainted dead away. But the ASPCA didn’t monitor in those days, so Walt could just put them together and let them fight. These days it could all be faked with CGI, of course.