A few nights ago, without fanfare, we staged what was likely the North American premiere of a major motion picture. It’s called Red Dog, and it was named Australia’s best film for the year 2011. I invited a group of students in my course on the history of Australia and New Zealand to have a look at the film.
They liked it, of course, because it’s a dog story, after all. A well-known story for some time now, if you happen to be from Dampier, in that region known as the Pilbara, in Western Australia. Installed in that city in 1981 was a bronze statue of a red Kelpie-cattle dog cross—yes, a mongrel—with the following inscription on the base:
The Pilbara Wanderer
Died November 21st, 1979
Erected By The Many Friends Made During His Travels
Red Dog’s origins are better known than the movie admits. He had an original owner, until later taking up with a fellow who drove a bus, as portrayed in the movie, and hitchhiking all over the region with whoever would give him a ride. The Pilbara Wanderer became the subject of a novel, and now has achieved international fame through cinema.
I first saw the Red Dog movie on a trans-Pacific Air New Zealand flight and was immediately impressed. I mean, the film is not an artistic tour de force. Rather, it is impressive for its evocation of a specific place and, even more so, the Australian character.
That’s vesting a lot in a dog, isn’t it? But consider the attributes of this canine character. He is independent as a hog on ice—“cheeky” is the first adjective applied to him in the movie. But when he chooses a companion—the bus driver played by American Josh Lucas in the movie—he is utterly loyal, displaying that vital Australian virtue of mateship. (This loyalty takes a possessive turn on appearance of Lucas’s love interest in the film, the Australian beauty Rachel Taylor.) Besides all that, Red Dog is a scrapper, a thief, and a survivor, thus invoking all those underdog values that go right back to the convict origins of Australia and find expression in the culture of the bush.
You may remember a few years ago when the film Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, came out and was supposed to be the quintessential Australian film. It wasn’t. Red Dog is that film.
Red Dog, too, evokes a specific place in Western Australia in a way that resonates with us here on the Great Plains of North America. Like our land, the Pilbara is a place with an extractive economy centered on mining, especially for iron. Its culture is the male-dominant crew culture of work in the field. It is a drinking, brawling, hard-working, dysfunctional, exhilarating culture of challenge and response.
Today on our plains we, too, have that sort of culture again, as advanced recovery technologies have brought boom times for the petroleum and natural gas industries. Places on the plains are filled with working men, most of them arriving without women. Their reception at the hands of local residents is not always cordial.
For all people in such places, I recommend the final scene sequence of Red Dog. I won’t tell how it ends, but it begins with a young miner pushing coins into a jukebox and a dancing, singing throng joining in on the 1973 hit, “Way Out West,” by a long-haired group called the Dingoes.
Way out west where the rain don’t fall
Got a job with a company drilling for oil
Gotta make some change
Living and a-working on the land