1971. En route to a new life as motel proprietors in a grimy industrial coastal town in Western Australia, Jack and Rose find the outback highway blocked by a dog. When they get out of the truck to get him to budge, the dog jumps into the cab and hitches a ride to Dampier with them.
Truck driver Thomas parks up one evening to get a room for the night to find Jack and his bar customers about to shoot the dog. They stop when he bursts in and suddenly everyone’s keen to share their stories of Red Dog, told here in flashback. There are many to tell, for he has become a legend among the hard-bitten, hard-drinking miners and shipbuilders who are the core of the community, a rough, tough, melting pot of Aussie blue-collars, East Europeans and Chinese. They all lay claim as Red Dog’s owner, but Red Dog himself, red of coat and red from the road dust, adopts John, a handsome bus driver, by hitching a ride on the bus. The pair become inseparable and Red Dog even triggers a romance between John and Nancy, a local secretary.
Not long after their engagement, John goes missing and is eventually found dead in the desert outside the town, after a motorbike collision with a kangaroo. Red Dog spends days searching Dampier for his master then roams further afield – he is sighted as far south as Perth and as far north as Darwin, hitching rides with people and tales of his exploits spreading across the state. Eventually, months later, he reappears outside Nancy’s caravan in Dampier, resigned to losing John. The townsfolk are overjoyed to see Red Dog home again.
Tragedy is about to strike, though. Red Dog falls ill and the vet concludes he has strychnine poisoning – he can do nothing. This is the night Thomas arrives in town and stops them euthanizing him. As people gather at Jack’s bar they resolve to tear down the statue of the town’s colonial founder and replace it with one of Red Dog in tribute to him as the true representative of Dampier. A drunken celebration ensues before they notice Red Dog has vanished. He is later found next to John’s grave, where he has gone to die.
The true story of a stray dog that roams the outback, this heart-warming family film is Lassie transplanted to Australia, with a touch of Greyfriars Bobby thrown in. Tales of loyal animals are reliable tearjerkers, for sure, but in fairness this was one remarkable dog by any standards. I certainly had a lump in my throat at times. There are also moments of pure comedy gold, such as the scrap between Red Dog and Red Cat, the feral feline owned by the caravan park caretakers. I did struggle a little at first to get into the narrative as it felt a bit jerky and there are a lot of characters to work out who’s who. But I’m glad I stuck with it – within half an hour I was sucked in and eager to find out what happened next. And I don’t even like dogs.
The cinematography is lush – Western Australia is slices of ochre and auburn, slashed through with azure sea and sky. Even the garish colours of the industrial township are softened through Kriv Stenders’ lens. The cast are good – trivia fans will note the final celluloid appearance here by veteran Australian actor Bill Hunter (Muriel’s Wedding, Ned Kelly, et al.) – there’s a cracking 70s soundtrack and even an amusing cameo from Spielberg’s Jaws. The film has picked up a slew of awards in Australia and globally and Stenders has made a classy low-budget feelgood movie that is faithful to Red Dog’s legendary status. Have the tissues ready.