Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 11: Shiloh (1997)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Shiloh (1997) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “Adults may have the power to take away a kid’s dog and tell him a story about it, but they do not have the right. Some of those feelings came into play when I saw ‘Shiloh,’ which is a remarkably mature and complex story about a boy who loves a dog and cannot bear to see it mistreated. It isn’t some dumb kiddie picture. It’s about deep emotions, and represents the real world with all of its terrors and responsibilities.” -from his 1997 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

If My Dog Skip was proof that fluff films about dogs can easily escape criticism by relying on the cuteness of their puppy protagonists and Wendy & Lucy proved that the human-dog relationship could actually be put to a higher dramatic purpose, where does that leave Shiloh, the third film in the dog-centric trio Ebert narrowed in on as exemplifiers of canine cinema? The answer is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Much like My Dog Skip, Shiloh has a cheap, oddly nostalgic schmaltz to it that makes you wonder how it ever escaped straight-to-VHS purgatory in the first place. However, its central story carries a striking brutality that feels way out of place with its generic kids’ movie trappings, aligning it more with Wendy & Lucy‘s emotional harshness on a thematic level. Shiloh is a difficult film to pigeonhole due to the clash of its Hallmark Channel cheese with its the-hard-facts-of-life coldness and the resulting tone is deeply off-putting at times due to this internal struggle. It’s at times exactly what you’d expect from a film about a boy & his beagle and at times the darkest, furthest thing from it.

Shiloh opens with a heartless hunter beating a young beagle due to its stubborn inability to perform simple commands. He eventually kicks the poor pup so hard that it runs away & seeks a new owner in a young boy. In a simpler film the boy’s family would’ve helped him keep the dog away from the evil, abusive hunter. Shiloh surprises by instead raising moral crises about responsibility, honesty, and ownership. The boy’s father insists that he return the dog to the dark-souled hunter, as the dog is legally his property. The hunter treats the dog as a worker or an appliance, not even assigning it a name. The boy loves the animal as a pet, but that doesn’t necessarily give him the right to keep it. He spends his entire summer trying to earn the ownership, attempting to win the dog back both through above-the-board means like money earned from physical labor and through shady practices like theft & dishonesty. The drunken hunter’s villainy is just as much of a grey area as the means through which the boy tries to earn “his” dog back. His coldness is a result of a lifetime suffering through the cycles of abuse & the boy can’t quite fully bring himself to hating the brute, despite his constant threats to kill & maim the dog he loves.

I’m not entirely on board with Shiloh‘s central man-up message that values a very rigid, old-fashioned version of masculinity that honestly is losing its relevance in the modern world. There’s a small amount of criticism of this attitude in the film, like when the hunter explains “It’s just like the Bible says, animals are put here for us. They ain’t got no other purpose or feelings.” This is obviously untrue & is meant to play as a despicable attitude, but there’s still plenty of “A man is only as good as his word” & other toughen-up cliches that rub me the wrong way here. Still, I give the film a lot of credit for raising the stakes so high in its central conflict and making a very real, very terrifying threat of abuse the centerpiece of a children’s movie about a cute beagle. I can see why Ebert was so impressed with how willing the film was to grapple with hefty moral issues. It probably also struck a particular chord with the critic because his own childhood dog, Blackie, was part beagle, a bias he has no problem openly admitting at length in his review. Still, I can only see the film as a very minor work that’s a little overlong for its message & probably undeserving of its two (!!!!) sequels. Although it’s more serious-minded than the suffocating cheese of My Dog Skip I think they’re about on the same level in terms of overall quality. The only film in this makeshift doggy trilogy that deserves to be treated as a work of art is Wendy & Lucy, which is truly fantastic & touching in a way the other two films don’t even approach.

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Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

threehalfstar

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Mean Streets (1973)

-Brandon Ledet

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