Shiloh (1997)

9 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Shiloh” could be seen as a “boy-and-his-dog” story, but it’s actually more than that. This is actually a nicely-done coming-of-age story, based on the novel by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, about a young boy who would like a dog, but must learn life lessons like taking responsibility and growing up in order to prove that he deserves a dog.

It is also a terrific family film. It’s thoughtful, well-crafted, and avoids the types of lame, dumb formulas that most family films of the 1990s (or any decade, for that matter) seemed to think would work as high-quality family entertainment. And when you look at the family-film list for 1997, you notice what a lackluster year it was for the genre, with only very few gems such as “The Education of Little Tree,” “Fairytale: A True Story,” and “Shiloh” (arguably the best family film of ’97). These three family-oriented movies had one major thing in common—they were suitable for all ages, not just for kids. Adults can get as much out of it as children do. A lot of that has to do with quality character development and intelligence brought from the screenwriting.

“Shiloh” is about an eleven-year-old loner boy named Marty (played by Blake Heron), who lives in a small rural community in West Virginia with his family. It’s a lazy summer, and Marty is looking for odd jobs to do around town in order to pay for a bicycle. “Dad says if I want it, I gotta pay for it,” Marty says resentfully. While wandering around his home, he realizes he is followed by a beagle with a cut over its eye, and finds a kind of connection with the dog, even giving it the name of “Shiloh” after the name of the bridge where he found it. But it turns out that “Shiloh” is the new hunting dog of Judd Travers (Scott Wilson), an isolated hunter with an acid attitude. Marty’s dad (Michael Moriarty) has Marty do the right thing and return the dog to Judd, while Marty is reluctant about doing so because he believes Judd has mistreated poor Shiloh.

A few days later, Shiloh runs away again and finds Marty again. This time, Marty decides to keep Shiloh hidden from Judd and a secret from his parents. With help from his friend Samantha (J. Madison Wright), Marty fixes up an old shed nearby for the dog to live, and even sneaks away food for it.

Of course, this can’t be a secret forever, and Marty must figure out what to do about all dilemmas that follow. And “Shiloh” is surprisingly mature about its lessons and themes, and treats its subject matter wisely. This is especially true in the way that there are no easy answers or solutions to the problems presented here; it’s merely morals vs. ethics. Marty’s dad accuses Marty of lying and not doing the right thing, while Marty believes that if he does “do the right thing” and return the dog to Judd, he’ll beat it to near death. In that case, what is the right thing? Marty has already learned to take responsibility while caring for the dog at this point, and now he learns that if he really wants Shiloh, he has to fight for it. Somehow he must bargain with Judd, which is no small task, given how revolting he is.

This leads to what is also successful about “Shiloh”—its character development. Judd Travers, in particular, has his reasons for being nasty. A lot can be said about him in certain lines of dialogue—for example, when Judd finds that Marty has named his dog Shiloh, he chuckles and says, “I don’t name my dogs. When I want ‘em, I whistle. When I don’t want ‘em, I give ‘em a kick.” You can tell right there that Judd may have been treated the same way as a child, and it goes even further when Marty tells him that having a dog is like having a kid, and if you don’t treat it right, it’ll run away. Judd states he never ran away when he wasn’t being treated right—he mentions many welts on his back every now and then in his childhood.

The kid Marty does not have all the answers to everything and must learn as he goes along, making “Shiloh” an effective coming-of-age story about growing up and learning about property, honesty, and accountability. He protects the dog, not caring whose property it is, and lies to his parents, until his mom (Ann Dowd) discovers the secret of Shiloh, and Marty begs for her not to tell Dad because he believes he wouldn’t understand. While the mother doesn’t lie to her husband, she can’t stand to have her son’s heart broken if the dog is given back. She serves as the film’s sympathetic figure that appears the background when needed.

The father is not a one-dimensional overbearing individual. He’s a man of principle, is angry that his son lied to him, and believes that the dog should belong to its rightful owner. But at the same time, he understands Marty’s attachment to Shiloh and tries to find some ways to support him.

Among the characters, there’s also the town doctor (Rod Steiger) and his wife (Bonnie Bartlett), who manage to patch up the dog after it gets into a dogfight (thus revealing Marty’s secret, I forgot to mention) and give Marty some helpful advice about what he could do to keep it.

Everything comes together when Marty strikes a bargain with Judd only to discover, after days of doing manual labor for him, that he’s been stiffed. “All I had was your word,” Marty tells Judd. “Ain’t that worth somethin’ to ya?” Marty has learned his lesson of honesty, now knowing what his father felt like when he found out that he was lied to. And then there’s the main question of whether or not Marty will get the dog, and more importantly, whether or not he truly deserves the dog. And what will Judd ultimately do?

I have to admit; I haven’t seen “Shiloh” in quite a long while. I watched it just recently and wrote the review to see how it holds up. It turns out it really holds up. The themes are more realistically handled than I remember; the writing is very smart; and it’s a most pleasant surprise in the poorly-stated “boy-and-his-dog” film genre (oh, and did I mention this was released the same year as “Air Bud” too?). And of course, give credit to all the actors for giving credible performances. “Shiloh” is a lot better than I remember—it’s a great family film that I won’t forget anytime soon. If you (or your kids) haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

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