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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Where The Red Fern Grows: Review

The amazing novel, Where the Red Fern Grows was developed into a film in 1974, starring Steward Peterson, James Whitmore, Beverly Garland, and Jack Gene. The beloved film was followed by a sequel in 1992 and remade in 2003. The film portrays, sacred love, loyalty, respect, hard work and the hardships of the Great Depression. The title of the story is from on an old Indian folk tale about a sacred red fern that grows between two persons that died, representing the pure and true love they had for each other. This is significant since the story portrays mainly the love a boy has for his hounds and the love the hounds have for the boy. Although that is the focus, there is also the love the animals have for one another. This film does an extraordinary job in the representation of love between animals and the companionship they provide.

Where the Red Fern Grows takes place in the Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma, where young Billy Coleman saves his earnings for two years in order to purchase the hunting hounds he has wished for his whole life. Billy comes to face his first dilemma of having to choose between purchasing his hounds or a new mule that his family needs. Billy’s grandpa greatly influences his decision and orders the hounds, announcing that the boy deserves those hounds since he worked awfully hard for them. After retrieving the dogs, named Old Dan and Little Ann, they become an inseparable trio. Billy teaches the hounds to hunt and they become the very best hunting hounds. After entering a contest, Billy and his hounds win the trophy and the cash pool, which is a blessing for his family. Shortly after the contest is won, Billy is out hunting when he is faced with a mountain lion. Old Dan and Little Ann attack the mountain lion saving Billy’s life. But at a very high cost.

Billy’s role in the film I thought was by far the most influential. He depicts this loving, respectful, honest, caring character that makes one understand how children in that era were raised and how they were not given things but rather had to earn them. Billy works years to raise enough money for his hounds on top of doing all his chores at home for which he does not get paid. He is loving to his hounds and family. So much so, that when after purchasing his hounds and he has ten dollars left over, instead of spending it on himself he purchases gifts to bring back to his family. Billy speaks respectfully to his elders and shows his true character when he cheers for an opponant even though he felt he should have won.

The director of the film, Norman Tokar, was successful in directing early TV sitcoms, such as Leave it to Beaver when he was hired by Disney to direct Old Yeller (1957), another amazing story of the relationship between a young boy and his hound. The storyline of Where the Red Fern Grows was straight forward and very powerful much like that of Old Yeller. Tokar creates captivating and unforgettable moments in both films which trigger true emotions for the viewers. Tokar was able to enable the right amount of suspense and tension when it is needed for example, when Dan and Ann tree the “ghost coon” to win a bet he has made with the Pritchard children. The coon gets its name from the fact that every time the coon gets “treed” it seems to disappear. Billy however, knows his hounds are smart and climbs a fence where he believes the coon hides. After peaking over he realizes he was right, but decided he does not want to kill this smart coon. This event leads the Prichard boys to fight Billy demanding money back for winning the bet of being able to tree the ghost coon. The Pritchard boys want the coon dead but Billy refuses stating the bet consisted of solely “treeing” the coon. The scene is very realistic in its depiction of childhood relationships and is very compelling in how it portrays the drama of conflicts at a young age.

The cinematography was not the greatest, but the story itself made up for the shaky and blurry shots. I noticed that many times when Billy was out hunting he was carrying a lantern, however, it was clearly daylight in the film. This is an example of an old filming technique where a “night scene” is shot in the day. It's an economical choice that just makes modern films look cheap. Dean Cunday, the cinematographer of this film, was however able to successfully use specific shots to tell a story that engages the viewers. For example, when he uses a close up shot of the sacred red fern towards the end of the film, which is a significant and very powerful image, representing the power of love, loyalty, and peace.

The pace and dialog of the film were well executed. I felt that the conversations between all the characters were well planned and necessary. The words matched the tone of the film and the personalities of the characters. One of the most eye-opening scenes in this film is when Billy’s grandpa tells Billy that he must meet God half way to get the things he wants. Billy does not understand this at first, but soon realizes what his grandpa means. After realizing the meaning of what his grandpa said to him, he begins taking up any job that he can do to earn money for his hounds. I found it very admirable of Billy when he is found asleep next to a tree he had been trying to cut down on his first hunting trip. It is admirable because his father tells him that cutting the tree down for one coon was not worth the work, but Billy disagrees. He tells his father that he promised his hounds that if they “treed” a coon he would do the rest and Billy keeps that promise to his hounds even after his mother threatens to whip him if he does so. Because of scenarios like this, I didn’t feel that the movie was dragged down in anyway but instead, kept the viewer on the edge of their seat throughout the film.

Wilson Rawls, the writer of the novel was inspired by another "man and dog story", Call of the Wild by Jack London. After reading this book he began dreaming of writing a book like it someday. Rawls shared his dream with his very supportive father who told him, “Son, a man can do anything he sets out to do, if he doesn’t give up.” It is an impactful statement especially since Rawls lacked an education which would eventually hurt his chances of publication. Rawls admitted to having very little knowledge of punctuation and knew that his spelling was not the best. He was often denied publication and at one point actually gave up on his dream. And although Rawls had burned all his manuscripts after being denied so many times he was able to rewrite the complete book in three weeks, completely from memory, thanks to the motivation and support of his wife who had encouraged Rawls to write again.

In my opinion the film will never be as good as the novel, however, the film is still one of my favorites of all time. It is a must watch type of film for everyone; families, couples, and individuals. This film is so full of emotion that will have you on the verge of tears. It is a heartwarming film about deep, abiding love despite hardships and loss. It's amazing how young Billy is the one to help his family get to the city with the money he won at the hunting contest. Because of that I wonder what the outcome would have been had Billy decided to purchase the mule that his family needed. I also wonder about the mother’s character and how it would have effected Billy if she had been a bit warmer. To me she seems cold and distant. It is Billy’s father and grandpa who are his biggest supporters helping him to understand the importance of family.

A scene that is impactful to me (SPOILER) is when Billy decides to lose the hunting contest in order to find his grandpa who got lost in a storm at night. At first it feels as if the hounds will not listen to Billy until the coons are captured. But to my amazement the hounds do listen to Billy and sniff out his grandpa who has fallen and otherwise would have died if it weren’t for Dan and Ann. Dan and Ann are two remarkable hounds that make any kid wish they too had hounds like them. Where the Red Fern Grows is a beautiful film I would recommend to anyone. It inspires us all to love unconditionally every passing day.

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