CAPSULE: A rare but truly fine family film has finally made it to DVD. A Flemish boy is held back from his dream of becoming an artist by his extreme poverty. But then he makes two friends. He finds a dog, beaten and abandoned, and adopts the dog even less fortunate than him. But more important is the relationship he forms with the artist in town who tries to teach the boy the meaning of being an artist. The story has been adapted to silent films and to Japanese anime, but a standout performance by Theodore Bikel makes this the best of the three sound and live-action adaptations. This film is a personal favorite of mine. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
One of the great double features of my youth was 20th Century Fox's pairing of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH with James B. Clark's A DOG OF FLANDERS. I came away liking the co-feature as much as the film I had gone to see. (Okay, almost as much, but I was a *real* science fiction fan.) Over the years I have looked several times to find it on video. It was available only on a rare VHS tape. Finally it has been released to DVD, digitally re-mastered, and I could not be more pleased.
So why would a film that outwardly looks like it is just a boy-and- his-dog story set in Belgium be such a find? First of all, the dog story is just a sub-plot. The film is more about the struggles of an impoverished boy to dedicate his life to creating art. But there is something more about it that is very unusual. It is honest in a way that very few family films ever are. Life is very hard for its main character and the film does not pull its punches. This film is not sugarcoated. (Admittedly the ending is not as grim as the ending of the book.) There are themes in this film of cruelty, of loss, but also of love and of the redemptive power of art. Does that sound like a lot to put into a single film, a family film? It is there and it all works.
Nello Daas (played by David Ladd, son of Alan Ladd) lives with his grandfather (Donald Crisp), the town milk deliveryman in a Belgian town. Nello's one obsession is art. He is fascinated by the local painter Piet van Gelder (played by the wonderful Theodore Bikel). The boy has tried doing his own art using what little he has-- iodine and charcoal, which are far from ideal materials. Nello knows that there is supposed to be a magnificent painting in the local cathedral, a work of Peter Paul Rubens, but the painting is behind a curtain and the cathedral charges a franc to see the painting. Grandfather knows how unlikely it is that Nello could be a successful artist and has planned a very different career for his grandson. One day Nello and his grandfather find a dog that had pulled a cart, but is now collapsed from overwork and mistreatment. Nello adopts the dog in spite of the fact that he and his grandfather barely have enough food to keep themselves alive. But the heart of the film is in the relationship that Nello forms with the self-doubting artist van Gelder.
This is a classic, and I consider it one of the best family films ever made. It is moving and says a very great deal about life and about art. Some major changes were made from the original story, but it does not tell children that life is never hard. I rate the 1960 version of A DOG OF FLANDERS a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Though never said, the town is really the City of Antwerp and the cathedral is the Cathedral of Our Lady. The great Rubens painting the boy wants to see is Rubens's The Elevation of the Cross:
We see the actual city, cathedral, and painting in the film.
The title dog, named in the film Patrasche, is played by Spike, who also played the title role in OLD YELLER. The screenplay was written by Ted Sherdeman who co-wrote the screenplay for another famous animal film, THEM!
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0052745
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper