Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Two of the most memorable childhood films of my generation were Bambi and Lassie, Come Home, each of which in its own way tugged mightily at our heartstrings. The idea of remaking Bambi is probably unthinkable, akin to an evangelical rewriting the Ten Commandments (the originals, not the film). Despite the fact that Lassie, Come Home included the young Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor in its cast, the filmmakers decided to remake this film—after all, the original was released in 1943. This proves to be a good decision, bringing this great story to a new generation unlikely to watch such an old movie (which holds up very well to viewing today, by the way).
There have been dozens of boy and dog stories over the years, but none that could touch the heart like the adaptation of Eric Knight’s classic Lassie, Come Home. It is great to see that director-writer Charles Sturridge’s version is worthy of setting alongside the original, with a humorous extra scene involving runaway Lassie’s being sighted by two British duffers in a boat on Loch Ness trying to detect the presence of the fabled Monster. The filmmakers wisely do not update the story, instead keeping the original Yorkshire locale, although they have moved the time period up a year or two, when the nation was beginning to call-up soldiers just before the outbreak of World War Two.
Sam and Sarah Carraclough (John Lynch and Samantha Morton) struggle to keep bread on the table, with the coal seams in the mine where Sam works about to give out. Their nine-year old son Joe (Jonathan Mason), an indifferent student, whose hands and knuckles are often struck with the ruler of his harsh teacher, lives for the hour when he emerges from school and is reunited with his beloved dog, who is always waiting for him at the fence.
The wealthy Duke of Rudling (Peter O’Toole) is watching over his lively granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers), sent to him because her mother can see that London will soon be too dangerous for children when the war breaks out. We immediately like both children, Joe for his love of his dog, and Cilla because she evinces sympathy for the fox, the object of pursuit of the hunt that opens the film. The fox runs through the village where the Carracloughs and Lassie live, and when the girl spies the dog, she is drawn to her. The Duke, through his nasty master of the kennels Eddie Hynes (Steve Pemberton), tries to buy Lassie, but, to Joe’s relief, his parents refuse what the Duke thinks is a generous offer. The mine closes, throwing Sam and hundreds of others out of work. With no income and no prospect of a job, Sam and Sarah, without telling Joe, agree to the sale. The scene in which Joe emerges from school and does not find his faithful dog waiting for him is the first of many heartbreaking moments.
Up at the Duke’s estate Lassie keeps digging her way out of the kennel and, when thwarted at that, manages to jump and climb over the wire mesh fence. Hynes accuses the Carraclough’s of trying to steal back the dog, but Sam each time returns Lassie, the last time instructing his teary-eyed son to order Lassie to stay and never come home again. The Duke decides to move his household, including his kennel of dogs, to his castle in the far north of Scotland. It looks as if boy and dog, now separated by 500 miles, will never see each other again. Lassie, however, has other ideas, escaping again when the cruel Hynes decides to use his belt to bring the rebellious dog into line. There follows an epic trek heading south, one which includes a humorous escape with some would-be dog catchers, a brief, hilarious appearance in the witness box at a trial, being shot at by a herdsman worried about his livestock, a sojourn with the itinerant puppeteer Rowlie (the diminutive Peter Dinklage—so good to see him after his wonderful starring role in The Station Agent!) and his small dog, and the already mentioned episode at Loch Ness.
Although I missed the episode in the original version in which the kindly old couple find Lassie almost dead on a rainy night, nurse her back to health, decide to keep her, and then, when they realize that Lassie intends to continue her journey to the south, regretfully send her on her way, the new version has charms of its own, one of them being the glorious photography showing off the beauty of the Scottish hills and countryside (the mountain scapes in the original makes it appear that it was filmed in a western state). Cilla (Priscilla in the original) has a larger role as she befriends Joe; and her mother is included. The social contrasts in Yorkshire are more delineated; especially by the inclusion of the elaborate fox hunt, the hounds and participants racing through a village of coal miners soon to be unemployed.
Although there are more moments of grace in the 1943 version, grace abounds in the new film as well, with most of the humans whom Lassie encounters along the way showing her the hospitality to strangers encouraged by the author of Hebrews and by so many passages in the Torah. Lassie might not qualify as an angel, but when we see the look on Joe’s face when they are reunited (oh goodness, did I give away the ending?), she is a good stand-in for one. (In the 1943 version Joe’s mother even observes to her husband that while Lassie had been with them, their lives had been blessed, and that misfortune seemed to fall upon them when they sold her.)
Beware of spoilers, especially in Q. 3.
1) If you had a dog when you were a child, what are some of your memories of it? (My black chow dog, like Lassie, always was outside the school door waiting to walk with me back home. Having to give Blackie up when my parents’ divorce required a move was traumatic, but not as much as in Joe’s case.)
2) How does the story both resist and give in to our desire to anthropomorphize pets? What signs do you see that many people overdo this?
3) What were some of the “moments of grace” in the film? (Such as what the miners do to aid in the escape of the fox (a rather unusual act of grace, which probably would not have passed the censors in 1943). Cilla pretending not to hear Hynes, who was chasing Lassie, calling to her not to open the gate, thus allowing Lassie to escape. The young woman and man who question the harsh treatment of Lassie by the two dogcatchers. The episode with Rowlie and his little dog Toots. The decision of the Duke to pretend that the returned Lassie is not his dog.)
4) If time permits, watch the original version for two moments of grace: the encounters of Lassie with the two sheepherders and with the elderly couple. What does the one man pretend concerning the gun he has trained on the fleeing Lassie? How is the wife’s understanding that Lassie cannot stay with them and her letting go a wonderful moment of grace?
5) The addition of the snowy Christmas Eve is a welcome addition to the story: what does this add to the story, especially the singing of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”?