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Film: Badlands
Director: Terrence Malick
Performers: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates
Breeds featured: Great Dane or Catahoula, German Shepherd, Collie (warning: pictured dead)
Production information: Warner Brothers, 1973 (USA)

In Malick’s version of the Starkweather-Fugate murders, the beautiful dog that occupies the opening shot becomes the first victim of love. Seems like the message is that you can’t have love without sacrifice.

Warning: the slideshow after the cut includes still images of a dead dog (not the one pictured above).

Veteran film critic Jim Emerson gives a tantalizing analysis of the opening sequence here:

The movie first connects [the central couple, Holly and Kit] through their associations with dogs. Holly shows more emotional attachment to her dog than to her distant father. Kit feels none of the empathy or emotion we would expect someone to show upon finding a dead dog. Something is missing in the lives of these two, a hole that each believes — for a time, at least — that the other can fill.

Holly’s dog (who is nameless, like almost all of the characters except the young lovers themselves) becomes, in effect, the movie’s first victim of violent rage, carried out with ruthless resolve. Holly’s father (Warren Oates) uses her dog to punishes her for seeing Kit, and that’s what sets off the murderous spree.

Jim Emerson, “Opening Shots: Badlands” (2 June 2011)

Nameless though he may be, I thought the suggestion of the dog’s breed was at least somewhat significant. However, the breed ID is somewhat amorphous to me, perhaps intentionally so. At first, I thought that he was a merle Great Dane, which would have marked the father’s gift to his daughter with some kind of extravagance. This was particularly poignant in contrast to the young girl’s opening narration about the personal loss that compelled the widower father to uproot himself and his “little stranger” of a daughter from Texas to South Dakota. I assumed the youthful dog was a conciliatory gift from father to daughter bestowed after the move. The dog appears massive (keeping in mind Sissy Spacek is a small woman), happy to be a child’s toy, yet almost out of place sitting jauntily on the tiny girl’s finely wrought bed.

However, in the dog’s death scene, he appears to lack the jowls, the ears, and the build of a Great Dane. And as the town seems populated with working dogs and mutts, a Catahoula cur might be more symbolically appropriate and realistic in this context.

Or you know, maybe he’s just a pretty blue mutt.

The breed matters for what it suggests of the weight of relationships imposed upon Holly, and the values that haunted her family background up to the point that it all fell apart. Her dog was not merely a stray Collie to be discarded for roadside trash pickup. Hers was given to her to fulfill a very different purpose as her companion. But ultimately, it made no difference. Indeed, all of Holly’s most intimate relationships in this story are just as fragile, easily given and taken at whim.

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The House of Two Bows keeps a running index of movies blurbed on the site, annotated by breed. If you’re interested in writing a guest blog for a dog film, contact for details.