Killing “The Yearling”

This was a heavy one. I’d taped it off TCM and before watching it with the kids, I did a quick look at the reviews on Netflix; on the first page they were all saying “classic film, great family movie,” etc. It’s really good: Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman as the husband and wife homesteading in the Florida swamps in the 1870s, and Claude Jarman Jr. as their 12 year old (?) son Jody. Jarman was one of those slightly melancholy child stars who never made it as an adult actor.

It was filmed on location in Florida and the sense of place is wonderfully vivid. Sarah had just read that new novel Swamplandia so she especially enjoyed the depiction of the swamps.  The basic plot is that the little family is, with difficulty, trying to eke out an isolated living with their only human companionship some slightly scary neighbors a couple miles away.  Jody has a warm relationship with his dad, but the Jane Wyman mother character is critical and cold; we soon learn that she lost three previous children (we see her looking at their gravestones) and so she withholds affection from Jody out of fear of being hurt once again.

There’s an intense scene of bear-hunting in the swamps: the black bear tussles with and tosses around the family’s dogs, and Pa’s rifle sticks so he nearly blows his own face off.  Later dad is bitten by a rattlesnake and only Jody’s valiant bravery allows him to (just barely) survive.

The main dynamic of the movie involves Jody’s desire for a pet, something he can love.  Ma doesn’t think they can afford the costs of keeping another animal in the house.  (I was never quite clear why the dogs couldn’t do it for Jody; he needs something all his own).  A pretty strange emotional system is operating in the household.  Ma withholds her love.  The son, as a response, needs something else to love, but Ma forbids this.  The stalemate breaks in a somewhat overdetermined manner.  After Pa is bitten by the snake, he pulls up his gun and shoots a doe, which he then commands Jody to go to, cut open her belly, and pull out her heart and liver to place on his wound to drain the poison.  Jody does this, which apparently saves his father; they then notice that the doe had a baby faun with her.  They rush back to the house, but once it seems that dad is pulling through, Jody asks permission to go fetch the faun as a pet.  This time Ma can’t say no, and so the adorable little creature becomes a member of the household.

Trouble develops when the faun, whom they’ve named Flag, turns into a yearling, a mischievous, hard-to-control older animal.  When Flag eats the family’s desperately-needed garden crop one time too many (they were counting on selling tabacco as a cash crop to pay for a new well so Ma would not need to carry water a half-mile), the still-bedridden Pa commands Jody to kill the deer.  He refuses, and so Ma has to do it.  She’s a bad shot and only wounds the animal, so Jody has to finish Flag off.  Jody tells his parents he hates them, runs away, collapses on an abandoned boat in the swamp, is found on the river and returned home.  He now accepts that Flag did have to be killed; he himself is now no longer a yearling but a man.  Ma can love him unconditionally (with no competition from Flag).

Now, on the one hand, there’s a realistic logic to all of this and I can imagine a scenario of this sort actually unfolding in these circumstances.  I even felt it was at some level a useful thing for the girls to think about, the hardship and difficulties people used to endure that would lead them to such a dilemma.

That said, the whole movie does play out as a somewhat bizarre lesson in the necessity of killing the creature you love.  After all the upbeat reviews on Netflix I came across this more critical (one-star) one:

This is another one of those message films about animals that were so popular during the 1940s and 1950s. These films warn that if a child or adult dares to elevate an animal to the level of a human, they will pay for it. The main theme is this: Beware of loving an animal too much–this is a childish notion and practically a sin. This misguided love will come back to hurt you in the end. Another example would be The Red Pony with Robert Mitchum. Fine actors such as Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman (or Robert Mitchum in Red Pony) cannot take away from the terrible sadness of these films. If you’re an animal loveing adult or a child, this is one you should avoid.

This commentator does have a point; there’s a certain sadism in the way the movie encourages you to love Flag as much as Jody does and then to face up to the necessity of destroying him.  Again, these sorts of choices did have to made, I’m sure, but there’s something pointed in the way this movie (and some others of the period) develop the narrative around precisely this dynamic.  And in this case there seems to be an especially odd sacrificial logic at play.  (A) Jody’s siblings all died, so his mother cannot love him fully.  (B) He therefore needs an animal to love.  (C) But the necessary cost of earning his mother’s unequivocal love is to kill that animal (which was literally taking water and food out of her mouth). (D) Also: to be a man is to kill the animal (Ma can’t actually kill Flag, Jody must do it in the place of his father).   (E) And don’t forget that Flag could only join the family because its mother, the doe, served as an organ donor to save Pa.  So the animal is needed, but not to love, only as a resource, something to be “harvested” like a crop.  (Jody had actually allowed Flag to curl up on his bed, which seems a fundamental taboo.)

The girls were not as upset by it as we expected, possibly b/c we took a break and then watched the last 45 minutes the next day after explaining what happens.

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2 Responses

  1. We had a similar experience of one of the Lassie movies, which some googling suggests to me is Courage of Lassie ft. Elizabeth Taylor … like most of the original Lassie movies apparently, this one features Lassie as a war dog … human/animal relations really whacked out … speaking of which, Ivan, I assume you have seen Downfall? Pretty great business there around Hitler’s beloved pet German Shepherd “Blondi.”

  2. No, I have seen dozens of versions of the Downfall meme but have never gotten around to the film itself. Good to know, thanks!

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