REVIEWS: Shiloh

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1997:

Shiloh
Starring Michael Moriarty,
Rod Steiger, and Scott Wilson
Warner Brothers Family Entertainment
video. 93 minutes.

Based on the Newberry Award-winning
novel of the same title by Phyllis
Reynolds Naylor, the live-action Shiloh also
resembles the Walt Disney animated classic
The Fox & The Hound. In each film, a hardedged
hillbilly recluse demonstrates the more
obviously despicable aspects of hunting, trapping,
and poaching; kicks and threatens to
kill a dog who doesn’t hunt; and eventually
commits at least one kind act, inspired by the
bond between the dog and in the former, a
boy, in the latter, a fox.


Each story owes much to 19th century
stories about the redemption of men
through the love of waifs––Heidi, Silas
Marner, The Olde Curiosity Shop– – a n d
though Charles Dickens, the most successful
purveyor of such, was more involved in combatting
child abuse than animal abuse, what
little he wrote about hunting and cruelty to
animals leaves no doubt that if he were alive
and writing today, he would give the Warner
and Disney studios similar inspiration.
S h i l o h aims for classic status. The
acting is excellent, and if the settings seem
perhaps too reminiscent of The Waltons T V
series, consider that The Waltons was as successful
as it was for as long as it was––and is
still popular in rerun––because most
Americans have known such a place, on the
fringe of rural poverty, where we once lived
or visited grandparents. We are an urbanized
people, yet most of us are also just one or two
generations from the time when possessing 40
acres and a mule marked the lower edge of at
least tenuous middle classdom.
Features of that life often included
deer-jacking for meat, trapping for spending
money, and coonhunting, ostensibly to prevent
field and garden raids––along with wifebeating,
dog-beating, incest and child abuse,
rationalized with Bible-thumping quotes recited
on faith by men who often couldn’t read.
Nor is it fully history. The mule
was long since swapped for a pickup truck,

but the rest of the so-called lifestyle of the
rural poor persists wherever good jobs are
scarce, educational standards low, and the
human population sparse enough that hunting,
trapping, and keeping family violence
quiet are practicable. As ANIMAL PEOP
L E demonstrated in 1994-1995 with a
series of county-by-county comparisons of
hunting participation, population density,
per capita income, and rates of crimes
against children, the four factors converge––and
children in poor rural areas with
high rates of hunting, the factor most closely
paralleling child abuse, are seven times
more likely to be abused and molested than
counterparts in the poorest and most otherwise
crime-ridden inner cities.
S h i l o h is a powerful anti-hunting
movie, certain to incense the hook-and-bullet
crowd and win awards from animal
rights groups. It will further win favor from
animal lovers by coming with $3 rebate
coupons which, when redeemed by the purchase
of InnoPet Veterinarian Formula Dog
Food, pay a royalty to the North Shore
Animal League.
Yet S h i l o h may just miss the
stature it seeks. A classic requires the hero
or heroine to confront both a seemingly
stronger foe and an unrecognized injustice,
helping to achieve reform by encouraging
the audience to reappraise a familiar attitude.
The hillbilly hunter is a loser from the
get-go, with no evident hope of achieving
any kind of victory. The boy hero does
meet worthy opposition in his father, whose
obey-the-law-regardless attitude evokes
moral questions raised by practitioners of
civil disobedience from Socrates to Paul
Watson––but a moral question never
answered is why the boy carries an old rifle
in his first scene, even though he tells a
squirrel in his first words, “I wouldn’t shoot
you!” He never fires the weapon. What,
then, does it signify?
Shiloh is realistic: we’ve known
people just like these. A stronger story,
however, would have given the hillbilly
hunter some local influence and responsibility,
as a member of the road crew or the
volunteer fire department, and a family,
perhaps severely troubled but bristling with
the loyalties of kin. The man who can only
hunt coons, trap rabbits, and kick dogs, by
himself, is already at the bottom of even his
own society.

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