Old Yeller

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In 1860s post-Civil War Texas, Jim Coates (Fess Parker) leaves home to work on a cattle drive, leaving behind his wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire), older son Travis (Tommy Kirk) and younger son Arliss (Kevin Corcoran).

While Jim is away, Travis sets off to work in the cornfield, where he encounters “Old Yeller” (Spike), a Mastador (Labrador Retriever/ Mastiff) mix. He was called that because of “yeller’ being a slang pronunciation of yellow, his color. Travis unsuccessfully tries to drive the dog away, but Arliss likes him and defends him to Travis. However, the dog’s habit of stealing meat from smokehouses and robbing hens’ nests does not endear him to Travis.

Later, Arliss tries to capture a black bear cub by feeding it cornbread and grabbing it. Its angry mother hears her cub wailing and attacks, but Old Yeller appears and drives her off, earning the affection of the family. Travis eventually accepts him and a profound bond grows between them.

Old Yeller’s owner, Burn Sanderson (Chuck Connors), shows up looking for his dog, but comes to realize that they need him more than he does, and agrees to trade him to Arliss in exchange for a horny toad and a home-cooked meal.

One day, Travis sets out to trap wild boars. On the advice of Bud Searcy (Jeff York), he sits in a tree, trying to rope them from above as Old Yeller keeps them from escaping. Travis falls into the pack, one of which injures him. Old Yeller attacks it and rescues Travis, who escapes with a badly-hurt leg. Old Yeller is seriously wounded as well. Searcy warns them of hydrophobia (rabies) in the area. Fortunately, the boars did not have hydrophobia, and both Travis and Old Yeller fully recover.

However, the family soon realize that their cow, Rose, has not been allowing her calf to feed and may have rabies. Watching her stumble about, Travis confirms it and shoots her. While Katie and Lisbeth Searcy (Beverly Washburn) burn the body that night, a rabid wolf attacks. Old Yeller defends the family, but is bitten in the struggle before Travis can shoot and kill the wolf. They pen Old Yeller in the corn crib for several weeks to watch him. Soon when Travis goes to feed him, he growls and snarls at him. After he nearly attacks Arliss, who, not understanding the danger, had attempted to open the corn crib, a grieving Travis is forced to shoot him. In doing so, he takes his first step towards adulthood.

Heartbroken from the death of his beloved dog, Travis refuses the offer of a new puppy fathered by Old Yeller. Jim comes home with a bagful of money and presents for his family. Having learned about Old Yeller’s fate from Katie, he explains the facts about life and death to Travis. When they get back to the farm, the young puppy steals a piece of meat, a trick he learned from his father. Travis adopts him, naming him “Young Yeller” in honor of his father.


When it comes to non animated Disney classics, there are quite a few, but one that sticks out because it isn’t a fairytale, doesn’t have a happy ending, and is perhaps the most realistic of all the films to bear the name of Disney is Old Yeller. Now, before I get into this review, a little full disclosure, if you will indulge me this luxury. I am a cat person who cannot stand dogs. As such, the feelings that people have for canines and the love they have for the species does not apply to me as they are nothing more than filthy animals. That said, ironically, this is one of the films I would list on my personal top 25 of all time.

What is this about?

Young Travis Coates is left to take care of the family ranch with his mother and younger brother while his father goes off on a cattle drive in the 1860’s. When a yellow mongrel comes for an uninvited stay with the family, Travis reluctantly adopts the dog. After a series of scrapes involving raccoons, snakes, bears and all manner of animals, Travis grows to love and respect Old Yeller, who comes to have a profound effect on the boy’s life.

What did I like?

Coming of age. It may be a term that has been thrown around so much that it has lost its meaning, but this is a coming of age film…in some respects. I say this because our protagonist, young Travis, starts the film as a young man of about 16 or so, I’d say. His father has to head up to Kansas to herd cattle and will be gone for 3-4 months, leaving him as the man of the house. If those circumstances don’t man you up, nothing will. Also, as the film goes along, we see Travis develop as a provider and protector, with the help of Old Yeller. Speaking of his relationship with Yeller that starts out rocky and grows into one of true love which leads to the tragedy at film’s end.

Realism. This is one of the few films to come out of the House of Mouse, especially before the late 90s, that didn’t have an ending that was neat, tidy, and happy. As a matter of fact, the ending, excluding the last few scenes starting with the return of the father, is actually what has made this film so popular today. There is just something about animal deaths in movies that really chokes people up. Bambi’s mother, Mufasa, the dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows, etc. all send folks headed for their tissues. I’m perhaps one of the biggest fans of magic pixie dust saving everything in films, but I can appreciate the realism that occurs every now and then, especially if it is done in such a way that it doesn’t send you to the kitchen wanting to slit your wrists.

Powerful. When animals get sick, they have to be put down, even if they are the titular character of a film. As the film hits its tragic climax, Old Yeller has contracted hydrophobia (rabies) from a wolf that bit and scratched him while he was protecting the family. The connection between best friends is probably one of the strongest around, save for the maternal bond. With that in mind, imagine what it would be like if say your best friend contracted some deadly disease and became a danger to everyone, including themselves, so you have to put them out of their misery. That is basically the scene that happens as Travis has to put down Old Yeller. It is a quick scene, but definitely the most powerful one of the entire film, and the one that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.

What didn’t I like?

Well-trained. Old Yeller really is a smart dog. He knows his name, when to protect humans, not to randomly steal food, and so on and so forth. Here’s my thing, though, if this dog is so smart, why is it that he ran away? Seems to me an intelligent dog would know to stick around, or at least how to get back. I’m taking into account that perhaps they were on some sort of cattle drive, but from listening to his owner talk, it was more like he just ran away from home. Not very smart!

Brat. Kids these days have no respect for parents, adults, or authority, believing they can do whatever they want. I think the younger son, Arliss, was foreshadowing of this. I’ve never seen any child who lives in the west act this way. Everytime Travis or his mother told him something to do, he would either ignore it or do the exact opposite. He made sure to let it be known that he only would listen to his father. Perhaps that is the reason he’s such a bad kid, he has no one around  to play with and his dad is always gone, so he just acts out. He acting out nearly cost his family their lives. His mother clearly told him not to open the corn coop where a (unbeknownst to him) rabid Old Yeller was placed. In an act of defiance unlike any other, he looks dead at his mother and continues to attempt to open it until she gets there. What a brat!!!

Something missing. This is an average length film, running just over 90 minutes. However, I feel that in an effort to keep the runtime down, something was cut out. I have never read the book, so I can’t say for sure, but there just seem to be random holes in time, most notably a time-lapse after the hog incident (or they healed really quickly). Also, I feel I should mention how small a role the mother actually plays. Sure, she’s the mother and does all those type of things, but until the climax, she doesn’t really have much to do, compared to what you would see some other frontier women do.  This isn’t that big of an issue, but she seems more of the strong type as opposed to the delicate flower, so there you go.

What can I say about Old Yeller? This is a quality family film filled with drama and emotion, but ultimately is a fun film. I wouldn’t go in this expecting to be blown away by the acting because, truthfully, it isn’t that great. However, the great story, beautiful scenery, and pure innocence of the film more than make up for all of that. Let me stop rambling and just say that yes I recommend this as one of the films you should see before you die!

5 out of 5 stars

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