Maggie A's Meanderings




January 23, 2011

The Old Yeller Abyss

Two movies that I've seen once and said I would never, but never, watch again are "Old Yeller" and "The Abyss." It isn't because they were bad movies or I didn't like them. It's because both movie share a common storyline, one I never want to see again.

(I seriously have seen both movies only one time and both of those times were decades ago, so excuse me if I'm a little fuzzy on the plot details.)

In "Old Yeller" we're introduced to a problem dog. He sucks eggs, literally, and is an all-around trouble maker until he's redeemed by the love of a boy. Old Yeller goes on to become the best movie dog, right up there with Lassie. Toward the end of the movie, the boy gets attacked by a rabid wolf. Old Yeller, risking his own life, bravely saves the boy from the wolf. The wolf dies, Old Yeller survives, the boy is all right and we think all is well. But in the course of doing his duty, Old Yeller got bitten. He develops rabies, goes psycho on the boy, and the boy, heartbreakingly, has to kill Old Yeller by shooting him in the head.

I watched "Old Yeller" when I was a little girl and when Old Yeller died, I proved why the saying, "Cried like a little girl" exists. I bawled my eyes out. I'd never seen a movie where the animal hero was killed. Lassie never died in anything. The Lone Ranger's horse, Silver, never even got shot no matter how many bullets flew past him (at least not in any of the episodes I'd watched). In "The Three Lives of Thomasina," the cat, Thomasina, doesn't die -- she magically recovers after a trip to cat heaven and is reunited with her family. And in "Old Yeller," Disney just spent an entire movie making me fall in love with this dog only to have the dog be killed in the end because he contracted rabies saving the boy's life?! I'd have been less upset if the boy died and the dog lived. Once I stopped crying, I couldn't believe that this was a movie targeted for children, or that parents let their kids watch it without giving them any kind of warning about what was coming.

In "The Abyss," the part of Old Yeller is played by Michael Biehn in the character of Navy SEAL Lieutenant Hiram Coffey. Now I doubt that either James Cameron as writer/director or Michael Biehn as the actor thought of it that way, but the comparison was inevitable for me. In "The Abyss," an American nuclear submarine has sunk. A team of Navy SEALs joins a deep sea underwater oil rig in order to locate and salvage the sub. The Navy SEALs are led by Old Yeller (excuse me, I mean Lt. Coffey) a man with a problematic disposition -- he's kind of a jerk -- but he's a brave man, loyally serving his country. (Brave, loyal: good doggie) During the course of the assignment, Coffey develops High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, a psychotic illness, and goes off the deep end from being that far underwater. He then goes psycho, takes the people on the oil rig captive, steals a nuclear weapon which he wants to use to destroy the bad guys (or who he thinks are the bad guys in his delusional state) and tries to kill anyone who gets in his way, thereby demonstrating exactly why we have the concept in law of "Not guilty by reason of insanity." Lt. Coffey takes off in a mini-submersible. It gets damaged in a fight and falls into the nearby abyss, sinking deeper until it implodes, killing him.

Michael Biehn stars in The Old Yeller Abyss

That's actually not the main storyline of "The Abyss." The main storyline's something to do with underwater aliens, but the only thing I remember about them was it was an eye-catching special effect for the time. What I primarily remember about the experience of watching "The Abyss" was the sensation of wanting to scream at the screen, "Somebody help that poor guy!" as I watched Coffey become sicker and sicker. It was distressing watching this serviceman going off the deep end.  However, even if anyone had recognized in time what was happening to him, he couldn't be taken back up to the surface because, of course, there was a hurricane happening. A big storm seems to be mandatory for every deep sea movie. Apparently deep sea underwater operations are magnets for storms: They're the trailer parks of the oceans. So Coffey was stuck underwater until he was completely paranoid bonkers. At the point where he went psycho, I could not accept him as a villain. He was clearly delusional and was acting from those delusions to do what he thought was best in order to serve his country. I would no more blame him for what he did than I blamed Old Yeller for trying to rip that little boy's throat out. 

Coffey's slow motion death was just an awful thing to see. Unlike Old Yeller, Coffey died on screen. We see Coffey through the glass port fighting to regain control of the damaged submersible. We see the moment where he realizes it's useless and he's going to die. Then it's watching his face as he faces the inevitable as the submersible sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss until the pressure builds and the submersible implodes, smashing this good man like a cockroach. Horrifying. It was a scene I never wanted to see again for the rest of my life. (In one of life's little ironies, now that "The Abyss" is being shown on AMC, the one scene I didn't want to see again is part of their commercial for the movie. So I've now seen Coffey's submersible implode over and over. But it still doesn't mean I'm going to watch the rest of the movie.)

Now I didn't cry when Coffey died. In "Old Yeller" Old Yeller's death was the climax of the whole movie: everything had been emotional manipulation leading up to that point. "The Abyss" goes on for quite a while after Lt. Coffey dies --- I just don't remember any of it until the aliens surface in some really big ship at the very end of the movie. So the aliens were designed to be the "payoff" of "The Abyss." As Coffey's death was just a mid-point it was never meant to have the emotional impact of Old Yeller's death. Besides, despite my profound sympathy and compassion for Lt. Coffey, I liked Old Yeller better. I like big dogs; Old Yeller I would take home and scratch behind the ears. I never had the urge to scratch Hiram Coffey behind his ears or to take him home. I just had the urge to take him to a hospital.    

But just because I didn't "cry like a little girl" watching "The Abyss" doesn't mean I want to see the movie again. How many times do I have to see Old Yeller die? For some things, once is enough.

For more about movies, read "Hollywood's Bizarre Take on Rape," "4 Classic Novels that Are Way More Depressing than You Think They Are Based on the Movies" or, for a lighter side, "Star Wars, Einstein and When Lucas Got It Right." Please take a moment to look around the Archive.



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