FamilyMichael MoriartyEntertainmentMoviesRod SteigerBlake HeronDeath

Friday April 25, 1997

     "Shiloh" is an uncommonly intelligent and thoughtful family film--although too intense for children under 8 or so--that captures that moment when a child, raised in normal circumstances, begins to realize how painful and contradictory life can really be.
     Marty Preston (Blake Heron, already a fine actor of considerable reserves and range) is an 11-year-old boy living with his parents, Ray (Michael Moriarty) and Louise (Ann Dowd), and two younger sisters (Tori Wright, Shira Roth) in a rural West Virginia community where Ray works as a mail carrier.
     Living in the vicinity is Judd Travers (Scott Wilson), a lifelong friend of Ray's, whose home is a tar-paper shack and who hunts for a living. He is training a year-old beagle one day when the animal barks at just the wrong moment. Judd strikes it on its head with a stick, causing the dog to run off, winding up in Marty's arms.
     Of course, it's love at first sight between the boy and the dog. But Marty's love for the creature he names Shiloh, after a nearby bridge, will be tested immediately--and with increasing severity.
     First of all, the reason why he doesn't already have a dog is that his grandmother has died recently and so expensively that Ray was forced to take out a second mortgage on the modest Preston family home. A stern, patriarchal moralist whose view of right and wrong is clear-cut, Ray declares the family can't afford a dog until it pays off its debts. In any case, in Ray's view, the dogs are Judd's property, and that's that.
     But Marty has good reason to believe that Judd will at the very least beat the animal severely again--he does in fact threaten to break all its legs--or simply destroy him as worthless. Even though Marty realizes his father's sense of right and wrong clashes with his own, he feels he must do everything he can to protect Shiloh.
     What Marty above all learns is that it can take an awful lot of time and effort to get adults to listen to you and to take you seriously. Only when an opportunity presents itself for Marty to sit down with the local doctor (Rod Steiger) does the boy get support in deciding to fight to keep Shiloh.
     What's so good about this film, adapted from the Phyllis Reynolds Naylor novel by its skilled director Dale Rosenbloom, is that it takes its time in letting us get to know its people--yet it lasts only a modest 93 minutes.
     At the outset you have no idea how crucial a role Steiger's doctor will play, and that both Ray and even Judd will acquire such dimension. In a strong yet appropriately understated directorial debut, Rosenbloom turns his cast, which includes Bonnie Bartlett as the doctor's kindly wife and J. Madison Wright as his little granddaughter Samantha, into an effective ensemble. And Shiloh, played by a beagle named Frannie, is a winner, too.
     You can actually believe these people live where they do and behave as they do. It was Steiger who suggested Wilson for Judd Travers, and Wilson helps us understand a man who is almost too easy to hate. Since this handsome film, shot on location, has so much going for it, it's a shame it's stuck with such a trite, smarmy score that goes for the very sentimentality that "Shiloh" takes such pains to transcend.

Shiloh, 1997. PG, for mild violence. A Legacy release of a Utopia Pictures/Carl Borack production in association with Zeta Entertainment. Writer-director Dale Rosenbloom. Based on the novel by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Producers Zane W. Levitt, Rosenbloom. Executive producers Carl Borack, Mark Yellen. Cinematographer Frank Byers. Editor Mark Westmore. Costumes Charmain Schreiner. Music Joel Goldsmith. Production designer Amy Ancona. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Blake Heron as Marty Preston. Scott Wilson as Judd Travers. Michael Moriarty as Ray Preston. Rod Steiger as Doc Wallace.

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