Based on the children’s story by Eleanor Atkinson of a loving Skye terrier and his master, Disney’s Greyfriars Bobby presents us with the heart – warming tale of a unique bond between Bobby and Auld Jock (Alex Mackenzie). Auld Jock and his loyal companion have a very special relationship – one that continues beyond the grave. After a Scottish farmer is unable to employ Auld Jock any longer, he sends him off to Edinburgh where he dies from pneumonia. Bobby mourns his late master’s death, insisting on sleeping atop the grave every night. When local police constable Sgt. Davie Maclean (Duncan Macrae) insists that Bobby must have a license, it leads to the questioning of Bobby’s true ownership. Local restaurant owner, Mr Traill (Laurence Naismith) and Greyfriars Kirkyard caretaker James Brown (Donald Crisp) both claim to have befriended Bobby, but neither will pay his license on ‘matter of principle’ as they are not the dog’s true owners. The local children take it upon themselves to devise a plan to save Bobby’s life.
The film falls under multiple genres and they work together to set up a larger, hybrid genre:
- Family Film: recognisable through a film’s appeal to a mixed audience of adults and children. Tim Dirks describes the Family Film as a ‘focus on children’s – related themes that teach a lesson or a moral or show that good can triumph over evil.’ In Greyfriars Bobby, we are presented with a ‘heartwarming Disney esque finale’ – the classic, happy ending where Bobby is saved. The build-up to this incorporates a series of slapstick interludes – humour suitable for all, as well as moral questions, allowing children to comfortably question the larger themes nestled within the comedy.
- Drama: ‘Serious presentations or stories with settings of life situations that portray a realistic character in conflict with either themselves, or others, or forces of nature.’ Greyfriars Bobby depicts a conflict between human and animal through the terrier’s absence of ownership, but we question if he really needs it. His anthropomorphic nature means he adopts many roles and possesses traits which are unique yet adequate for survival.
Throughout the film, Bobby is continuously rebelling against his human equivalents to maintain proximity to Auld Jock. It is clear Bobby has chosen Jock to be his lifetime companion and cannot bear it when the law insists someone else must fill this role, showing his unique independence and devotion to Jock. The thematic issue throughout oscillates between who Bobby’s new owner is vs. does Bobby need an owner? A number of the locals are infatuated with Bobby, unable to resist his strong character and adorable charm and though Bobby returns this fondness, he never commits himself to a single person.
Bobby’s freedom vs. constrained ownership is reflected in the filmmakers’ choice of scenery: the beautiful, serene and pastoral Scottish highlands. Bobby excitedly runs around the fields, barking at the flocks of sheep who scarper from him, highlighting the instinctual behaviour of a yappy little terrier. In this free environment, Bobby is his own boss. But when Jock departs to Edinburgh, the farmer’s daughter tries to mould the canine into her pet. Bobby rebels, refusing to be dominated and instead runs off to Edinburgh in search of Jock. In the second scene, Bobby finds himself in the bustling city, which only serves to drive him towards a possessor and threaten his freedom.
One way to interpret this idea of Bobby’s right to freedom can be explored through the historical context of the film. The film, made in 1961, situates itself at the height of the Cold War and more specifically during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. In this event there was a reluctance of both the US alliance and the USSR to give up their interest in Germany. Neither side wanted to risk what would happen to Germany if the other were to have complete control. In Greyfriars Bobby we see a similar conflict, as Traill and Brown both wish to have complete control and ownership of Bobby. Yet the film explores the idea of Bobby’s freedom, his right to control his own life and his decision to choose an owner (if any at all). The construction of the Berlin Wall caused millions of Germans misery, just as one owner ultimately causes Bobby distress, as an owner is ultimately a metaphorical barrier which takes away his freedom.
The filmmakers explore this assimilation through anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to Bobby). For example, when looking for Jock, Bobby runs by Traill’s restaurant. A diner shoos him away, throwing him to the floor saying that a restaurant is no place for an animal. Yet Traill insists ‘you’re in his master’s usual place for dinner on market day’, giving Bobby a right to be in this human environment. Bobby is mainly fed stew and broth (human food) and sits up to the table to eat. The filmmakers cleverly assimilate the wee terrier to a human by doing this, exploring the idea that dog and human are equal. This, amongst other anthropomorphic traits of the terrier serve to question how much human intervention is necessary for the terrier to survive alone.
Despite this on-going dramatic tension in the film, Disney negotiates an outcome to the complication in true style Family Film fashion. Bobby is given an owner yet simultaneously maintains his freedom. The children collect money for the terrier’s license fee meaning that Bobby now belongs to everyone. He is granted Freedom of the City by the Lord Provost (Andre Cruickshank) who declares, ‘he belongs to all of you, and all of you are responsible for him.’ This outcome is desirable for its genre, as the dramatic tension gives way to a heart – warming cathartic release. As Bobby is sat bolt upright on the lectern, looking down on the fellow citizens of Greyfriars, he is presented with a collar, symbolic of ownership at last. Yet the ownership does not work with the idea of taking away freedom, it instead works with the idea of keeping it. This favourable resolution is embedded in the bronze which still stands in Edinburgh today.
Moreover, Bobby is shown to be playing a number of roles in the film, most of which represent him as having some aspect of human entity. For many of the characters, Bobby is more than a dog and fills gaping holes within their lives. For the local children, he serves as a friend, for the Browns he is a child (‘A dog could just be as much company as a bairn.’), for Traill, he is a partner (‘I’ve courted the wee terrier for a long time of my own’). But most importantly, for Auld Jock, Bobby was all of these things. Interestingly, Bobby has also been a Best Man! Bobby naturally interacts with the cast through his consistent yapping and tail wagging. His pink tongue hangs playfully from his mouth as he scampers around the film set making him irresistible. Though he looks like a dog, his personality gives him an edge which pushes him into a human boundary and this owes to the filmmakers’ success of exploring the boundaries between human and animal.
This idea is represented through the comedic interludes of the film (typical of the Family Film genre). The filmmakers cleverly present one idea in contrast to another by having actors make a statement about Bobby and then cutting to him doing the opposite. For example, in the courtroom Mrs Brown states, ‘it’s very respectful’ and almost instantly, there is a cut to Bobby chewing on the coroner’s quill. The filmmakers have deliberately done this to emphasise the boundaries between animal and human and how, despite his domestication, it is still in Bobby’s canine nature to play with objects around him.
Another film which stories the life of an adorable, fluffy hero is Hachi: A dog’s tale (no pun intended!) It is reminiscent of Greyfriars Bobby as both films are dramatic accounts of dogs separated from their masters by death. In each film, the dogs have chosen their masters and spend the rest of their lives waiting for them with true devotion, refusing to be reclaimed by anyone else. Interestingly, like Bobby, Hachi rejects the stereotypical role of a pet. The Akita is hardly ever seen to be on a lead, refuses to play ‘catch’ and indulges in the past times of the typical American by watching a game of baseball with Parker (Richard Gere). When Parker’s family attempt to re adopt Hachi into their new home, he runs away. This relates to the idea that a dog must choose his owner, a thematic issue embedded in Greyfriars Bobby. Lastly, both films have similar generic focusses: the Biopic (apparent from the bronzes which commemorate the bravery of the canines), Family Film (exemplified through scenes that celebrate and delight in scenes of family activity) and lastly, Drama (Hachi’s confliction with other animals, humans and forces of nature).
Atkinson, Eleanor, Greyfriars Bobby (London: Puffin Classics, 1940)
Cramb, Auslan, ‘Casting row dogs the remake of Greyfriars Bobby’, The Telegraph (2002)
Guardian, ‘Greyfriars Bobby story was a scam to lure tourists, historian says,’, The Guardian (2011) < https://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/04/greyfriars-bobby-story-scam-lure-tourists
Atkinson, Eleanor Greyfriars Bobby, (London: Puffin Classics, 1940).
Dirks, Tim ‘Biopic Films’, Filmsite (1996) < https://www.filmsite.org/biopics.html [Accessed 5 April 2013]
Tim Dirks, ‘Drama Films’, Filmsite (1996) < https://www.filmsite.org/dramafilms.html > [Accessed 5 April 2013]
Dirks, Tim, ‘Children – Kids Family Films’, Filmsite (1996) <www.filmsite.org/childrensfilms.html> [Accessed 5 April 2013]
Erikson, Hal ‘Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961)’, Flixster (Date not stated) < https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/greyfriars_bobby [Accessed 5 April 2013]
Greyfriars Bobby. Dir. Don Chaffey. Walt Disney Pictures, 1961
Piper, Laura, ‘Original plaster model of Greyfriars Bobby fetches £3100 at auction’, STV (2007) < https://local.stv.tv/edinburgh/211498-original-plaster-model-of-greyfriars-bobby-fetches-3100-at-auction [Accessed 5 April 2013]
 Eleanor Atkinson, Greyfriars Bobby, (London: Puffin Classics, 1940).
 Greyfriars Bobby, Dir. Don Chaffey. Walt Disney Pictures, 1961. (All film quotations are taken from this version unless parenthetically stated).
 Laura Piper, ‘Original plaster model of Greyfriars Bobby fetches £3100 at auction’, STV (2007) < https://local.stv.tv/edinburgh/211498-original-plaster-model-of-greyfriars-bobby-fetches-3100-at-auction [Accessed 5 April 2013] (para. 7).