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Literature / Old Yeller

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Notice the lack of wolves...

"Old Yeller was a hunter,
A rarin', tearin' hunter.
In any chase, he knew just how to run!
And when he hunted trouble,
He always found it double,
And that's when Old Yeller had fun!"
—from the Title Theme Tune to Disney's Film of the Book

Old Yeller is a 1956 novel by Fred Gipson about a boy and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas, adapted the following year into a live-action Disney film directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Fess Parker, Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and Chuck Connors.

15-year-old Travis Coates is the new-made man of the house while his father is away on a cattle drive. Then the wilderness blows a stray "yeller" dog into his life whom he initially distrusts... until Old Yeller saves his little brother Arliss from a Mama Bear. (Don't play with bear cubs, kids!) The two become inseparable partners, hunting and facing the dangers of The Wild West together, until tragedy forces Travis to make an adult's decision and do a man's deed.

If, by some miracle, you don't know the ending yet, tread lightly through this page...

Warning, spoilers are ahead, but most people already know what they are.

The novel and Disney film contain examples of:

  • Adaptational Angst Downgrade: Yeller is bitten fighting off a strangely-aggressive wolf. Travis realizes the wolf must have been rabid and shoots his dog that same night, destroying Yeller while he still looks and acts normal. In the film, Travis shoots Yeller when he is visibly rabid and nothing at all like the dog he used to be.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In the book, Travis shoots Old Yeller immediately after the fight, and the scene takes up less than a page. In the film, he delays the inevitable for two weeks, hoping Old Yeller won't develop rabies, and shoots him only when it's clear that he has.
  • All Dogs Are Purebred: In the book, Yeller is an Original Mountain Cur.
    • Averted in the film, where he is a Mastador (half Mastiff, half Labrador Retriever).
    • In the sequel, Savage Sam is a purebred bluetick cooonhound, even though his parents are both mongrels.
  • Ambiguous Situation: In the book, Travis can't be certain that the wolf that bit Yeller was rabid, but his mother tells him it was likely and they can't take the risk of letting Yeller live when he might go mad too.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Arliss. Atypically for this trope, he's not really trying to make trouble for the rest of his family, but he doesn't have the good judgment to stay out of danger.
  • Bait-and-Switch: A couple of times it looks like Bud Searcy is going to help the Coatses but he makes Lisbeth do it.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Arliss messes with a bear cub, attracting its Mama Bear. Fortunately, Old Yeller gets between him and the bear.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Little Arliss eventually starts believing he really is the clever hunter he boasted of being, which gets him in serious trouble when he tries to catch a bear cub.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Old Yeller is gone, but Travis has come of age and demonstrated that he can do what he needs to do to protect his family. Meanwhile, the old dog's legacy continues in his son, the new family dog.
  • A Boy and His X:
    • Travis and Old Yeller become a working partnership, though even when he comes to respect the dog, it takes him a while to move on to real affection. After Old Yeller is put down, Travis accepts the former's pup sired on Lisbeth's dog.
    • While Travis and Old Yeller had a rocky start, Arliss takes an instant shine to the dog, and is especially happy to accept Old Yeller's pup.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Arliss brings a lot of trouble on himself. Travis, their mother, and Old Yeller have to save him more than once.
  • Character Narrator: The book is a story told by an older Travis about some things that happened when he was fourteen.
  • Children Are Innocent: Arliss carelessly puts himself in dangerous situations, mostly because he's too young to understand the danger.
  • Coming of Age Story: Travis matures over the course of the story, finally crossing over from a child to a man when he must shoot the dog he has come to love.
  • Composite Character: Gipson dedicates the book to his parents for the stories they told him about their working dogs, suggesting that Yeller is based on several real-life dogs.
  • Corporal Punishment: Frequently, and Truth in Television for the time. Not only does Arliss get 'switched' on a regular basis, but Travis takes a club to their mule Jumper to get his attention.
  • Cub Cues Protective Parent: Arliss plays around with and tries to catch a bear cub, resulting in a rather displeased Mama Bear showing up. She would have mauled or even killed Arliss had Old Yeller not intervened.
  • Dead Guy Junior: The family is gifted with Old Yeller's son, but the puppy is not named until the end of the movie. By then Old Yeller has died, but his son is named Young Yeller. In the book, the pup (named Savage Sam) is also the grandson of Travis' former dog Bell, making him something of a Legacy Character.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Near the end of the book, Travis shoots his now-beloved dog.
  • Determined Homesteader: Mrs. Coates. She cooks and cleans, works the farm, is able to handle a gun, settles disputes between Travis and Arliss, and doesn't bat an eye at stitching a wound shut.
  • Disappeared Dad: Not dead, but gone on a cattle drive until the end of the story. This means Travis is responsible for the ranch and his family until he returns.
  • Everything Is Trying to Kill You: The story is set in Texas in the 1860s. Animals or even other people pose a constant danger; Travis and his mother both know how to shoot, and Arliss knows how to throw rocks.
  • Face–Monster Turn: Old Yeller in the film, thanks to the rabies he contacts from a wolf. In the book, he dies before the disease can 'turn' him.
  • Fate Worse than Death: What Old Yeller would have gone through if Travis didn't kill him before rabies took hold.
  • The Film of the Book: The Disney adaptation is just as well known as the book, possibly more so.
  • Fire Purifies: A sad version — the family has to burn the bodies of two rabid cattle in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading. Given the 'zombie' subtext of the rabies outbreak, it crosses over with Burn the Undead.
  • The First Cut Is the Deepest: In the book, Travis's childhood dog (and his dad's working partner) Bell died of a snakebite, and even though he knows he needs a working dog, he doesn't want to go through that again.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The book opens with Travis saying that he hated Yeller at first and wanted to kill him, but when he actually did have to shoot him, it broke his heart.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Arliss loves spending time with dogs, wants to make a bear cub his pet, is upset in the sequel when he thinks their mule is dead (although he tends to yell at that mule other times), and squirts milk into the barn cats' mouths while he's milking a cow. At one point he brings home a horned toad, a frog, and a snake in his pockets and his mother is not pleased.
  • Full-Boar Action: The most physically dangerous chore Travis does is catching and marking their semi-feral pigs. Even though all the males are castrated, they still have deadly tusks. When an attempt goes awry, Travis is mauled and Yeller is nearly killed.
  • Good Parents: The father goes off to earn money for the family and gives his son a sympathetic speech at the end. The movie focuses more on the mother, who is very understanding and helps when Old Yeller is injured. She is also willing to shoot him at the end when he gets rabies, but Travis decides the responsibility is his.
  • Happily Adopted: Non-human example. Old Yeller is so ingrained into the family that by the time his rightful owner shows up, even he sees that Old Yeller is better off with them.
  • Here We Go Again!: Travis doesn't entirely warm up to the new puppy until the dog starts stealing food and getting up to the same antics Yeller used to pull. Then he decides it's time to start training him to be the new working dog.
  • The Hero Dies: After all he's been through, Old Yeller dies of a Mercy Kill after he fends off a rabid wolf.
  • Heroic Dog: Old Yeller won't stand down to save his family from any threat, no matter the cost to himself.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Old Yeller fends off a rabid wolf to protect his family, but since he's bitten in the process, he is infected and has to be put down.
  • Hope Spot: In the movie, Yeller is quarantined to see whether he will develop symptoms. He seems healthy for some days but finally succumbs, forcing Travis to shoot him. The novel averts this, with Travis's mother telling him that they can't take the risk and Yeller must be put down immediately.'
  • Instant Death Bullet: Justified in most cases — Travis is doing a Mercy Kill and has time to line up a headshot. Averted in an early hunting scene where Travis shoots a doe on the run and she keeps running; she dies soon after, but he has time to worry that he didn't make a clean kill.
  • Lighter and Softer: Both films are more family friendly than the books. While Old Yeller merely omits some animal deaths, Savage Sam omits or lightens violence against humans and animals in many scenes.
    • Sam doesn't kill the Apache raider who bullies Arliss, but the warrior instead gets a humiliating but nonlethal comeuppance of being chased off and having rocks thrown at him.
    • A dramatic Friendly Sniper kill becomes more humorous by having the sniper Faint in Shock.
    • In the book, Old Jumper the mule is stabbed to death and butchered by the Apaches in front of the brothers, but in the film, he escapes and returns to the farm, with the brothers only thinking that the Apaches killed and butchered him.
    • A dramatic scene where Travis encounters a wounded and helpless Noble Demon member of the war party after the final battle, can't bring himself to shoot him, and walks away, is cut out. However, this also has the side effect of apparently giving that warrior a Death by Adaptation, since he is still shown being shot like in the scene where he was wounded in the book.
    • A bitter posse member whose wife and children were killed by Native Americans is the Coates' uncle in the book, making those dead people their aunt and cousins, but they are Unrelated in the Adaptation.
    • The film omits a scene where the prisoners helplessly watch the Apaches kill two cowboys (one of whom has a Fatal Family Photo), as well as a scene where the posse finds the corpses of more victims of the war party.
  • The Load: Bud Searcy. He's the only adult man who doesn't go on the cattle drive, ostensibly so he can keep an eye on the other settler families, but more likely because he would be hopeless at any real work. When he leaves his daughter Lisbeth with the Coatses, Travis expects her to be this too, but she proves her worth.
  • Mercy Kill: On two separate occasions, Travis shoots cattle who have rabies and are shambling around pathetically. At the climax of the book he shoots Yeller, both to save him from the same fate and to prevent the dog from endangering the rest of the family.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • Poor Old Yeller, having to be shot for contracting rabies... Hey, look! Papa has come home!
    • We get a tearjerking moment with father and son comfort one another over Old Yeller's death... Oh wait, his Precious Puppy of a son is still around!
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Old Yeller protects the family from a rabid wolf, getting bitten in the process and contracting the disease himself. The family is forced to put him down.
  • Oblivious to Love: Lisbeth Searcy has an obvious crush on Travis, who either doesn't notice or doesn't care. At least not until the third book, anyway. They are said to be married.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • As Arliss tries to steal a bear cub, a Mama Bear comes out of nowhere and charges at him. The little boy is frozen in fear, but luckily his mother carries him off while Old Yeller fends off the bear.
    • The cow's reaction to Old Yeller's Death Glare, scarring her into submission.
    • When Travis comes by to feed the now quarantined Old Yeller, he's greeted not by his loyal furry friend, but snarling and now rabid beast. He's petrified into silence, but lies to his mother over what happened, but it doesn't take long for the ruse to be discovered.
  • Papa Wolf: Near literal for Old Yeller. Nothing will stop this dog from protecting his new family, whether it be fighting a literal Mama Bear from mauling little Arliss, fending off a herd of wild hogs or staring down a cow in defense of Travis, Old Yeller never backs down from a fight if it means protecting his family. Tragically this gets him killed, as he's put down by Travis himself after Old Yeller fought against a rabid wolf that tried to attack Travis' mother and Lisbeth.
  • The Plague: Two adult characters tell Travis, out of hearing of his mother, that hydrophobia (rabies) is in the area. This frightens him, but he keeps putting it out of mind until rabid animals start showing up. The two infected cattle, though weak and pathetic, are still potentially dangerous. The wolf, on the other hand, is still strong enough to run and is blindly aggressive.
  • Privacy by Distraction: Mom asks Arliss to get her a horned toad, so he won't be present while she's dressing the injury that a boar gave to Old Yeller.
  • Promotion to Parent: Travis becomes 'man' of the house while his father is gone, assuming the responsibility to protect the ranch from threats, hunt to put food on the table, and keep Arliss out of trouble.
  • Random Species Offspring: Savage Sam is portrayed by a purebred bluetick coonhound even though Old Yeller was portrayed by a dog that was mix of Labrador and Mastiff. In the novels, Old Yeller is described as a yellow cur while his mate is a blue tick trail hound, while Savage Sam resembles both of them.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Downplayed somewhat, but being able to "man up" and shoot Yeller to protect the others is portrayed as Travis's introduction to adult responsibility, though the emphasis is not so much on the act of killing, but on the fact that Travis did the deed himself rather than leave it to someone else, signifying his entry into adulthood.
  • Replacement Goldfish:
    • After Old Yeller's death, Lisbeth brings up that the puppy Old Yeller sired by her dog is still a part of him, but Travis reminds her that the pup still isn't Old Yeller. After his father's consolation, Travis comes around and accepts the pup and names him Young Yeller.
    • In the sequel, Old Yeller's son Savage Sam takes his father's place in the family.
  • Savage Wolves: The Downer Ending is brought on when Yeller fights off an unexpectedly aggressive wolf to save the family. The characters comment on this, as the mother notes that a wolf wouldn't normally burst out to attack people at a campfire like this... which means that it was rabid, and the bites it inflicted before Travis shot it means that Yeller is doomed.
  • Shoot the Dog: The climactic act of the book — Travis destroying Yeller — is the Trope Namer.
  • Spin-Offspring: Savage Sam: Son of Old Yeller — also filmed by Disney, although deviating more strongly from its novel than the first film did.
  • This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: Travis's mother offers to fire the fatal shot, but Travis insists on doing it personally because Yeller is his dog.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: How Travis feels about shooting his dog after he has personally saved every member of the family.
  • Wham Line: After Old Yeller's fight with the wolf, the lovable dog comes trotting up to the very much relieved Travis and his concerned mother, but the latter seals Old Yeller's fate with this realization-
    No wolf in his right mind would've jumped us at the fire... not even a loafer wolf. That wolf was mad.
    • But Travis insists they keep Old Yeller in quarantine if there MIGHT be a chance their dog isn't rabid. In the film we're given a Hope Spot that seems like Old Yeller is perfectly healthy... until the night Travis is greeted by a snarling and terrifying Old Yeller, and nearly lunges at Arliss when he tried to free him. Their mother managed to stop him by a hair, but comes back with a gun and tells Travis one last chilling line over Old Yeller's fate.
      There's no hope for him now, Travis. He's suffering. You know we've got to do it.
  • Wham Shot: Unlike the novel, Travis succeeds in getting his mother to agree with his idea to lock up Old Yeller and check on him just to see if he might be rabid. For a while, it does seems like Old Yeller is fine and happy to see his family visit him with food. But one night, as Travis is coming over to feed him, Old Yeller greets his best friend with a savage and terrifying growl. Travis' reaction says it all.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Young Yeller is the family's new dog following the death of his father. But the sequel has the family with a different dog, Old Yeller's other son, Savage Sam, and does not bring up what happens to Young Yeller. According to the novels, Savage Sam and Young Yeller are the same character, as the previous novel did not give a name to the puppy Lisbeth gave Travis after the wild hog attack.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Rabies (called "hydrophobia" in the book and film) operates under the general zombie tropes — it turns its victims into shambling yet dangerous monsters, a bite will spread the sickness, anyone so bitten is effectively a Zombie Infectee, and there is no cure. The only solution they know is to Mercy Kill the victims and burn their corpses.


Old Yeller


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Example of:

Main / MercyKill

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