The late-afternoon Oklahoma sun shone between the trees, lighting the old man in vertical stripes as he crunched through the autumn leaves toward the split-rail fence. When he got to the fence, he bent down and reached between the lower rails to a small shadow on the other side. He withdrew his hand, but now it held a lump of rusty fur that was licking and chewing his fingers as only an eight-week-old redbone puppy can.
Tears glistened in the old man’s eyes as he stood up and gazed past the rail fence and its enclosed corn patch to the barn and the unpainted frame house and then to the lazy Illinois River in the background.
Wilson Rawls, best-selling author, had come home just as he had written he would on the last page of Where the Red Fern Grows. “All I have left are my dreams and memories, but if God is willing, some day I’d like to go back—back to those beautiful hills. I’d like to walk again on trails I walked in my boyhood days.”
Rawls was back home to see the set and help with the motion picture adaptation of his book. He met Stewart Peterson, the young Latter-day Saint star of the film who was to play the same part that Rawls had played 35 years ago in real life.
“I just can’t believe it,” Rawls said as he looked around the set and talked to Stewart about his boyhood in the Ozarks. “Everything reminds me of those days, and Stewart is really wonderful for the part. He is totally involved in the story.”
Shooting on the location where a story actually took place and choosing an unknown to star in a film because he could “feel” it are both honest approaches to help recreate rural life during the depression.
Such concepts of honesty in movies today are as hard to find as a good-looking pair of nurse’s shoes. Yet the motion picture version of Where the Red Fern Grows was painstakingly constructed with complete integrity in mind.
The screenplay follows almost exactly the best-selling story of the same name written by Wilson Rawls. Mr. Rawls actually lived the story of the red fern when he was a boy growing up in the Green Country Ozark Hills of eastern Oklahoma during the depression. His story is about a young boy, Billy Coleman, who works very hard to get two hunting hounds and treats his life with them as they hunt together in the Ozark hills. The red fern symbolizes the deep feelings a boy has for his family and boyhood surroundings.
“It is a real, honest story of love—a boy’s love for his dogs and for his family,” said Beverly Garland, co-star of the film. Miss Garland is probably best known for her role as Fred MacMurray’s wife in the TV series My Three Sons.
Norman Tokar, veteran Disney director, said, “Our job is to capture the feelings of this period—how it was to live at that time—and to understand the craving a boy might have for two hound dogs. We also need to capture a mother’s love for her children and the desire she has to educate them. If we do all that, then we have a successful film.”
Naturally, to best tell Rawls’ story the spot chosen for the setting of the film is the place where it really happened. So a new homestead began to rise in a little clearing next to a bend in the Illinois River just north of No Head Hollow, five miles north of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
In the meantime a major talent search for “just the right boy” to play the role of Billy Coleman was being conducted over a wide area of the nation.
More than 600 young men tried out for the role. Stewart was one of them.
Like most Latter-day Saint boys his age, Stewart knows what it is like to want something and then discipline himself to work toward that goal.
A deacon in the Cokeville Wyoming Ward, Stewart is already working toward the time when he can go on a mission, and he is also saving to buy a horse—long-range goals not unlike Billy Coleman’s desire for his dogs.
At 13 he knows a lot about hard work because a good deal of his life has been spent haying, moving sprinkler pipe, feeding and herding cattle, and doing other typical ranch chores. Some he likes better than others.
“Fencing is the worst, and stamping posts is no fun unless you have your cousin to talk to,” he said.
Stewart’s rural ranch background and his ability to work hard were to prove valuable assets, because after several tryouts and screen tests he was chosen for the starring role in the film.
He knew the odds were not in his favor.
“I really didn’t think I had much of a chance,” he said. “But I figured it would be a good experience to at least try.”
So, amid best wishes from his father, two brothers, and three sisters, Stewart and his mother left Cokeville for California where he read for Norman Tokar, director of the film. Later he did some videotaped scenes in Provo, Utah, and was eventually invited to the film’s location in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for final tryouts and interviews. Even at this stage Stewart felt so uncertain that he brought only a few clothes, expecting his stay in Oklahoma to be very brief.
Stewart’s co-stars agree that he is doing more than acting a part; he is really feeling what it was like to be Billy Coleman.
“He is from a good Mormon family, and his life of work on the farm is much like Billy Coleman’s. He hunts deer and rabbits instead of coons, but this is his kind of life, and he is very sensitive to it,” said Miss Garland. “I doubt if a city boy could have felt the part the way he did.”
Jack Ging, who plays Stewart’s father in the film, added that he felt it was better Stewart had not been in films or even in a school drama class before.
“The wonderful thing about any child is his naivety and honesty. A little child has to play himself. Judy Garland and Shirley Temple were themselves, and they had magic. When you find this kind of magic, you have a star.
“It is to Stewart’s advantage not to have worked before because Norman Tokar can bring all of the right feelings out in him. It wouldn’t be right if he were trying to act. He is not an actor—he is a boy who loves dogs, the country, and his family; and without that we wouldn’t have a picture. That is why he is doing such a good job,” said Mr. Ging.
Stewart’s personal beliefs are very consistent with the requirements for the film. In the scene in the grandfather’s store, the script called for him to drink a strawberry soda pop, but as luck would have it, the only thing available was a cola. The cameras were stopped until a strawberry drink was sent from town.
In the following scene from the script, Billy Coleman learns the same lesson about faith and prayer that Stewart Peterson had already learned as a young Latter-day Saint.
In front of Grandpa’s store a blue tick hound has just been sold to the Pritchards. Mr. Pritchard counts out the cash, and Billy’s eyes are wide with longing as Rubin and Rainie [Mr. Pritchard’s sons] untie the pup.
Rainie: I sure have seen better dogs in my day.
Rubin: It’ll be hard, but we’ll make somethin’ out of him.
The Pritchards walk off toward their wagon. As Rainie passes Billy, he glances at him in a tormenting way.
Rainie: At least it’s better than havin’ no dog at all.
Billy swallows hard, and Grandpa comes over to him as the Pritchards get in their wagon and drive off.
Grandpa: It makes me mad … folks like that gittin’ such a fine hound. Sure as I’m alive, that dog will end up as mean as they are.
Grandpa eyes Billy’s gloomy face.
Grandpa: I would’ve bought him for you myself, Billy, if I could have.
Billy tries to hold back the tears.
Grandpa: But never mind … one of these days, you’ll have your own hounds.
Billy: I don’t know, Grandpa. Sometimes I don’t think God wants me to have any.
Grandpa: Now, why do you say a thing like that?
Billy: Well, I’ve been asking him for dogs as long as I can remember and nothin’s happened yet!
Grandpa: Maybe you haven’t done your fair share.
Billy: What do you mean?
Grandpa: Well, it’s been my experience God helps those who help themselves. Now, don’t get me wrong. If God wanted to, he could give you hounds as easy as cuttin’ lard. But that wouldn’t do much for your character.
Billy: I don’t want character! I want dogs!
Grandpa: And if you want them bad enough, you’ll get them, Billy. And if you want God’s help bad enough, you’ll meet him half way.
Billy looks at his grandfather with a puzzled expression.
Later, Billy walks thoughtfully across the countryside.
Narrator (Billy as older man): I thought a long time about what Grandpa had told me … about meetin’ God halfway. Though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, I was willin’ to do anything to get myself some hounds. I was just plain tired of all the heartachin’.
In a deserted campground, Billy finds a magazine advertisement for hound pups, $50 for two.
Narrator: By the time I had memorized the ad, I was seein’ dogs, hearin’ dogs, and even feelin’ ’em. Slowly, a plan began to form. I’d earn the money myself. The more I planned, the more real it became, and suddenly, I realized what Grandpa had meant. My share was to do the work. God’s share was to give me the heart, courage, and determination.
And so Billy Coleman gains a conviction about prayer.
Just as Stewart could feel Billy’s ideas about prayer and wanting hounds so bad it hurt, he could also portray Billy’s feelings about losing his hounds and the significance of his last visit with them.
Near the end of the film you see the bottom of Billy’s frayed, faded-blue overalls brushing the green meadow grass as Billy walks toward the bluff overlooking the river. He kneels down beside the two mounds of earth that mark his dog’s graves and looks at the beautiful red fern growing between them. And as Billy realizes the eternal nature of love, you know that Stewart’s “movie feelings” are also a real part of his everyday life.