Director: Nancy Savoca
Screenplay: Bob Comfort
Starring: River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield, Holly Near
Year: 1991
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 94 min

It wasn’t until after I requested a screener copy of the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release of Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight, that I realised Andy Goulding had already reviewed the film for the site (it was 12 years ago, in my defence). Looking at what he wrote after watching the film myself, I figured it would be pointless to write a full review as I’ll be re-iterating a lot of what he said.

So, here’s a link to read Andy’s review and I’m just going to add a few of my own thoughts about anything he didn’t mention or I wanted to develop. Please read his write-up first, as my comments won’t make much sense on their own.

I will initially say that, whilst Dogfight is, indeed, under-appreciated, the film is perhaps not quite as unknown as Andy thought back in 2012. It must have had some kind of following, as the same year he posted his review, the film was adapted into an award-winning stage musical! Plus, of course, Criterion had enough love for the title to add it to their illustrious collection. Dogfight is still hardly a widely watched or discussed title though.

An aspect of the film I think that also deserves exploring a little more, is the role of Birdlace’s Marine friends in the film. Whilst the romance between Birdlace and Rose takes centre stage, a lot of time is spent with the group of men who call themselves the ‘4 Bees’ (3 for much of the film, due to Birdlace’s absence). In her commentary and interview on this disc, Savoca explains how she views the film as being about loyalty and manhood. It’s a coming-of-age story where a young man learns how to act around both women and men. The guys put on a facade to be part of the ‘pack’ whereas a man must be real and thoughtful if he wants to have any sort of meaningful relationship with a woman. Rose helps bring this out of Birdlace but he also matures in his relationship with his friends. Whilst retaining the boastful bluster required to be part of the group, he has a moment of more sensitive brotherly love with the 4 Bees’ ‘leader’ Berzin (Richard Panebianco).

Supposedly the Rose character was much less developed in the original script. She was more of a cypher to change Birdlace. So, originally, the story was more closely to do with male friendship than any kind of nuanced romance. However, Savoca and Taylor, on developing the Rose character, altered the role dramatically. This might explain why Warner Bros. weren’t happy with the end product, threatening to shoot a new ending without Savoca’s input. Thankfully, Phoenix stepped in and stood by his director. It didn’t stop the studio from burying the film on its release though, sadly.

I also want to comment on how beautifully presented I thought the central romance was. The pair are often wonderfully nervous and awkward together, even when things get more intimate. It makes their relationship much more powerful and believable than having some cheesy Lothario putting on the charms and the beautiful damsel falling head over heels.

I’d agree with Andy in that the Kennedy sequence seems superfluous. The Vietnam scene that follows is a little cheap-looking and rushed too, so perhaps doesn’t have the impact it could have. However, it’s a scene that is purposely different to the rest of the film, so works as it should, and it would seem odd if too much time was spent on the battlefield.

The final scenes, generally, are a bit of a shock to the system, but rightfully so. They show how the young men sent to Vietnam were forced into a nightmarish situation which made them come home a couple of years later as figuratively old men. The very final sequence is perfect too – understated, beautiful and deeply moving.

Overall then, seconding Andy’s feelings on the film, Dogfight is a refreshingly sensitive romantic drama that doubles as an examination of both manhood and a pivotal moment in American history. It’s criminally underseen, so kudos to Criterion for giving it a second lease of life.


Dogfight is out on 6th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The film looks gorgeous, with a clean picture, deep details and rich, warm, natural colours. It sounds great too.


– New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Nancy Savoca, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
– Audio commentary featuring Savoca and producer Richard Guay
– New interview with Savoca and actor Lili Taylor conducted by filmmaker Mary Harron
– New interviews with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, production designer Lester Cohen, script supervisor Mary Cybulski, music supervisor Jeff Kimball, supervising sound editor Tim Squyres, and editor John Tintori
– Trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by film critic Christina Newland
– New cover inspired by an original theatrical poster

Director Nancy Savoca and producer Richard Guay provide a commentary. It’s excellent, with Savoca dominating, going into great detail about the production and intentions behind their approach. It’s clear a lot of passion and hard graft went into making the film as finely crafted as it is. She talks at the end about her trepidation in taking on the project due to her not being from the same world as the characters on screen – she was only young at that time in the 60s and, of course, being a woman, the male camaraderie that’s key to the film wouldn’t have been first nature either.

Savoca, Taylor and Mary Harron get together to chat about Dogfight in one of the two interviews included on the disc. They talk in particular about how Taylor and Savoca developed Rose’s character. Again, the piece shows how carefully thought through the film was. Savoca covers some of the same ground as in her commentary, such as the challenge of casting the dogfight itself and speaking to those actresses about their roles. There’s plenty of new material though, such as describing how the young Phoenix stood up for Savoca when the studio threatened to shoot a new ending without her.

A group of crew members from the film get together for a Zoom conversation about the production in the other interview. They talk about some of the technical aspects, whilst bringing it back to how these enhance or support the drama. It’s a wonderful piece for anyone who wants to know more about the art of filmmaking and acts as a nice reminder that there’s more to crafting a film than just the writing, direction and performances. It’s a huge team effort, even if the director or producer might be the one overlooking everything.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

So, Criterion have put together a modest but exceptionally high-quality package to go alongside this gem of a film. As such, it gets a strong recommendation from us.


Where to watch Dogfight
Dogfight - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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