When I was maybe ten years old I read an article named “What Man Has Done To Dogs”, about the genetic damage inflicted on man’s best friend by centuries of inbreeding. It was probably my first exposure to the concept of unrequited animal suffering, and it broke my heart. Not just because no animal deserves to be, in effect, born crippled, but because such an animal has no idea that it is missing out on a birthright of good health. I fought hard against the idea of putting my dog to sleep when it developed brain cancer, but in the end there was simply nothing else to do. His life and death had been in my hands since the beginning, and to put it to sleep was the ultimate expression of that.
I do not, however, remember my first full-on taste of racism, save for a hackneyed classroom experiment in third grade. The class was divided arbitrarily into “racists” and “victims”, and all that happened was everyone who already had a grudge of some kind had the perfect excuse to act it out. I didn’t need that little piece of sociology to understand on a gut level that there were some people who just plain hated each other on principle; I’d already been hit with it. Or so I thought.
Small wonder White Dog got under my skin as much as it did. The twin subjects of the movie are racism and the violation of innocents—which, in a way, are the same subject in different guises. Nobody is born racist, in the same way that nobody is born a violent monster; they have to be educated into it, whether deliberately or not. Even after reading about what man had done to dogs, I had never imagined someone training one to deliberately attack black people.
Neither, apparently, did Romain Gary, the French novelist who one day took in a stray dog and discovered to his horror that it had been conditioned to attack blacks. He wrote a novel based on the experience, and Sam (The Big Red One) Fuller filmed it—only to have the finished product shelved by Paramount and never exhibited theatrically in the United States. This was in 1982, no less, when everything from teen drinking and prostitution were already common After-School Movie subjects. But too much about the movie made its would-be distributors queasy, and it ended up getting what little audience it would have on HBO (in a cut-down version) or in foreign video sales.
The story is simple enough. One night, a struggling actress, Julie (Kristy McNichol) accidentally hits a German shepherd while driving through the hills outside of Los Angeles. She brings the dog to a vet, and is relieved to learn it’ll be fine. When no one turns up to claim the dog, she comes to think of it as her own—especially after it saves her from a would-be rapist. Then one day the dog attacks a fellow actress, a black woman, and it becomes clear the dog has been trained to maul and kill black people.
Julie’s disturbed by this, but is even more disturbed that the only answer people seem to have for her is to have the dog killed. There has to be something that can be done. Before long she brings her case to a black animal trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), who also wants to believe it’s possible to reverse the effects of such brutal programming. He has come close before, very close, but never managed to pull it off. So great is his need to believe that he will gradually come to endanger both himself and others, and even overlook the possibility that the dog’s training is simply too deep—or broad—to undo.
Fuller wasn’t known for being a subtle director, and didn’t try to be. He intuited that audiences were already sophisticated enough to smell a phony platitude when they saw one, and so gave them a “message picture” in the guise of a pulp thriller—or maybe the other way around. The dog attacks blacks right on screen in stomach-turning close-up, and spends more than a little screen time smeared with the blood of its victims. It not only chases off Julie’s would-be rapist but dives through a closed window to continue the mauling, and even causes a major bit of set-piece destruction when it mauls a street-sweeper operator.
What matters, though, is that the movie stays true to its premise and doesn’t degenerate into something akin to Cujo, where the dog is merely used as a cheap scare device (e.g., to jump from the dark and tear out people’s throats). We get the impression that Paul Winfield’s character is obsessed with “fixing” the dog not out of some higher sense of brotherly love, but because he wants a very tangible feather in his cap. He’s in his own way as cold-blooded as the man who trained the dog to kill in the first place, even if his ends are that much more respectable. Julie’s motives are simple: all she wants is to feel that she did the right thing by that poor creature, and before long she realizes she’s in way over her head morally.
Most of the easy criticisms about the movie have already been made. It hasn’t aged well; its message is delivered with sledgehammer obviousness; Fuller is better represented by other films. But as flawed and dated as White Dog may be, it is a good example of what people mean when they talk about a movie that could never get made today. And, yes, it still packs enough of a wallop to register with current audiences. I also hope someday it doesn’t have to.
Other Lives Of The Mind