Many films have dealt with racism. To Kill a Mockingbird, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Do the Right Thing American History X, and most recently, 12 Years a Slave are obvious examples. A less well known one is Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. Loosely based on Romain Gary’s 1970 novel of the same title, the film came out in 1982. It depicts the struggle of a dog trainer trying to retrain a stray dog found by a young actress. What makes the story compelling is that the canine in question is a “white dog“, one specially trained to viciously attack any black person. Gary’s novel was based on a real experience in his life. At the time he was married to the actress Jean Seberg. One day Seberg brought home a large white dog she had found on the street. It appeared to be very friendly and playful, but when the animal saw her black gardener, it attacked him viciously, injuring him. Afterward, the couple kept it in their backyard. However, one day it got out and once again it singled out a black man for attack. After this happened a third time, they concluded that someone had trained the dog to attack and injure only black people. This incident prompted Gary to write a magazine piece about it for Life in 1970, which became the abovementioned novel.
Like many Hollywood films White Dog was a long time getting off the ground. The legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans bought the story for Paramount in the mid-1970s. After he left the studio, it went through a number of scripts, with Roman Polanski, Arthur Penn, and Tony Scott all being touted as possible directors. In 1981 the threat of possible strikes by both the writers and directors guilds led to the project being revived. It was seen as a movie that might be quickly made. Sam Fuller, a B-list director known for low-budget genre movies with controversial themes was eventually the one who got the nod. But what Paramount wanted was very different from the film that Fuller would end up making. Such Hollywood figures as Michael Eisner, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson wanted Fuller to downplay the racial elements and make a “Jaws with paws“. In one memo, the company noted: “Given the organic elements of this story, it is imperative that we never overtly address through attitude or statement the issue of racism per se“.
The film was shot in 44 days with a modest budget. There were no megastars although Burt Ives and Paul Winfield were both respected actors. The screenplay was written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson. The soundtrack was the work of Ennio Morricone. The dog acting in these films is sensational.
The film is set in Los Angeles where an aspiring young actress, Julie Sawyer, hits a stray white German Sheppard while driving though the hills during the night. She brings the dog to her home in the Hollywood hills. Julie takes a picture of the dog, and along with her boyfriend Roland Grale, distributes fliers to see if the dog’s owner will come and claim it.
If you hadn’t noticed the names of the actress and her boyfriend are a homage to Jean Seberg and Romain Gary. On August 30th 1979 Seberg had died at the age of 40 of a barbiturate overdose in Paris, her death being ruled a probable suicide. Gary died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on December 2nd 1980 in Paris, France. Seberg and Gary were no longer together and the writer left a note which said specifically that his death had no relation to Seberg’s suicide.
Anyway, back to the plot. When a burglar/rapist breaks in her house, the dog protects Julie and she decides to keep the animal with her. But soon she realises that the animal is a white dog, trained by a racist to attack black people. However she has become attached to the dog and is horrified at the possibility that her new pet might be euthanized for the safety of the public. She goes to Noah’s Ark, an animal training facility. There she begs the operator Carruthers (Burl Ives) to deprogram the dog of its racist training. He tries to make her see that it’s not possible, but his top trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield) believes he can break the dog seeing it as a personal challenge. Keys himself is African-American, making every training session a life and death struggle.
The dog resists the training at first, and even escapes the facility, killing a black man in a church. This tragedy makes Keys even more determined, and he is finally able to get the dog to stop attacking blacks. The ending is not a simplistic one. I won’t spoil it, but if you want to, you can see it here:
The film was finally completed in 1981, but Paramount was reluctant to release it due to its controversial subject matter. The accusations of racism are in my opinion unfounded. Despite no one from the organization having actually seen the completed film, the NAACP threatened a nationwide boycott. The preview screenings held in Seattle, Washington and Denver at the beginning of 1982 were not overwhelming successes. Critics were more enthusiastic but Paramount sensing it did not have enough earnings potential to make up for the threatened boycotts and the ensuing bad publicity, decided to shelve the project. A disillusioned Fuller moved to France, and never directed another American film. The filmmaker was very bitter about the whole thing and would recall in his memoirs:
“Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever.”
How should we judge this film? It is not a masterpiece, but it is one of those films that does something a little bit different. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and was not at the peak of his powers. Yet he was still able to make such an interesting and provocative film; it was much more than Jaws with paws.
The central question of the film is whether racism can be treated or is an incurable condition. Don’t expect any simple answer or a happy ending from Fuller. There is something chilling about man’s best friend being used for such vile purposes. Obviously dogs cannot be racist. They do not have the complex thing and other higher cognitive functions required for this vile ideology. I’m not too sure either how they perceive colour either. I have been unable to find out too much about the phenomenon of white dogs. How prevalent is it? Ultimately racism is a human phenomenon. One of the shocking scenes in the film is when we meet the dog’s owner a seemingly lovable grandfather who shows up with his two little granddaughters and a box of candy for the lady who sheltered his pet. They could have come straight out of a Louis Theroux documentary. This the human face of hatred. If you haven’t seen this piece, I do recommend that you check it out.