A few week’s ago I took in Kornél Mundruczó’s extraordinary allegory for violent revolution White God. In this often stunning tour-de-force of filmmaking the Hungarian director shows the violent uprising of a city’s oppressed and despised stray mongrels against a human population at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile towards and the instrument of, their suffering. It simply cannot be a coincidence that the English title of the film, White God, is so close to Sam Fuller’s 1982 canine race allegory White Dog. So this seems a good time to dust off a recent review of this amazing and unjustly obscure film.
Aspiring actress Julie Sawyer (Kirsty McNichol) runs over a stray dog in the Hollywood Hills. Rather than leave it bleeding in the street she takes it to a vet and pays for its treatment (just over $200 in 1982! Adjust that for inflation). The jaded veterinarian advises her to take the dog to the pound, but also tells her that due to its age it is unlikely to be re-homed and most likely will be put down. Julie refuses and takes the white German shepherd home. When an intruder breaks into her apartment and tries to sexually assault her, the animal fights him off and violently subdues him until police arrive. “It’s that same rapist I caught last year” one remarks in an example of the film’s occasionally hokey dialogue.
All seems hunky dory until Julie takes the dog to a fashion shoot and without provocation the animal attacks an African American model. Concerned she has a dangerous attack dog, but conflicted as it has saved her from a serious assault, Julie decides to try and have it retrained. She finds a potential saviour for the clearly dangerous canine in
Keys (a brilliant Paul Winfield) an animal trainer who works for a company specialising in supplying exotic critters to Hollywood. As a man of colour Keys sees the dog as an innocent animal who has been conditioned with a racist agenda it cannot possibly understand. This present a challenge that is both physical, mental and ideological.
White Dog is a largely forgotten film from the late career of maverick director Sam Fuller. Fuller was an extremely interesting character of the kind rare in modern film (and indeed life in general), a practitioner and living example of poetic machismo. He pursued a career in journalism from an early age and served in the 1st Infantry Division during World War Two.
Fuller’s war experience was extensive and included landings in Africa, Sicily and Normandy. He was decorated for his service and was present at the liberation of a German concentration camp where he shot 16mm footage later featured in a documentary. This experience is directly referenced in White Dog in a sequence where Julie strays into an area of the LA pound where animals are euthanized in an industrial gas chamber. That might sound melodramatic (Fuller embraced melodrama) and tasteless (Fuller wouldn’t give a shit) but the director is deadly serious in intent and quite aware of the metaphorical implications (he was himself Jewish).
In his career in cinema Fuller essentially created the idea of the ‘independent’ filmmaker. He spurned a studio career to make films for independent producers, accepting the reality of limited resources in exchange for creative freedom. Working largely in genre he made westerns (Run of the Arrow), crime pictures (Underworld USA), war movies (Merrill’s Marauders), neo-noirs (The Naked Kiss), and the amazing modern-gothic melodrama Shock Corridor (which pretty much exists in its own genre). Fuller wrote, or co-wrote, most of those movies. In terms of auteur theory he is the skid-row Sam Peckinpah. Like Peckinpah, Fuller took shit from no man; unlike Peckinpah he didn’t annihilate himself in the process.
Always more recognised in Europe than his homeland (Wim Wenders adores him, and Jean Luc Godard cast him in Pierrot le Fou), White Dog sadly become famous for not being released in the US causing Fuller to quit the country, move to France an never make another American film. The reasons White Dog was suppressed are beyond idiotic. Without having seen the film, in fact before shooting had even begun, The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and other civil liberties organisations became concerned the film was racist, and would inspire the training of other ‘White Dogs’. The negative associations were then bolstered by accusations of racism in that the crew and principle filmmakers were white (true, but also true of very many films). When Fuller delivered his picture the studio was dismayed it wasn’t the ‘Jaws with paws’ they thought they were getting, couldn’t be bothered with the attendant hassle and shelved it.
It’s a great shame, because White Dog is one of the most extraordinary films about race, racism, and hatred ever produced by the American film industry. The script by Fuller and Curtis Hanson reconfigures a pulp novel into a complex examination of the nature of hatred that asks difficult and uncomfortable questions about whether racism once learned can be unlearned. The film articulates palpable rage and despair on these issues, and it somehow manages to do this without giving any significant screen time to a single character who is actually a racist. The conflict and dilemma at the heart of the film are embodied by an animal that is completely innocent.
At the same time, Fuller plays with and exploits our natural affection for furry critters. In the early sections of the film Fuller adopts the soft shooting style of a Disney film; this is coupled with a superficially syrupy score from Ennio Morricone for maximum ‘Aw look at the cute widdle doggy’ effect. Except this isn’t a cute little dog, and blood looks especially crimson against white fur.
The film also plays with point of view. It appears for almost half the film that the story is from the point of view of Julie, who represents a white liberal middle class that thinks that if everyone is nice to one another then everything is fine and the sins and horrors of the past can be ignored. When Keys appears on the scene, Julie leaves the story almost entirely. Keys represents the righteously angry, militant oppressed, and becomes the focus. In fact the most consistent point of view in the film belongs to neither of the human protagonists, it belongs to the dog (at the time of the film’s release, Fuller penned a bizarre, brilliant, and hilarious interview between himself and his canine star).
Fuller shoots from the animal’s point of view, centring several brilliant sequences entirely on the creature. I defy anyone not to punch the air during White Dog’s daring night-time break out from the training facility. Only to gasp in horror in the next scene when Fuller shows the animal snuffling through a pile of garbage as an African American child plays unwittingly just around the corner.
Making a film from an animal’s point of view is not necessarily radical; the aforementioned Disney did this all the time with films like The Incredible Journey. What is interesting here is that the White Dog is not simply an animal; it has been trained and shaped. Its behaviour is not instinct, but design. That ‘intelligent designer’ is the gaping, evil, sucking hole at the heart of this film. The white racist fuck that took a puppy, and turned it into an instrument for their own pathetic prejudices. It is not enough to call The White Dog an attack dog, what he is, is a weapon.
Ultimately White Dog resolves in a difficult and uncompromising finale (something else that will have delighted the studio). This is a film that refuses to tuck the audience in snugly at the end and whisper that everything is going to be all right.
White Dog is available on UK Blu-Ray from Masters of Cinema
A version of this review previously appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/