Censorship always seems to rear its ugly head. In 1982, Sam Fuller’s film “White Dog” was unjustifiably dumped from Paramount’s distribution after rumors spread that the film had a racist theme. In addition, pressure from special interest groups with threats of boycotts only confirmed the studio’s fears. Since that time, the film had only a few rare showings on cable stations. In 1991, “White Dog” at last had its New York premiere at the Film Forum.
The irony of it all is that the film’s theme is anti racism, though in typical Fuller fashion Sam is straight talking and blunt in his story line. The fear of corporations, in this case Paramount and the ignorance of pressure groups to blindly attack and suppress works that they have not even seen is as viciously discriminatory as that of what they supposedly are fighting against. Similar ignorance was in force against Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” when special interest groups protested and boycotted the film without even seeing it. With the release of the Criterion disc in 2008, “White Dog” finally had its day.
The genesis of the film is as interesting as the film itself. Originally, a magazine story in the late 1960’s written by author Romain Gary about a group of white supremists who trained dogs to attack black people. Later on, Gary would expand the story into an autobiographical novel called “Chien Blanc” which translates to “White Dog.” The novel focused on his life with his wife the actress activist Jean Seberg. In the novel, Gary and Seberg find a dog that is seemingly lovable but later they discover was trained to attack black people. The book’s under lying theme was one that examines racism and whether it is a learned response and if it is learned can it be unlearned. This also became the basis Fuller’s 1982 film.
At one point in time Roman Polanski was going to direct and later on Arthur Penn was even mentioned as possibly trying to bring the story to the screen. Still controversy raged, cold feet prevailed and the film continued to be delayed. Eventually, Sam Fuller was offered the job, and along with Curtis Hanson created a finished screenplay. To Fuller, “White Dog” was a real life horror story unlike some made up thriller with a giant shark that eats people.
As a filmmaker with a history of making anti-racist films (The Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, and The Steel Helmet) Fuller was one of the least likely artists to make a racist work. Paramount’s chicken livered fears along with special interest buried the film. In looking at “White Dog”, you see the work of a vibrant filmmaker (Fuller was about 68 at the time) in control of his art. It is a bold adventurous, disturbing film, a metaphor on how humans are trained to hate.
Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) is driving down a dark highway one night in Los Angles and accidentally hits a stray dog who was crossing the highway. She takes the dog to a vet (the nurse is played by Fuller’s wife Christa Lang) and then takes the stray home putting up signs in her neighborhood in an attempt to find the owner. The dog is loveable and affectionate with Julie. With no owner coming forward, Julie keeps the dog.
One night an intruder breaks into Julie’s home and attempts to rape her, the dog viciously attacks the man freeing Julie to call the police. Soon after, Julie brings the dog to the studio where she is working, when the dog suddenly attacks a black female actress seriously injuring her. It gets worst as the dog’s rampage continues when he chases a well-dressed black man into a church, and though hidden from the camera by the pews, viciously attacks the man. We see the dog walk away with blood all over his white fur. Julie takes the dog to an animal camp call Noah’s Ark, run by two men, Carruthers (Burl Ives) and a black anthropologist named Keys (Paul Winfield). Keys is challenged to deprogram the dog from this learned behavior. The dog becomes fully dependent on Keys for food and all else. Slowly Keys begins to reprogram the dog, he exposes more and more of his black skin to the dog a little at a time. Meanwhile, the dog’s former owner has appeared at Julie’s place to claim the dog back. He is a grandfatherly type, seemingly a gentle man with two young grandchildren. Julie realizes this elderly outward looking mild man is a racist and responsible for the dog’s training. Julie verbally lashes out at him, telling the grandchildren not to listen to their grandfather who is full of vile thoughts and lies. She drives away leaving them with the grandfather screaming back at her. At the animal training center, Keys’ begins to make a break through as the white dog has come to depend on him. In the beginning Keys did his training all from behind the safety net of a cage but eventually as the dog responded, without protection. Has Keys been able to recondition the dog’s psyche, unleash his racist training? The ending, which I will not reveal is a pessimistic unsettling twist.
The film’s appeal, like in most Fuller films, is due to his visual style and his blunt seriousness in attacking a story. While the film starts with Julie and her new found dog as the storyline, Julie practically becomes a secondary character after about a third of the way into the film as Fuller’s focus turns to Keys determination to turn this dog around.
Paul Winfield’s performance is the acting highlight in the film, he gives Keys character depth and understanding. The cinematography of Bruce Surtee’s provides a lurid view of the dog’s world with Fuller’s camera focusing in extreme close ups at significant times in the story. Finally, the music soundtrack is by the well-known film composer Ennio Morricone and contributes to the sinister eccentricity of the film.