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White Dog

***
1981

‘…a controversial and original take on a hot subject…’

A late entry in Samuel Fuller’s storied resume, White Dog is a film about racism that doesn’t shirk tricky issues; questions of nature versus nurture are raised and not easily dismissed. Based on a book by Romain Gray, a French writer who once challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel (Eastwood declined), this project was adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson with fairly explosive results. And oddly enough, the original white dog that Gray encountered was brought into the family home by his partner at the time, Jean Seberg.

White Dog is the story of a black dog trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) who tries to retrain a stray dog that has been trained to attack black people. Whether it’s possible for the animal to overcome it’s racially-based training or not, Fuller advances a strong metaphor for the dog representing racial hatred, and Keys obsessively trying to break down ingrained programming.

White Dog is an old man’s film in a sense, in that it doesn’t trade in ideals and instead focuses on the evil that men do, but also offers insight into what the evil is and how it manifests itself. There are big questions here; in what way is superiority central to our programming, and can racism ever be overcome rather than just brushed out of view in terms of our behaviour?

For various reasons, White Dog was barely seen on release, and a welcome return on streaming should allow cineastes the chance to enjoy the photography of Bruce Surtees and the score by Ennio Morricone. White Dog has finally begun to amass some critical momentum as a controversial and original take on a hot subject, and hopefully it’s availability on streaming for the price of a cup of coffee may lead it to the audience it deserved but didn’t get back in 1981. Kirsty McNichol and Burl Ives provide strong support.

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  1. “White dog, black heart” should have said Clint. 😉
    Another punching Fuller movie I’d love to see. But it’s not well released in France and it’s a pity.
    I didn’t know it was based on Gary story, great writer who did “the roots of heaven”, another animal chronicle with elephants. Clint, still ready for a duel?

    • Yup, that whole Gary/Seberg story was unknown to me until I researched this. He sounds like quite a character; anyone who still challenges people to a duel is clearly running different software to the rest of us, and if Clint was his chosen opponent, good luck with that! Would have thought the French would have been all over an auteur like Fuller…

      • Gary was most of all a slavic soul, born in Vilnius. He came to France with his mother when he was a child. that’s the topic of another great book “La vie devant soi” (the life before us) And he became a war hero, an intellectual, an ambassador, an impostor (he won a litterature price for the second time under the name of Emile Ajar) and lover of famous actress and militant. His life could be a film of its own. And it has been. It’s called “les promesses de l’aube” with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pierre Niney.

  2. I remember first seeing it on Moviedrome on BBC2. A tough concept to pull off, but it works surprisingly well. I thought it might get a reappraisal when Eureka released it on blu ray (and Criterion in the US, I think) – it did, but it still remains fairly unknown. Perhaps as you say streaming will make it more widely seen, but the central premise is unlikely to draw many in I suspect, as it asks some uncomfortable questions and doesn’t go for an easy black or white (sorry) approach. It’s bold cinema, under the guise of a cheap exploitation thriller.

    • That’s much more succinct than what I wrote! But yes, you don’t exit ‘whistling the moral’ as Mamet coined it. But to me, that lack of easy answers and depth of moral inquiry is what makes this film interesting. These things just seem to appear without fanfare on streaming, so I make it part of my best to highlight them. I noted that yesterdays Telly Savalas film has been streamable for years, and yet when I posted my review on RT yesterday, it was the first EVER.

    • Wow, I’d need to develop nerves of steel to try and tackle a French terrier bulldog! Cesar must know what he’s doing!

    • It’s a tricky film, no doubt, and cautiously recommended; the idea itself makes me uncomfortable, and that’s the idea.

        • Back in the day when such things counted. I should have mentioned that Curtis Hanson was a co-writer on this. Big Red One looks great in the restored version, Fuller had a unique style and vision that fell out of favour. They literally don’t make them like that anymore.

    • having lived in 8 states across US growing up (and others after)–and had dogs all my life–I can attest to veracity of the film’s premise. Freed a bunch of dogs being brutalized or neglected. Rehab is possible, however, old ingrain triggers (IMO) can’t be removed. Racism, on the other hand IS NOT innate. I grew up in a bigoted family, still had friends from many nationalities, of many skin colors, shapes, cultures…was severely punished while living at home for refusing to obey… Touch of Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Call of the Wild, and steamy In the Heat of… White Dog was labelled a horror movie?

      • I think the difficulty in labelling White Dog was part of their problem getting the film out. I’m always grateful for your insight, and you make a great point here; racism is a learned set of ideas, and anything that’s taught can surely be untaught. As someone who grew up with plenty of bigotry, inside and outside the family, I do believe that we can change. I guess if we can rehab dogs, we can rehab people, but this film shows that it’s no easy process to get rid of ingrained thinking…

      • They can be trained. Different breeds are bred for different dispositions, but you can always work with what you’ve got. At least if they’re young enough. Older dogs, especially males that haven’t been fixed, aren’t as adaptable.

      • Yup, depends on the dog. A high-aggression, high-prey-drive dog will need a lot of rehab if it’s been already trained to be aggressive. Probably the trainer will be able to bond with the dog so that it’s well-behaved and socialized around him….but not necessarily around anyone else.

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