Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Prod: Jon Davison Dir: Samuel Fuller Scr: Samuel Fuller, Curtis Hanson, based on the story by Romain Gray Phot: Bruce Surtees Ed: Bernard Gribble Prod Des: Brian Eatwell Mus: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Lynne Moody, Marshall Thompson, Samuel Fuller, Christa Lang
Controversy dogged the composition, production, distribution, and release of Sam Fuller’s White Dog, a film that was seldom seen in his native United States but gained a sizeable critical and commercial audience in Continental Europe, to which its auteur expatriated after Paramount shelved the film. Based on a short story and fictionalised memoir by Romain Gary, it tells the tale of a young actress – based, in the source texts, on Jean Seberg – who hits a snow-white German shepherd with her car and discovers, in a series of escalating attacks, that he has been trained to kill persons of African descent.
After Robert Evans purchased the film rights for Paramount in the mid-1970s, the story was given to a series of writers and directors, including Roman Polanski (whose sex scandals curtailed his involvement in the project). The deaths of Seberg and Gary – the principle “characters” of the story – in 1979 and 1980 respectively, revived interest in the project, which was then given to Fuller, who cast Kristy McNichol as Julie, the actress who finds the dog, Paul Winfield as Keys, the animal trainer who attempts to cure him of his racism, and Burl Ives as Carruthers, a Hollywood animal wrangler who facilitates their meeting and subsequent attempts to reverse the dog’s conditioning. As Jon Davison, the film’s producer and staunch defender, has argued, Paramount’s shelving of the project was inspired as much by the commercial desire to produce “Jaws on paws” (and the film’s failure to fulfill this goal), an animal exploitation blockbuster to rival Steven Spielberg’s, as it was by the film’s unsettling social and political content (1).
The racial content of the film’s source texts was contentious during the adaptation and production of White Dog. The set was monitored by Willis Edwards, a representative from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and rigorously policed for racist content. Gary’s original ending, in which a Black Muslim trainer reverses the dog’s conditioning so that he attacks white people instead of black, was one that Fuller himself jettisoned because its representation of the trainer as social menace undermined the film’s critique of white racism (2). Ultimately, Edwards advocated for all racial content to be removed from the film and, when his notes and recommendations were rejected, led a boycott, arguing that the dog’s training and attacks could give the “KKK and other white supremacist organizations ideas” (3). The film, screened once in Seattle to lacklustre reviews and sparse audiences at a late-night preview in the horror movie tradition, eventually premiered at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in June 1982. Though the film was aired on cable television in the United States, it was seldom seen before its 1991 screening at New York’s Film Forum, where it received enthusiastic reviews by Janet Maslin and others (4). In December 2005, when Davison introduced Fuller’s cut of the film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, he asserted that the cut he was about to show had been screened in the United States fewer than twenty times. The film was finally released on DVD in December 2008, with a lavish restoration and special features from the Criterion Collection.
White Dog’s reputation for racism, earned or unearned, is largely the result of its “stylistic” emphasis on the dog’s perspective, a choice which enables a slow unveiling of his racial triggers. Not until the 40-minute mark of the film’s 89-minute running time do Julie and the audience realise the full meaning of the term “white dog”. From his first attack on a would-be (white) rapist who breaks into Julie’s house, to the final scene in which he turns on Carruthers, the dog’s point-of-view provides the camera with a privileged position. Empathy for the dog is underscored when the racist trainer, Wilber Hull (Parley Baer), appears in the film’s penultimate scene to claim him, accompanied by two granddaughters (Samantha Fuller and Jamie Crow), upon whose open, child-like faces the camera lingers, echoing the existential innocence of an animal corrupted by racist programming.
Nearly 40 years ago, psychoanalyst Joel Kovel wrote that “people of all cultures have been afraid of darkness” and that the “elementary” nature of that fear has generated white racism (5). Kovel’s arguments for the naturalness of racism undermined the anti-racist praxis of his longer work, a sophisticated analysis of white racism’s “psychohistory”. Four decades later, it is not difficult to see the resilience of this logic in a world where both violence and prejudice are often described as primal and primitive components of human nature. Fuller undermines these rationalisations, constructing the scenes between Keys and the dog as intimate pedagogical moments that shadow the “invisible” process by which Hull trained him in his racism, a pathology too often imagined as intrinsic because its point of origin is seldom located and its sickness too seldom cured.
- Lisa Dombrowski, The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You!, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2008, p. 193.
- Jon Davison interviewed in “Four Legged Time Bomb”, a supplement on the Criterion Collection’s White Dog DVD (2008).
- Dombrowski, p. 195.
- Dombrowski, p. 200.
- Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory, Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, p 95.