Samuel Fuller is one of the great outsiders of American cinema. Initially a screenwriter for Laurel and Hardy, Fuller’s career spanned six decades and twenty-three films. Invariably made incredibly quickly and for little or no money, Fuller’s films portrayed American society as a vast swamp filled with murderous beasts whose claws and fangs afforded them moments of both intense nobility and deranged savagery. As a cultural outsider with neither studios nor students to sing his praises, Fuller saw his work slip from view and it is only since his death in 1997 that boutique DVD labels such as Criterion in the US and Masters of Cinema in the UK have allowed a new generation of film lovers to discover his work. As is often the case with talents that have remained obscure for too long, there has been a noted tendency to meet Fuller’s films with a level of praise that not only sets potential investigators up for a fall but also fails to do justice to Fuller’s talent for saying unpopular and difficult things in a manner that made no compromises and accepted no excuses. Banned at the time of its release for its racial themes, Samuel Fuller’s White Dog is a fantastically unsettling film that tells us as much about Fuller’s strengths as it does about his weaknesses.
Fuller opens the film with a beautifully composed shot of a car stopped on a mountain road. Out of the car steps a young woman named Julie (Kristy McNichol) who has just run over a magnificent white Alsatian dog. Horrified, she rushes the animal to the vet and winds up nursing him through his rehabilitation as finding the animal’s owner proves impossible. Initially quite ambivalent about the creature, Julie becomes attached to the beast when a man breaks into her home and the dog effectively tears him to pieces. Convinced that she has lucked into some highly trained guard dog, Julie is shocked when the creature escapes from her back yard only to reappear several hours later covered in blood.
Based on an autobiographical work by Romain Gary and seemingly intended as a horror movie that might cash-in on the popularity of Stephen King’s mad dog novel Cujo, White Dog is filled with these incredibly striking sequences in which a spectral white dog leaps through the air in order to attack some unwitting human victim. More fantastical than horrific, these sequences do show the savagery that lies dormant in the animal and set some wonderfully tense moments later in the film when Julie tries to have her pet deprogrammed.
The term ‘deprogrammed’ is more appropriate than ‘trained’ as the problem is not that the dog attacks people at random. Rather, the dog has been trained by racists to attack black people on sight. When Julie finally works this out, the trainer she approached (Burl Ives) suggests shooting the dog but an African-American trainer (Paul Winfield) volunteers to deprogram the dog in the hope that his methods might help with the struggle against human racism, and therein lays both the film’s strength and its weakness.
Fuller intends the dog (tellingly referred to as ‘Mr Hyde’) to serve as a metaphorical representation of human racism and, to a certain extent, he does: One point the film repeatedly makes is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the dog’s hatred of black people; his fear and hatred were deliberately engineered by people who wanted to use his savagery as a tool of racial segregation and oppression. Another point the film makes is that the techniques required to train a racist dog were pioneered in the days of slavery when plantation owners had a vested interest in keeping vicious attack dogs that would happily kill a black person but never think to harm a white person. These two ideas certainly mesh with contemporary thoughts on social justice and they make a very interesting point about how the racist attitudes that continue to be perpetuated today originated in a time when extreme and dehumanising patterns of racist thought underpinned an entire economic system. Fuller’s metaphorical racist dog also represents how difficult it can be to wean oneself away from racist thought and how some attitudes can be so deeply engrained that unravelling them is tantamount to unravelling an entire personality. However, Fuller’s metaphor only goes so far.
White Dog was originally only released in a few independent cinemas as the producers feared that the American civil rights organisation NAACP might protest the film’s release. The basis for this fear was that the original novel used the racist dog as a basis for critiquing racism but also as a basis for critiquing African American political activists who, according to Gary, were preaching “Intolerance of intolerance” and insisting that human uniqueness be blunted by what he called “social indoctrination”. In Fuller’s defence, he does explicitly cut out the plot developments that supported Gary’s critique of anti-racism campaigners and goes out of his way to present an African American animal trainer as a profoundly sympathetic and heroic figure. However, the message that Fuller chooses to replace Gary’s critique is not exactly coherent as Fuller seems to be suggesting that black and minority ethnic people should not only forgive racist White people but also work tirelessly to help rid them of their racism. Aside from being quite a dated and ridiculous attitude (surely the burden is on white people to educate themselves?), this conceit also places the audience in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a racist dog that has already killed a number of African American people and disfigured an African American actress. This position might well have made sense to Fuller – who saw all humans as violent savages anyway – but it simply does not gel with contemporary attitudes to racism and so deprives it of the tragic ending to which it inexorably builds.
White Dog is undoubtedly a well-made and courageous film. It not only showcases Fuller’s directorial talent but also his desire to shine a light on America’s darker side and produce films that might enable social change. The problem is that, in the thirty-odd years since the film was made, attitudes towards racism have changed and left Fuller’s film looking not merely dated but actively problematic. Fans of edgy American cinema will be intrigued but anyone approaching this film in search of social truths will find nothing but confusion and disappointment.