If there has been a more polarizing and controversial film that is not deserved of this reputation, I do not know it. Samuel Fuller, the director, had already been involved with several controversial films already.The Steel Helmet(1950) was attacked by the F.B.I and J. Edgar Hoover as "Unpatriotic".One of my favorite films, Shock Corridor, was also viciously attacked, and it seemed that Samuel Fuller couldn't make a film, without the law and the government glaring over his shoulder. It had been a while since he had made a film, and the script for White Dog, had already made stops with 3 different directors, including Roman Polanski. It had been adapted from the 1970 Romain Gary novel of the same name, and Paramount was beginning to give up on the project. Fuller was an excellent choice, because he had to read the novel and the script, and re-mold into a whole new script and have it ready in 10 days! He changed a lot of minor details to the story to make it more Hollywood friendly. The film had a 7 million dollar budget and was shot very quickly. There is a reason that most people still haven't seen this film. Upon showing the film to only a handful of critics, they decided that the film was too racist, and in no way would movie goers go for this kind of film. The film was shelved and never shown, outside of a few cable viewings here and there. In 1991, it had a limited theater release, but no one really saw it then either. Criterion has put the film out on DVD, and it looks gorgeous.
Kristy McNichol plays a young, struggling actress named Julie, on her way home one night when she hits a white dog with her car. The dog is near death, and she rushes it to the vet, where it mysteriously recovers. She takes the dog home with her and it takes an instant liking to her. She makes flyers and puts them up around town to try and find the rightful owners of the dog. Her boyfriend Roland(Jameson Parker) tries to convince her to keep the dog because it would be good protection for a single girl who lives alone in the hills. Nothing seems to be awry until an attacker breaks into Julie's house and attempts to rape her. White Dog(he is never given a name) attacks the assailant and kills him! The police tell Julie that she is lucky to have a dog that loves her so much. A few days later, White Dog escapes from the yard while chasing a rabbit, and ends up killing a black man that is driving a street sweeper. Soon after he attacks a black woman that Julie is making a movie with, but is stopped from killing her. When he kills a black man in a church, it becomes apparent that the dog has been trained to attack and kill black people.
Julie takes him to an animal specialist played by Burl Ives, who explains the origins of "White Dogs", and tells her that she needs to put the dog to sleep, that there is no helping it. By now, Julie really loves the dog, and she can't bear putting the dog to death, despite it's atrocities. After all, the dog was made that way by some subhuman trash, and it really isn't the animals fault. At the animal facility, she meets another trainer, who is black, and played masterfully by Paul Winfield. In an interesting element that was left out of the film, but was in the book, the Winfield character was actually a black Muslim. He tells Julie that he will need 5 weeks, but he will fix the dog. The dog escapes at one point and kills another black man, and somehow they still decide not to put the dog down. After all of the training, Julie goes to see the dog, and it acts like it is going to attack the Winfield character and then Julie herself, but in the end runs and kills the Burl Ives character in a crazy turn of events. It seems that the black animal trainer has now reconditioned the animal to attack and kill white men.
It is such a shame that this film, was dismissed so easily, and accused of actual racism, when it's obvious intention was to expose the horrible racism that was still going on, and still is to this day. In a scene late in the film, Julie actually meets the owner of the dog, the one that trained him to be a "White Dog". It's a very old, southern man, with his two very young granddaughters, and they try to come and claim the dog back. In Kristy's best scene in the film, she attacks the man with such vitriol, for being the racist and monster that he is. She warns the children to never listen to a word that the old man has to say! The scene gives you hope that there are actually good people left in the world. I have seen far more disgusting portrayals of racism, like American History X, or Higher Learning, and neither of those films were shelved or banned? If it sounds like something that would interest you, definitely pick up the Criterion DVD it's easily worth the 35 bones that they are asking for it!!