Film: War Dogs
Director: S. Roy Luby
Performers: Billy Lee, Addison Richards, Bradley Page, Kay Linaker, Ace the Wonder Dog
Production Info: Monogram Pictures (USA), 1942
Breeds featured: German Shepherd, Airedale Terrier, Great Dane, Collie, Doberman Pinscher
The war “dogs” in this film are both human and canine. Captain William “Wild Bill” Freeman is a World War I vet who has fallen amongst the legions of forgotten men in the aftermath of the war. Despite his patriotic fervor, he’s now considered too old and not specialized enough to join the fight in World War II. On the other hand, his son Billy is too young. The fact that there is no Freeman in the fight, on top of his unemployment, leaves him distraught and feeling helpless until circumstances bring a child welfare agent, Ms. Allen, to his home.
“Say, have you ever heard of the Army Patrol Dogs?” she asks, trying to help them brainstorm a solution. “Those dogs have to enlist in the army, just like people do.” And thus begins the mission to transform the family pet, Pal, into a true soldier worthy of the Freeman legacy.
I’m not giving a blow-by-blow of this film, because it’s pretty awful. There are no real characters to speak of. The bobble-headed kid reeks of so much gosh-darned earnestness, you just want to smack him. The “plot” takes so long to develop that it may as well not be there — though it comes complete with overwrought romantic intrigue, industrial saboteurs, anthropomorphized patriotism, and a tragic, heroic death (hint: no dogs die in this story). Indeed, the acrobatic army dogs-in-training show more talent than the hacks that jerryrigged this stinker.
However, as a piece of po(o)p propaganda that is roughly contemporaneous with Frank Capra’s masterful Why We Fight series, this film is somewhat interesting as an emblem of its time. Its messy overlay of fiction and documentary re-enactment is very symptomatic of that moment in Hollywood productions, as lesser filmmakers were mobilizing to incorporate the excess of wartime rhetoric into the folds of everyday entertainment. The entire production feels forced because on some level, everyone in Hollywood was forced to take part in rallying the nation towards the patriotic cause.
The most interesting parts were the newsreel-style footage of the training process. However, I couldn’t help but feel awful for the poor African American soldier who was forced to play “the enemy” during the drills. He was the one hiding in the bushes, beating the dogs, firing guns at the dogs, inciting them to violence — and thus, repeatedly taken down as “proof” of the dog’s successful training. Not always a comfortable image to witness, especially when you think about black soldiers fighting alongside white soldiers (and ostensibly relying on the protection of the same dogs), and also when filtered retrospectively through similar images of Civil Rights Movement era violence.
Sadly, these training and other pseudo-documentary sequences only amounted to about 10 minutes of the total 64 minute run time. So you do the math to figure out just how much chaff you’ve got to sort through and see if it’s worth it…
In my opinion, you’re better off watching some of the War Dog documentary training reels housed at the British Pathe online archives, like these: War Dogs 1 and War Dogs Reel 2 (1961); Dogs of War (1939); Canine Warriors (1941). But if you insist on checking out this title, it’s available as part of the Canine Collection 3-disc DVD set, or as a standalone title on a remastered DVD.
EDIT 6 May 2011: Or you should check out this photo essay on war dogs by Rebecca Frankel for Foreign Policy.