Notwithstanding Disney’s animated box-office smash Bolt , about a talking white German shepherd who plays a K9 superhero in the movies and labors under the delusion that he possesses superpowers off-screen, not all successful dog movies are cute kid stuff. Bolt is a white German Shepherd who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor supplying his voice, John Travolta; Bolt’s best friend is a little girl named Penny, voiced by Miley Cyrus. But in 1982, a very different white German Shepherd starred in a very different movie called White Dog.
One of the great Samuel Fuller’s last films, this celluloid examination of racism centers on a white German Shepherd trained to attack black people; the young actress who rescues the dog as a stray (she’s played by Kristy McNichol, seventies-era teen sweetheart and Miley Cyrus precursor); and the black trainer, played by the excellent Paul Winfield, who dedicates himself to re-programming the dog. The film’s very grown-up message is that racism is learned behavior — not unlike nuisance barking – that can be unlearned.
Long viewed as a cinematic bête noire — Paramount was so nervous about White Dog that it played in theaters for just one week, then was later unspooled at New York City’s prestigious Film Forum in 1991 — this controversial, misunderstood film boasts quite the cinematic pedigree, with a screenplay co-written by Curtis Hanson (based on a story by Romain Gary ) and soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. At long last, White Dog has just been given its scholarly due by the Criterion Collection, which lovingly restored the uncut version and released it on DVD complete with a heaping helping of irresistible cookies, including interviews with Hanson, dog trainer Karl Lewis-Miller (who also wrangled the animals in Cujo, Beethoven, and Babe), and the film’s canine star, who’s interviewed by Fuller himself.