SLIFF 2010 Review: DOG JACK
Review by Dane Marti
Based on a novel by Florence Biros and directed by Edward D. McDougal, DOG JACK takes place during the tumultuous Civil War. You remember that, right? Not a lot of fun? It was the major turning point in American history and bringing to close the evil, inhumane practice of slavery. Of course, the war didn’t end racism in the south or anywhere, but it certainly started humanity on the right path, even if many consider States-Rights to have been violated.
While there are many great films based on history, including war films, the Civil War has only occasionally been the focus of a motion picture: Obviously, there are a few that stand out: the famous, epic and controversial, Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind are two big examples of important cinematic works. Director John Huston gave us Audie Murphy (the WWII War Hero) in The Red Badge of Courage. Filmed in black and white, it is well worth seeing.
In more recent times, Ken Burns gave us what I consider easily his most interesting and detailed work (although as a Jazz fan, I did like that as well.): The Civil War.There was also Gettysburg, a TV movie that deservedly received praise from critics and might have been released in some places theatrically. The scenes taking place during the battle of Little Round Top were particularly well staged.Then there was the outstanding Glory, with Denzel Washington, a work that rightly showed the contributions that African Americans made to the Union Army, important things like giving up their lives for a vitally important cause! War is helland the close, hand-to-hand, brother-to brother battles of the Civil War were among the most horrifically bloody chapters in History.
DOG JACK is a little different from some of the works made previously on this vital subject. 14-year-old Jed is a runaway slave. He’s got a loyal dog named, Jack, who has a patch over his left eye, resembling one of those wonderful canines that always seemed to be around the Our Gang kids in the thirties. This gives the film a shimmering, childlike element – it subconsciously reminds me of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, but also gives the story humanity and compassion. Hey, who doesn’t like dogs? Now, I realize that some might consider the dog character to be a little overly cute, but this was written originally as children’s literature; an element of cuteness was needed to get children to learn about the Civil War and, in particular, the horrible nightmare of slavery; somewhat like ‘a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down’. Well, somewhat. It’s a nice introduction to this important subject.
Some of the dialogue introduces interesting concepts for younger people (of all ages) to think about after the film, and presumably the book preceding it.
“What price does man pay for freedom,the taking of a life?
Anyone who thinks war is a clear-cut thing, don’t believe it
Anyway, Jed has a tough time getting to the Union border and freedom. A tortured and conflicted Minister assists him on his journey: within the film, the partnership does not seem forced or phony. This is one of the most interesting aspects to the film – the conflict within the minister, a man who saves the young man from being forced to return to slavery, but also a man who still has a slight pallor of racism about it, as did many Northerners. One of the themes of the film is how there are double meanings within every aspect of life, nothing is cut and dried. Once he starts tagging along with the Union, but before he becomes a soldier/hero, he finds difficulty with white men and their prejudices. Still, he did want to rescue his mother and get revenge for the death of his father, a slave whipped viciously throughout his life. At one point, the confederates capture him and some of his small band of brigade, and a secret is revealed! Another interesting aspect that I liked, is the little moments of relaxation that the Union Forces, playing practical jokes, a trip to Pittsburgh with period dancing and celebration. And baseball.
The film is a judicious blending of historic Civil War detail, but with entertaining complications that are often contrived enough to resemble a fresh pretzel dipped in ancient frosting. Still, the overall film works. It will especially entertain young people whom I realize the book was patterned for to a certain respect. And, as far as the contrivance is concerned, I’m sure that the book probably went into more detail, explaining the surprises. After all, in this type of film, which deals with a seriously difficult subject, adding fun can help people enjoy something otherwise unpalatable. Even Gone With The Wind was filled with inexplicably strange coincidences. Back to DOG JACK: Then there is the attack at Fort Resolve and Jed’s mission to light a fuse to the explosives in the Fort’s underground bunker.
The low-budget photography is well done and atmospheric. Much, of the period architecture, buildings and trains looks authentic, but one of the principle buildings doesn’t quite seem to fit, but I could be wrong about that. I thought the direction kept everything reined in: Given the fact that this was an independent film; I thought all the actors did a good, serviceable job. Well, there definitely was a tinge, a patina of amateurishness throughout the film, whether it was the main actors or the supporting cast, but through the story, direction and dialogue, these rough patches were sanded over and didn’t ruin the overall design of the film. In fact, this made me like the film even more. While not bad, the fact that we were watching an historic, shadow play made everything take on a certain simplicity and truth. It was charming tale, not without flaws, but in a day when big-budgets and obnoxious special effects are often done to bring in the dunderhead masses who love spectacle of a freak show, it was nice to be reminded that it is possible to make a nice story without resorting to the typical Hollywood gloss and greed.
DOG JACK played during the 19th Annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival.