Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Plague Dogs: An Unrelenting Tale of Lost Hope

The Tod, Rowf, and Snitter.
I knew it was a mistake to watch The Plague Dogs earlier this week when my wife was at choir practice. I had originally seen this emotionally wrenching film in the 1980s, so I remembered that it was not an animated film aimed at children. I also vaguely recalled that the ending was downbeat. However, I misjudged the extent to which The Plague Dogs would touch me--leaving me a weepy mess of a man after 95 minutes of lost hope.

The story opens in an animal research facility as two scientists watch a dog nearly drown in a tank of water. The purpose of their experiment, which has been repeated multiple times on the same animal, is to determine how long the canine can survive before dying. The dog, an old Lab mix named Rowf, is returned to his cage after the experiment. When he regains consciousness, his friend Snitter, a Fox Terrier, informs Rowf that his cage door has been left unlocked. Rowf and Snitter explore the dark halls of the research facility--which is filled with dogs, monkeys, rabbits, and rats--and eventually escape through the incinerator.

Life on the outside isn't what they imagined. Snitter talks fondly of his earlier life with his master, who died in a car accident while saving Snitter. They just need to find a new master, he tells Rowf. But the gray-muzzled Lab mix distrusts people based on his experiences with the "whitecoats" (the scientists). He doesn't understand people and how they could do such awful things to him ("Why do they do it? I'm not a bad dog.").

Rowf in the background and Tod.
Unprepared to provide for themselves Rowf and Snitter meet The Tod, a crafty fox who teaches survival skills in return for a portion of any sheep killed by Rowf. Snitter likes The Tod, but the cynical Rowf distrusts the fox, too. Still, the trio share a fleeting moment of contentment, marred only by Snitter's health problems stemming from experimental brain surgery ("My head is all on fire!"). Eventually, hunters--fueled by a fake story about the dogs carrying bubonic plague--close in on the trio.

The Plague Dogs is based on Richard Adams' 1977 novel of the same name. Adams had earlier written the acclaimed bestseller Watership Down, a modern fable about a warren of rabbits that was turned into a surprise 1978 boxoffice hit. Martin Rosen, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Watership Down, performed the same duties for The Plague Dogs.

A fine example of Rosen's direction.
However, despite mostly good reviews (e.g., Janet Maslin praised the animation more than the plot), The Plague Dogs flopped at the boxoffice, It's not hard to see why. Though the animation is colorful and life-like and the characters convincing, a cloud of despair hangs about the film. Ironically, Adams' book had an upbeat ending which was added on his publisher's insistence. The film jettisons that ending for what Adams originally conceived--an ambiguous conclusion that has Rowf and Snitter swimming in the fog toward an island that may or may not exist.

John Hurt provides the voice for Snitter.
The voice cast, comprised of British veterans, is excellent. John Hurt perfectly captures Snitter's optimism. Christopher Benjamin, whose many roles include loud Sir Hugh Bodrugan on the original Poldark, voices Rowf. And James Bolam, whom we're recently watched in the detective series New Tricks, speaks in a Geordie (Northern England) dialect as The Tod.

Although most current prints of The Plague Dogs run 95 minutes, the original film was 103 minutes. Several scenes deemed too bloody for American audiences were trimmed. The longer film is available on video only in Australia. Incidentally, the closing gospel song was written and performed by Alan Price, who provided the splendid tunes for the 1973 cult classic O Lucky Man.

The Plague Dogs is a potent film about cruelty and deception. It's a good movie with an important message and I do recommend it. However, as a dog lover, it's not a movie I want to watch again for a long time.


  1. Based on your description, Rick, I think this film would leave me in a mess, too!

  2. Always a hard watch for me, too, and not one I revisit often, but thought-provoking and well made. I like the ambiguous ending much better.

  3. Richard Adams' WATERSHIP DOWN is my 3rd or 4th favorite book of all time, but I could never get past the first few pages of THE PLAGUE DOGS. Just those few pages broke my heart. To this day, there are several images from those pages which refuse to leave my memory banks. So moving. SO powerful. :(