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Rough Sketches Part 2: Plight of The Plague Dogs
by Nathan Reece

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Rowf and Snitter: The Plague Dogs

Rowf and Snitter: "The Plague Dogs"
Sometimes a movie will be released that is completely under the radar, and remains that way for the entirety of its existence. A movie that's just too raw and abrasive to be widely known and enjoyed. And it makes it even tougher for movies like this when it happens to bear resemblance to a beloved genre.

In 1982 a movie like this was released. Called THE PLAGUE DOGS, it must've been a tricky one for American studios. Infact, it was barely even released in America. It debuted in Austria and West Germany in October of 1982, then spread to Denmark and the Netherlands in early 1983. Only in December of 1983 was it released in Sweden. At around the same time, it hit America, and according to the Internet Movie Database, exclusively in Seattle, Washington (the spawning ground for any hit movie). There's a New York Times review of the film, but it covers a screening of it by a New York theater in 1985.

The movie, for all intents and purposes, was buried. And that notion kind of fits with the tone of the film.

After watching it, it's easy to see why. This is a movie that's far too challenging for many people. Granted, at that point there had already been certain "children's films" that had darker tones. Two of Disney's films, BAMBI and THE FOX AND THE HOUND, certainly did. But THE PLAGUE DOGS is (pardon the expression) a different animal altogether. In one online review I've read, the writer describes it as "THE FOX AND THE HOUND with a terminal disease." Kind of telling, if you've seen THE FOX AND THE HOUND and know how sad it is.

On the outset, it could be mistaken for a typical animated movie of the period, one tailored more for kids. And United Artists, who distributed the movie overseas, and Embassy Pictures, who handled the American distribution, apparently did their best to "sell" it, despite the limited number of people they had to sell it to. The poster shows two dogs running from a helicopter that's hovering behind them. The lead tagline is "Escape To A Different World. And Share The Adventure of a Lifetime." This is followed with another (beneath the title) that says "A Special Kind Of Movie Magic From The Creators Of Watership Down."

These words, as used to describe this movie, have all sorts of meanings. First of all, as pertaining to the plot of the movie, "Escape" is an interesting word. In that tagline, of course, it's being used to describe the audience. But it also applies to the characters in the movie.

THE PLAGUE DOGS centers around two dogs named Rowf and Snitter (the latter dog is voiced by John Hurt). At the film's beginning, they're trapped in a laboratory in Britain that nobody knows about, a laboratory that's conducting obscene, unnecessarily cruel experiments on all sorts of animals, not excluding vivisection. Why? The film doesn't make it clear. Presumably, to further research for human products and practices. Yet the movie's actions could also indicate that they're - at least in part - being conducted for the hell of it, just because the humans can.

What possible explanation is there for the opening scene, where Rowf is the subject of a water endurance test, nearly drowning before being pulled from the water and resuscitated by two scientists? [The movie makes it clear that the dog's had to undergo this process several times, making him afraid of water throughout the film].

Or the fact that Snitter spends the first half of the movie with a bandage on his head, a bandage that - when it's finally removed - is shown to have been covering a spot on his head where the hair has been shaved, and where a scar indicates brain surgery? The result is that Snitter spends the movie slowly going crazy, falling into spells where he's unsure of reality. Sometimes he flashes back to his previous life, where he's loved and cared for by his owner (At least he gets some sort of relief from the pressures he faces in the film). Sometimes he sees things that aren't there. And sometimes he gets mixed up with his choice of descriptive words, like when he says the chaos in his brain "feels like smoke."

The two manage to escape from the lab, and from the control of the "whitecoats," which is their name for the scientists. They do so through an opening in the wall of the lab's incinerator, where dead animal carcasses are thrown to be disposed of.

It's Snitter who instigates the departure (probably because he's just crazy enough to still have the ambition). Rowf, a practically
Just one tragedy

Just one tragedy
defeated creature who's got a more firm grip on reality than Snitter, is slow to be convinced, figuring their chances on the outside are pretty bad. But he finally reasons that he'd rather die out there, on his terms, than as a slave for the "whitecoats." This, and the plight of his new friend, is just enough to keep him going. Snitter's story is especially sad: having been blamed for the accidental death of his owner, he later is the unwitting target of blame for a similar situation.

You can probably already tell that this isn't your typical cartoon movie. And it only gets bleaker. The "Different World" the movie's taglines promise is a charade. This is not some kind of jolly adventure, a romp that kids and adults alike can go to and enjoy a fantasy world, or even a realistic one with grand illusions. It's a movie about the harsh and brutal realities of this world, and it doesn't pretend there's always an easy way out for everyone and every thing in it.

For example, how are two escaped dogs going to survive at all, for any length of time, without anyone to look after them? Well they do it by killing and eating sheep, and (in a deleted scene) the body of a dead hunter. Along the way, they meet a fox named Tod (sound familiar to anyone who's seen one of the aforementioned Disney films?), who - though he seems difficult to trust - eventually proves that he's a valued asset to them, particularly when it comes to chasing sheep and evading humans.

The horrors of animal experimentation are shown in fairly graphic detail. The filmmakers make it very convincing that the dogs would want to escape the hellhole they were trapped in, presumably after being caught and held there by force. At the time, there was not a PG-13 rating, so the movie's rated PG, though in my opinion, it steers pretty close to an R (it was later re-rated PG-13). I guess that, without obviously objectionable content like nudity or foul language (other than a "Damn" or two), the MPAA figured the movie could still be sold to children and parents, at least a few of them.

One part of the taglines that's undeniably true is that the movie is by the creators of WATERSHIP DOWN, a movie that more people have seen - in my estimation - than THE PLAGUE DOGS. And if you've seen WATERSHIP DOWN, you probably feel that movie is pretty uncompromising as far as animated movies go, particularly ones that are advertised with children in mind as part of the audience. This is the case, as you can see in many online lists of the most terrifying "kids' movies."

Yet at least one of these lists, the one on Nostalgia.com (and the only one I've seen indicating that its creator has even seen it) confirms that THE PLAGUE DOGS is the stronger film in terms of content, placing it as No. 1 in the "Top Ten Worst Animated Movies For Kids," while WATERSHIP DOWN gets the second spot.

Both movies were written and directed by Martin Rosen, and based on books by Richard Adams. After WATERSHIP DOWN was released and praised, at the same time gaining some of its effect from the darkness of its material, Rosen apparently decided to delve into the even darker stuff that had come from Adams' imagination. And in an unusual decision, he chose to make the movie even darker than the book in many ways.

The most striking examples of these creative choices concern the movie's conclusion.

As the story progresses, the dogs are responsible for acts that result in the deaths of other living things. Some of the instances are intentional on their part, and some are unintentional. Yet the result of these is that the "whitecoats," initially not motivated to take action, seek the British government's help in obtaining them. A story is leaked to the media that the dogs are carrying the Bubonic Plague, and this leads the society around them to call for the dogs' deaths.

Where this goes, I won't reveal. But I will say that it leads to a resolution of the characters' dilemnas (not just Rowf and Snitter's, but Tod's as well) that's brave in its notions, on several levels. It's shocking that the writer and director of a PG-rated animated film, especially when basing it on a book that allegedly (especially after a new ending was added to the book later, but even with its original, more ambiguous ending) had a more optimistic outlook, would choose to go this far with his vision. Some people may not be happy with the way the story completes itself. But to me, it's the logical place
The whitecoats do their damage

The "whitecoats" do their damage
for the story to go.

And indeed, the final scene of THE PLAGUE DOGS is quite beautiful and special, filled with sadness but also with dignity and grace. It's spiritual without being pandering, and more moving than anyone might expect. The movie's theme song, "Time and Tide," by Alan Price of The Animals (fittingly), adds to this ending in no small measure. It's one of the strongest endings to any movie I've ever seen.

There are all sorts of technical accomplishments that I haven't mentioned yet. The look of the movie is gorgeous, for what it's worth in a movie so bleak. As the dogs venture across different outdoor territories, several different kinds of landscapes are drawn very well. Mountainsides, snowy plains, grassy fields, and bodies of water are all given very stern attention to detail. It's obvious that Rosen and his animators cared to make this a visual experience, regardless of the number of people that ended up seeing the film.

The way the humans are painted is also interesting. We never see their faces; they're more like wraiths in the film, ominous spirits leading the animals to their ultimate doom. Though the dogs and the fox are given detailed characters, none of the humans are. We're only aware of the threat they pose, just as the animals are. At times, we hear the voices of these humans, talking to each other about the threat the animals possess, as we see the animals run from them, unable to communicate their plight. Interesting.

The detail given the dogs is also fascinating. Many of the online reviews of THE PLAGUE DOGS that I've read give much attention to the way the movie allows (for the characters of these two dogs) the kind of emotional range that's usually only expressed by human beings in the movies. The facial expressions of Rowf and Snitter are quite varied and convey much emotion, and this was kind of groundbreaking at the time. And the small details in the dogs' actions are revealing, such as the way Rowf will occasionally lick Snitter's wounded head.

The performances by the actors lending their voices to the film are also exceptional. John Hurt, always great, makes Snitter into a pretty convincing mess: all heart, but with little head left, he simply does his best to stay afloat. Christopher Benjamin gives Rowf a strength that propels the movie along, providing a towline for the pair, and for the audience; he's nearly beaten by life, but not quite, and he insists on retaining his dignity, never quite admitting that he's persisting just as much for the friend he cares about as he is for himself. James Bolam lends conviction to "The Tod," slowly revealing to the viewers - as he does to "The Plague Dogs" - that he's more trustworthy than he seems at first, certainly not willing to aid the human predators, and maybe even more willing to help two of his own than he may be to help himself.

Just for a fun little tidbit, another voice present in the movie belongs to none other than Patrick Stewart, playing a military figure in an early role.

I've known about THE PLAGUE DOGS for most of my life, and I've also always known that it was going to be a difficult experience. I ran across the review of it in one of the movie books I got when I was little (see my previous "Rough Sketches" article for a reference from the same book). It told me that the movie was "definitely not for children," but that it was a quite disturbing work. It was right.

I always remembered that review, so when I noticed - a few years ago - that the movie was on Netflix Instant Watching, it was a dilemna. I have a built-in instinct to see movies that I know will push me in terms of content, that I'm 100% sure will be disturbing to me. Why? I'm not exactly sure, but there are a few theories, which I'll probably discuss in a later column, if not more than one.

Should I see this cartoon movie, that I just knew would be troubling to watch? I vowed not to, yet just as has been the case with other movies I figured I probably wouldn't see, I found myself reading reviews of it online, just out of curiosity.

Eventually I realized that I'd practically watched the whole damn movie by reading the plot descriptions in the reviews. So I asked my Mom one day: "If there was a movie you knew would bother you, but you pretty much knew everything that happened in the movie, should you just go ahead and watch it, and get it out of your system?" She figured I should probably just watch it. So I
The Tod looks on

"The Tod" looks on

That was a year ago, right at this time. And sure, it was very upsetting. But it was upsetting in a cleansing and righteous way, if that makes sense. I was glad I saw it, and I'm glad the writer/director took his vision as far as he did.

Though the movie is astounding in the scope of its vision, it may also be one of those films that begs the question of its audience: Should it have gone this far? Like other powerful movies, mostly live action, THE PLAGUE DOGS pulls no punches whatsoever in making you feel bad.

Yet this is not a run-of-the mill movie that's designed to be entered and viewed as a lark, or an animated movie made with the purpose of parents taking their kids to see it so that they'll all have something to do for an hour and a half. Curiously enough, Rosen has said that he sees the movie not as an anti-vivisection parable, but simply as an adventure. I think there's more to his goals than that. It's an adventure in terms of the story, but there's no joy in it.

Ultimately, THE PLAGUE DOGS is a cry for social change. The book was written, and the movie made, at a time when vivisection and other forms of animal experimentation were more prevalent. And in telling its story the way that it does, it's a plea for people to be kinder to animals, specifically in terms of physical cruelty by way of research, but also in general, as far as I'm concerned.

Animation was the only way the book could have been filmed so that it can be taken so seriously. It's even been said that the movie can be read as a metaphor for several of society's woes, be it the plight of the homeless, the struggles of minorities, or the tragedies that befall abused children. How many "cartoons" can you say such things about? Or that leave the emotional and psychological mark this one does?

Whether or not individuals want to see the movie in one or more of those ways is each person's prerogative, and it can be seen in those ways. But the main idea of the movie is that animals have rights too, the same as humans, and don't deserve the cruelty and negligence bestowed upon them by so many human beings. In any case, I think animation should be used more often to provoke and challenge like this.

Sometimes certain movies can have a profound influence on my life. After I'd finished watching the movie, I walked over and petted the cat that's lived with my brother and me for years (even when I'm not living with my brother, I still consider it partly mine). I told it that no one would ever treat it like the animals in that movie were treated. And just as BABE did for a time when I was younger, THE PLAGUE DOGS inspired me (before I'd even realized that it had happened, really) to stop eating meat. (Sure, the dogs in the movie eat meat to survive, but they have no other choice). It's simply something I'd wanted to realize for awhile, and this movie was a catalyst. I also made a conscious effort to stop wearing leather, which I'd never done before. And I started making it a point to be nicer to animals in general. I won't even kill bugs anymore if I can help it.
I've joined the Humane Society and the ASPCA.

Maybe sometimes a movie needs to go further than movies like it have gone before, if it wants to break through and inspire. Some people consider it a crime that THE PLAGUE DOGS is still barely known about, and it's still being discovered as the years go by. Infact, only last year (the same year I first saw it, oddly enough!), it premiered in France, and apparently this year it's being shown there again. As word continues to get around about challenging animated movies over the years, I'm sure it will continue to be talked about. So the word "Share" in the movie's taglines is a notion that I hope is realized, as it pertains to the widening of people's awareness of the movie.

Finally, going back to the taglines again, it's odd to see the words "A Special Kind of Movie Magic" used on the poster of this particular film. That's usually what you'd see on the poster for a weightless fantasy. This movie couldn't be any further from that. Yet I said it provoked change in me, didn't it? How many movies can do that? So maybe it does have the quality between those quotation marks, in ways the studio didn't even intend. And as for the part about "The Adventure of A Lifetime," well, I'll go my whole life listening to that song sometimes. I'll never forget that ending. And I'll never forget the plight of "the plague dogs."

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This is an outlet granted to me by the makers, in which I will espouse grand words, unleashing in written form the very movie-related praise and outrage I'm probably thinking about and/or discussing at the time anyway.

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Nathan Reece
I was born in a log cabin that was built in a sewer. After serving during wartime, I woke up from this vicious dream and learned to tapdance.
It's a commendable trade, but not a recommendable one. As I've said many a time, on one hand, I have five fingers. Yet on the other hand, I have
five fingers. Sometimes I sleep. I would probably watch more sumo wrestling if it was on TV more often. The first movie I saw at the theater was Superman
II...the last was The Terror, and this much is true. Far be it from me to call myself stupid, but if I did so (and believe me, I would), I'd say it behind
my back. Then I would figure out how I did it. Sometimes I sleep. Love, Nate.

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