Film: War Dogs (1942)

April 9, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / V to Z


Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: n/a/ DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Drama / War / Propaganda

Synopsis: A boy donates his beloved dog to the war effort.

Special Features: n/a




For poverty row studios like Monogram, it was much tougher to compete against the major studios’ offering of newsreels, short propaganda docs filmed in blazing Technicolor (The Tanks are Coming), and star studded musicals (This is the Army), romances (Casablanca), dramas (Mrs. Miniver), and action films (Edge of Darkness) set during the heat of WWII.

Serials were one alternative venue, but the genre mandated extravagantly conceived plots, twists, and cliffhanger endings. Outright propaganda films mandated the vilification of specific ethnic groups, and while regarded by studio executives at the time as patriotic, buck-toothed Japanese caricatures and untrustworthy Germans also meant such depictions rendered the films offensive to the affected ethnic groups who just wanted to see movies without the racist ugliness. Propaganda films were also inherently disposable, so there was little logic in spending heavy money on dramas that would be shelved, locked up, or tossed away after WWII.

That reality makes War Dogs a bit of an anomaly, because writers Ande Lamb and John Vlahos concocted a rather ingenious kitchen sink melodrama that borders on social realism.

Billy Freeman (Billy Lee) is arrested for stealing, and when dragged into court, Judge Roger Davis (Bradley Page) gives him a gentle lecture on good social behaviour, but his morality lesson is interrupted by peoples defender Joan Allen (Kay Linaker) who takes an interested in Billy’s case because he stole to get his dog out from the city pound. Stealing was his only choice because his father William (Addison Richards), a WWI vet, has been out of work for a while, and the single parent family’s barely able to make ends meet.

In a move stemming from concern as well as a need to impress Allen (whom he’s dating), Judge Davis offers to pay the dog pound fee, and Billy promises to pay back the money in installments. Allen offers to give the boy and his dog a ride home, and she’s clearly distressed by the kid’s ramshackle house – porch furniture is literally snapping into pieces, and the interior is a mess of old and disintegrating furniture and clutter.

Billy prattles on about his father being a WWI vet (once dubbed Captain “Wild Bill” Freeman) who’s waiting to hear back from the War Office about a job, and he shows Allen his dad’s medals and the framed picture of his father in uniform, taken when his dad was in the prime of his youth. Dad’s now an older, beaten man, traumatized by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and drinks to keep the nightmares in check.

After sobering up, Billy’s father offers to pay back the money owed to Judge Davis.  Davis sees it’s a matter of dignity, and in their conversation, William describes how much he wants to contribute to the war effort but realizes he’s in no shape to deal with training, let alone combat due to his PTSD, so Judge Davis suggests donating the family dog Pal (played by Ace the Wonder Dog. Ironically, Pal is the real name of the collie who played Lassie in MGM’s eponymous franchise).

Both Billy and his dad love the idea, and the film switches gears and becomes a docu-drama, showing the training regimen that transforms ordinary dogs into creatures of valour.


When Pal’s fully trained, he’s ready to become a guard dog at the local munitions factory when Billy’s dad now works as a security guard. Everything seems perfect, until Nazis land on the coast and prepare to blow up the plant, except they didn’t count on the bravery of Billy’s father, who sacrifices his life to save the plant and its employees.


Billy, now a certified orphan, is taken in by Judge David and Joan, who’ve finally decided to formalize their relationship into a working class family.

Although vintage melodrama, War Dogs has a number of striking elements that separate it from the A-level fodder from the majors. The cast is uniformly strong, the exterior locations evoke struggling poor living in the dusty California suburbs, and the film contains a great sequence detailing the training of war dogs.

That sequence is really a mini-documentary, which makes one wonder if the film began as a documentary on a war dog school, and was later fleshed out into a feature film after key footage had been shot and edited with narration. Both the social drama and the training scenes are designed to provoke audiences into donating their dogs for the war effort (for use as guard dogs on the home front, or aide soldiers in battle), but they’re packed with a lot of fine details.

The training montage shows how the novice recruits are acclimatized to combat sounds using firecrackers, guns, and explosions – not easy scenes to watch, even though trainers are constantly reassuring the dogs to get them focused on other defense issues – and there’s a portion devoted to gun-toting aggressors.

The latter segment has scenes of an African American soldier role playing with the dogs. He’s grappled, chased, and cornered, and although he’s a vital ingredient in the training sessions, they have a peculiar subtext because it’s a white aggressor using a dog to hunt down a black man (a concept isolated and fleshed out in Sam Fuller’s 1982 cinematic social commentary, White Dog).

Billy’s total acceptance of donating Pal to the war effort is perhaps startling to most viewers because patriotism so cleanly trumps any melancholy, and fear for being separated and potentially losing his best friend. It’s made clear that Pal will be a changed creature by the end of the training montage: an officer explains to Billy and his father that war dogs are discouraged from meeting their families to avoid undoing their new training, but both walk away totally satisfied they’ve made the right sacrifice for their country with no sense of personal loss.

Equally unique is the depiction of ‘Wild Bill’ as an alcoholic. He’s a sad & sleepy drunk rather than a smasher and child abuser – perhaps a consolation for film censors – and his ability to eschew booze happens quickly because the story needs a strong father-son bond to succeed.

The sole area of contrivance is the Davis-Allen relationship, where Joan’s refused Roger’s marriage proposal 28 times because she wants a man directly involved with rehabilitating and do-gooding. Their decision to marry at the end, and embrace Billy as their surrogate son, is typically pat for era, but War Dogs is still quite affecting because it doesn’t star a bunch of perfectly manicured name stars.

Moreover, the Nazi ‘bombing’ is terribly perfunctory and low-tech – even the actors’ American accents bleed through the few sparse German exchanges – and it pushes the film towards its hasty finale, but as a period glimpse into America’s war machine and its war dog program, the film far exceeds MGM’s 1943 attempt to integrate glossy melodrama with docu-styled scenes in their Technicolor production Courage of Lassie.

A number of the film’s cast soon stepped away from filmmaking, including child actor Billy Lee (his finale work included the dark thriller Eyes of the Underworld in 1942, and a TV appearance in 1950), Bradley Page (gone by 1943 after bit parts), and Kay Linaker (also gone by 1945, but to re-emerge in 1958 as screenwriter of the classic The Blob).

Veteran character actor Addison Richards maintained a prolific career in bit parts, including Courage of Lassie (1943), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Mighty Joe Young (1949), and TV appearances on Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin in the late fifties. As for Ace the Wonder Dog, he career lasted nine solid years (1938-1949), and included the crime drama Silent Witness (1943) and the horror film The Monster Maker (1944).

This film, now in the public domain, is currently available online via in a good-sized video file. The original source print is pretty beat up and is affected by a frame jittering during the first two reels, but it’s currently the most accessible copy for fans of WWII dramas.



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

DVD / Film:  Courage of Lassie (1946) — Edge of Darkness (1943) — Leave Her to Heaven (1945) — Mighty Joe Young (1949)


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  Blob, The (1958) — Casablanca (1943) —  Mrs. Miniver (1942)


External References:

IMDB — War Dogs info: 1 / 2


Return toHome Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews V to Z

Tags: ,

Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

Comments are closed.