The Plague Dogs

Director: Martin Rosen
Voice Cast:
John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam

I've said it a number of times before on this web site, but I think it's worth mentioning again - this universe of ours that we live in has a lot of features that are fascinating to observe and think about. Many of these things are what Mother Nature has come up with on her own, such as the fact that life, specifically xenophyophores, have been found at the bottom of the almost seven mile deep Mariana Trench, the deepest part of Earth's oceans. But there are also a lot of interesting sights to consider that Mother Nature didn't have a hand in making. I am talking about what we, mankind, have managed to achieve. If you look over the past several thousand years, you will see that mankind has managed to make an incredible amount of achievements, ranging from Marcel Proust writing the seven volume long novel Remembrance Of Things Past to England and France building the over thirty mile long Chunnel that connects the two countries. But when you take a closer look at all these achievements that mankind has managed to make, many of them have the uncomfortable fact that some sort of big price was paid either while the achievement was being made, or afterwards. I've mentioned in an earlier review what the Industrial Revolution made happen, but I'll mention it again if you didn't read the particular review where I mentioned it. As you probably know, when machines such as the power loom were invented, it resulted in goods that could be made quickly and cheaply. However, this meant that many workers who had previously been making these goods by hand were out of work, which resulted in the violent anti-technology Luddite movement.

Of course, it could be argued that advanced technology has in the end created a number of new jobs, so the example that I just mentioned may not be a very good one. So I will choose some other examples. One such example can be found in my country, with the railroad built in the latter half of the nineteenth century that connected Canada from coast to coast. In my history classes that I took when I was younger, I read that while the railroad was a great achievement at the time that helped to unify Canada, terrible prices were paid to build it, such as the abuse of Chinese immigrants who contributed to its construction. Then there are achievements that have been made in the scientific field, including (but not limited to) medicine. Ethics today may prevent experiments on humans like what Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele did on concentration camp prisoners during World War Two (as it turned out, the scientific community after the war pretty much dismissed all the medical data Mengele and his associates came up with for various reasons.) What's more accepted nowadays is to use animals as test subjects. Since animals are not humans, it seems "okay" to use them as test subjects, and we have certainly made some great medical achievements with using animals in tests. But every so often, I hear about some kind of experiment with animals that doesn't sit well with me. For example, I remember when I was a child reading somewhere about an experiment done with a chimpanzee. The experiment got the chimpanzee hooked on cocaine, and the chimpanzee got so addicted to the drug that it would press a button in its cage hundreds of times because the chimpanzee knew that pressing the button all those times would deposit another dose of cocaine in its cage.

Although I don't own any pets, when I do come across an animal, I often like to look into its eyes. When I do this, I often see in its eyes sign of some sort of soul. I see that while the animal may not have the intelligence and reason found in a human, it all the same is a living and breathing The Plague Dogscreature that has wants and feelings. With this in mind, I am kind of conflicted about scientists using animals as experiments. On one hand, I am grateful for the scientific experiments that have helped mankind to live longer and healthier. On the other hand, I certainly wouldn't want to be experimented on myself, so I sympathize with animals that go through pain in these experiments. When I learned about the animated movie The Plague Dogs, I sensed that it wouldn't be a balanced look at the subject of animal experimentation. But sometimes one-sided looks at controversial material can be interesting, and I was willing to consider what the movie had to say. In the opening of the movie, we are introduced to the two main characters - not humans, but dogs. The dogs are named Snitter (voiced by John Hurt, Alien) and Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin, Ring Of Bright Water), and they are two dogs stuck in the confines of a laboratory somewhere in the English countryside, where they have been put through gruelling and cruel experiments for an extended period of time. One night while the laboratory's scientists are away, Snitter and Rowf see an opportunity to escape, and they leap at the chance. They do end up escaping and flee into the countryside, but not before making a lot of mess in the laboratory. When the scientists find out about the dogs' escape and the damage they made, they eventually think that the dogs may have been infected by the bubonic plague, and set out to immediately capture and destroy the two possibly diseased dogs. Snitter and Rowf not only have that problem on their hands, but also have to figure out how to survive in the English countryside away from man.

The Plague Dogs was based on a novel by Richard Adams, the author of the classic novel Watership Down. That novel had been turned into an animated movie four years before The Plague Dogs, and by the same filmmakers. If you are familiar with the movie Watership Down (or even just the novel), most likely you have guessed that The Plague Dogs is not a typical "fun" or family friendly animated movie, and you would be right. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) The very first scene of the movie shows Rowf stuck swimming in a laboratory water tank until he is so exhausted that he drowns, and moments later is resuscitated by the scientists. When Snitter is introduced, we see that he has had brain surgery that makes him hallucinate, and he can't shake the memory of seeing the master he had in the past hit and killed by a car. After Snitter and Rowf barely dodge being incinerated during their escape, they are forced to hunt sheep in the countryside for food, and we get to see the blood-soaked sheep. Later, Snitter accidentally causes a human to have his face blown off by a shotgun. And when a human hunting the two dogs falls to his death from a cliff, Snitter and Rowf eat the corpse because they are starving. (At least offscreen - the edited American version of the movie reportedly had removed, among other things, a shot of the eaten human corpse.) As you can see from what I just described, The Plague Dogs is definitely not for younger kids. I'm sure that there will be some older viewers who also may be disturbed and upset by the many bleak things showcased throughout. But I think even they would admit that the dark mater is not shown in an exploitive manner. There is honesty to its presentation, showing that life is not always fair or constantly sunshine and roses for anything living, animal or human. In fact, I think it will probably make viewers think a lot during and afterwards, to get them wondering what they may do to improve this world of ours.

Besides the movie being honest about life - refreshing in an age of constant happy endings in movies - I think another reason why The Plague Dogs is compelling because of its depiction of its protagonists. For starters, the two dogs are given the power of speech, which they use among themselves and other animals they encounter along their journey. Now, I admit that this often used device is not perfect. Whenever I see this device used in a movie, it always gets me to wonder, "If these animals can communicate with each other with such rich language, then why aren't they smart enough to expertly communicate with or completely understand humans?" But director Martin Rosen (who also wrote the screenplay and acted as a producer), does give Snitter and Rowf some personality that explains why they are not doing this. Rowf, for instance, is shown to have a side that doesn't understand his situation. After being drowned and revived multiple times by the scientists, he wonders as he recovers, "Why do they do it? I'm not a bad dog." And when the two dogs subsequently escape and are immediately struck by the immense countryside, Snitter can't understand what happened to all the roads and houses he was familiar with when in the past he lived in a town with a human master. Such touches as those make it easy to understand why the two dogs are not super smart - they are more realistic animals. But all the same, they feel and think, and they are completely sympathetic. They also have interesting personalities. Rowf is shown to be extremely cynical, so much so that he doesn't seem to want to make many decisions, maybe in the fear he might make things worse. Snitter is more optimistic, at least at first, and takes charge more often than not in seemingly the aim that he and Rowf have to do something to improve their situation... though as time goes on, his attitude is severely put to the test many times, so much so that even he might lose hope.

The only other character in The Plague Dogs that is significantly fleshed out is a fox known only as "The Tod" (voiced by James Bolam of O Lucky Man!) that the two dogs encounter and make a somewhat uneasy alliance with. I did find this character a little hard to understand at times due to Bolam giving the fox a very thick accent, as well at the script giving the character some unexplained actions, like why he eventually rejoins the dogs after splitting with them at one point. There are additional weaknesses in other parts of the script as well. The long middle portion of the movie comes across more or less as a series of vignettes. Although there is always the thread of the dogs trying to survive, it often doesn't seem all that strong; something with more of a large goal attached to it throughout would have been better, if you ask me. Still, all the vignettes are interesting, and as I illustrated in the previous paragraph, the two dogs are strong enough characters that you will be on their side rooting them on as they struggle to survive from start to finish. Also, the weaker portions of The Plague Dogs are also compensated by the movie's visual presentation. As I said earlier, the movie is animated, and it looks great by early 1980s standards - even also by today's standards. The animation is not at the ultra "smooth" level of decades past, and some of the background art is lacking sufficient detail. But the feeling is all the same professional, giving this world a more realistic feeling than you usually get in animated movies. There are also some very impressive touches throughout, from the hundreds of moving bubbles in creeks to overhead shots of Snitter and Rowf moving zigzag through forests, with the camera following them at length. People who have an interest in animation will definitely get a lot out of The Plague Dogs, though I think even they will agree that this is not a "fun" movie by any means. But if you are tired of animated movies filled wall to wall with slapstick and shouting, and can accept something more quiet, thoughtful, and cynical in nature, then you'll probably find this an interesting change of pace.

(Posted November 20, 2020)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Blu-Ray)
Check for availability on Amazon (Download)
Check for availability of the original Richard Adams novel

See also: Barefoot Gen, Once Upon A Girl, When The Wind Blows