I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
You’ve most likely heard about military dogs. There have been a good few movies about them, and many of them are based on true stories, such as the recent excellent Megan Leavey, about a Marine and her bomb-sniffing dog who save each other in body and soul. And military dogs get medals and commendations and such, just like human soldiers do. So clearly there must be a most-decorated dog soldier ever… though I can’t say that this concept had ever occurred to me before. But now I know which doggo holds that honor, at least among the US military branches, thanks to the unexpectedly charming Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero (slightly renamed for its UK release as Sgt. Stubby: An Unlikely Hero).
That’s right: Sergeant Stubby was a pupper. Some sort of bulldog mutt, perhaps? A cheeky, chunky little stray with big noggin and a stubby tail, anyway, the latter of which is how he got his name when he wandered into the training grounds of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, aka the Yankee Division, in New Haven, Connecticut in 1917, and decided that his new master was a young doughboy called Robert Conroy (the voice of Logan Lerman: Fury, Noah). The US is finally preparing to send troops overseas to help the Brits and the French fight the Germans, and Stubby manages to ingratiate himself so well even with the commanding officers that he is allowed to stick around and train with them. (I guess Army sergeants didn’t get to be real hardasses until movies about Vietnam.)
I’m not sure how accurate some of the details here can be, like how Stubby managed to get himself on the right train and then on the ship about to sail with Conroy and his fellows soldiers after the dog was to remain in New Haven to keep the next boot-campers company. I suspect the real details may have been somewhat simplified here. (More likely no one actually knew how the real Stubby pulled it off… though one story has Conroy himself smuggling the dog onboard ship.) But never mind. Sgt. Stubby is — in this centenary year of the end of World War I — a gentle and age-appropriately engaging way to introduce kids to this essential piece of history. A voiceover narration provided by Conroy’s sister, Margaret (the voice of Helena Bonham Carter: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Suffragette), offers a bit of context about where in France the 102nd was going, and why, via her brother’s letters home. The film doesn’t pretend that the war began with the latecoming American involvement, and neither does it ignore the bigotries of the era: one of Robert’s fellow soldiers is a German immigrant, Hans Schroeder (the voice of Jim Pharr), who talks about how he was basically forced to volunteer lest he be considered not a real American.
The horrors and the senselessness of the war are touched on, too, though again I stress that this is not an overly intense movie, and is scary only in ways suitable for gradeschoolers, though hopefully it will inspire the more curious among them to learn more. A scene of the soldiers training to deal with gas, and the necessity of keeping their gas masks with them at all times, is seen much through Stubby’s eyes. The pooch does not like the weirdly inhuman face the mask presents, all flat-featured and dead-eyed, although the simply styled animation deliberately downplays and smooths out that iconically nightmarish visage. Later, in France, when a green cloud of German gas rolls into a small village, it’s visually striking and ominous… but Stubby saves the day by warning the townsfolk that it’s coming.
This is not a movie that anthropomorphizes Stubby — he’s not a cartoon canine. He doesn’t talk, or do anything much beyond what real-life hero dogs do: he finds wounded soldiers who might be overlooked in the heat of battle; he clears trenches of vermin. Adults may find the movie too simple and too unchallenging, but I was surprised to find myself with something in my eye by the end. I wasn’t expecting to be as deeply moved by it as I was. Though that might have something to do with the 100-year-old photos of the real Stubby and his people sprinkled through the end credits, underlining the authenticity of his tale. He was a very good boy indeed.