As some of you know, I don’t really do movie reviews on this site. But this spring I have had to break my own rule because of the animated film that combines two of my favorite things: dogs and the First World War. I am speaking of the movie “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero.”
For those unfamiliar with the story, Stubby was a stray mutt who joined up with the Connecticut National Guard’s 102nd Infantry Regiment in New Haven during the early months of America’s involvement in World War I. He and a Guardsman formed a special friendship and Stubby ended up going overseas with the regiment. This unit formed one of four infantry regiments in the 26th Division, which was nicknamed the “Yankee Division” because it was made up of the National Guard units of the New England states.
The Yankee Division ended up being the first full division to reach France (parts of the U.S. Army’s 1st and 2nd Divisions were already there but they were not yet at full strength) in October, 1917 and it would take part in some of the fiercest combat of the Western Front in 1918. The division would spend from February to November on the front lines, with only one two week break in August. Most of the infantry units of the division took fifty percent casualties. It was termed one of the “old reliable” divisions of the American Expeditionary Force.
The story of Stubby is in some sense the story of the Yankee Division, since the scrappy pup embodied the fighting spirit of the newly arrived Yanks. Brash, bold, and not yet worn down by years of fighting, the Doughboys exhibited a spirit that was a wonderment to their British and French comrades in arms – although their bravery often came at the cost of heavy casualties.
Stubby himself did more than his part for the cause, as the film shows. From his actions in combat to the general goodwill that his mere presence as a doggy on the front lines brought to the men around him, Stubby was a remarkable animal. Decorated for bravery and promoted to sergeant, he remains one of the most fascinating dogs in the annals of animals in war. All the more distinguished as he was not a trained war dog; much like the men he accompanied, he was a volunteer.
The film is not a full-on documentary and not all the little details are what one would term historically accurate. However, what the film does is capture the spirit of Sergeant Stubby, the Yankee Division, and the American experience of World War I as a whole. It is a story of a man and his dog and the strong bond that people develop with their pets. It perfectly captures the unique understanding that dogs have for their humans and the lengths they will go to out of loyalty and love.
Beyond the relationship between Sergeant Stubby and Corporal Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman), the film focuses on the French experience of the war, one that is often overlooked in American popular culture. This is embodied by French soldier Gaston Baptiste (Gerard Depardieu) who Conroy and Stubby meet when they enter their first front in February of 1918, the Chemin des Dames. Aficionados of the war will recognize the iconic quarries of the region that troops lived in for protection. Baptiste is the personification of the French Poilu: determined, thoughtful, and a fierce fighter. Through him we see the hardships endured by the French for four long years of catastrophic war and the strength of the French soldier.
We follow the travels of Stubby and Conroy through the letters of Conroy’s sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) who provides the home front perspective. The crux of the film is the 102nd Infantry’s deadly engagement at the village of Seicheprey in April of 1918. Seicheprey was the scene of ferocious fighting when a German assault overran one of the forward battalions of the regiment; it took two days of heavy fighting – often hand-to-hand – to retake Seicheprey, with heavy casualties on both sides. A minor incident in relation to the war, Seicheprey was a major incident for the American Expeditionary Force and for those nervously waiting at home in New England.
In addition to the themes already mentioned, the film also manages to capture some of the other aspects of the American experience in World War I, such as German-Americans serving in the military and the deadly Spanish Influenza of 1918. Without fanfare or over-the-top displays of bombastic patriotism, the film carries a very personal message: that the bonds of friendship – whether it be between humans or dogs – cannot be overcome by the horrors of war.
The animation is superbly done, especially for Stubby, who seems like he could jump right out of the screen for a good head scratch. The music is also exceedingly good, blending in original World War I songs – I was delighted to hear Baptiste singing “La Madelon” – with original score by Patrick Doyle. With a runtime of eighty-five minutes, the film doesn’t drag nor does it seem too rushed.
“Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero,” is a film that can be enjoyed by all, whether it be students of the war or people who have never heard of it before. It is a fantastic way to teach children about the American experience of the war as well. In a time when World War I has faded into the background of our American consciousness, it is the right kind of film to honor the citizen-soldiers who put aside the comforts of home to fight for a people they had never met.
And as a story of a soldier and his dog, it highlights the powerful connection between service members and their animals, one that still exists to this day.
The film will be in theaters on April 13, 2018.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
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