Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More Canaan Journeys - The Beast of War

Over the years, I had a number of dogs that had roles in plays, movies, or commercials.  It was very challenging, and as long as it was only once in a while, it was fun – I would never dream of doing it as a major full time job!

The biggest film project that I was involved in was an American movie made in Israel in 1987 called “The Beast of War.”  It had a real Hollywood cast – Steven Bauer, Jason Patric, George Dzundza. The story was about the war in Afghanistan, and, as at the time filming a movie in Afghanistan was not highly recommended, it was decided that Israel was similar enough in terrain and modern enough in facilities to be an excellent substitute.

The script had a number of scenes that involved a pack of jackals or wild dogs.  The film company soon discovered, on their arrival in Israel, that a pack of trained jackals was not readily available (surprise, surprise!)  However, it was suggested to them, by someone highly intelligent I am sure, that a pack of Canaans might just suit the purpose.

I was contacted and requested to bring one of the Canaans to an audition in one of the fanciest hotels in Tel Aviv. The hoteliers were not enthusiastic when I showed up in the lobby with a dog.  But film companies spend a lot of money in hotels like that, and we were allowed up to the director’s room so he could see the dog.

I had brought Yitzhar with me, since he was the wildest appearing of the dogs.  Yitzhar had a very penetrating and wolf-like stare that could be very discomforting.  The director was indeed impressed, and I was hired to provide a pack of five dogs to work in the movie.

This was not a simple task.  Getting five Canaans to work together, off lead, and in some scenes from a long distance, without them deciding to have a free-for-all in the middle, was not easy.  The pack consisted of three bitches and two dogs, all of which were already obedience trained, and which, fortunately for me, already had experience working together from a previous movie we had done.  So after a short refresher course of who was the boss, we were able to get down to business.

The actions that were required of the dogs were not easy.  The story involved a Russian tank crew that gets lost in the Afghanistan desert, and the dogs track them.   There was even an attack scene involved.  This was of course the hardest to train the dogs to do, as Canaans are not the type of dog to attack without a good reason. I knew that I would not get the dogs to really attack on command, and I had no desire, really, to encourage the dogs to bite.  I decided that the best way to accomplish this scene was with food.  I explained to the film company just what equipment I needed for the training, and they promised to provide it.

One evening late, my daughter Dorcas and I arrived home from an evening out, and, to our horror, found a man’s body lying on the porch in front of the door.  After the first shock, on closer inspection, we found that it was a human sized dummy (at least six feet tall) dressed in a Russian army uniform, exact in every detail down to the boots.  This was to train the dogs.

The method was simple.  In the film, the dogs were meant to jump up and attack a man who was left tied out on a huge rock.  So I tied the dummy up on a terrace of about the right height, and started to hide tasty pieces of sausage in its clothes and boots.  The dogs quickly learned that they would find treats if they starting searching the dummy and they quickly learned to do this with great enthusiasm, leaping up on the dummy and competing with each other to find the sausage.  As I hid the treats inside the clothes and boots, and inside pockets, they learned that they would have to grab, pull, and even tear the clothes to obtain their goal.  On camera, I knew, this food-digging would look like a real attack.  As the dogs were competing with each other, they also growled and snarled, which made it all look very authentic.

Finally, rehearsals were over and the time had come for filming.  The movie was being made near Eilat, and we stayed on location.  The scenes with the dogs were expected to take about a week to film.

The location was out in the desert.  For the Canaans, it was like coming home; they immediately felt perfectly comfortable.  It was very hot already in May, with the temperatures already close to the summer maximum.  This didn’t bother the dogs. As we sat around waiting for our scenes, they dug themselves deep holes under the scrubby bushes in the vicinity and lay there comfortably sheltered from the heat and glare.  Being Canaans, they also very quickly took possession of the territory, and would not allow other crew members to approach “their” bushes.

The dogs, of course, were physically in very good condition with thick shiny coats since most of them had a career in the dog show ring.  The director felt that they looked too good for the role; they needed make-up!  The movie’s make-up expert was not enthusiastic about the idea; she had worked on all kinds of actors, but never on a dog!  However, she had no choice, and the dogs ended up with all sorts of brown and black powder rubbed into their coats to make them look scruffy.   The filming went well.  I was very proud of the dogs’ performance. 

There were some very difficult scenes.  One was the opening scene of the film, a close-up that showed the dogs sleeping on a ledge in the desert with the sun coming up.  Suddenly, one dog lifts his head and alerts, and then the others also come alert.  This was very difficult for several reasons.  First of all, I had to train the dogs to “sleep,” in other words, to lie flat and still with their eyes closed.  They had to do this even though all the crew and cameras were only a foot or two away.  Another difficulty was to get only one dog to raise his head first, while the others remained “sleeping.”  And the scene had to be shot exactly at sunrise so there was no possibility for numerous retakes.  The dogs performed like troopers and I was tremendously proud of them!

In another difficult scene, I left the dogs with a few of the crewmembers, and I was taken about a kilometer or so away across the desert.  The dogs were let free and I whistled to them, and they came running to me.  The scene beautifully pictured a wild pack running across the wilderness.

Of course, the dogs, like any actors, had their moments of temperament.  It was very hot, the workdays were long, and sometimes the dogs got fed up.  One day, while waiting for a shot to be set up, the two males, Yitzhar and Tiggy, lost patience and decided to have a go at each other.  As I tried to separate them, the bitches, inspired by the boys, decided to join in.  Trying to separate five dogs on your own just doesn’t work!  I called to the crewmembers standing around to come and help.  None of them was willing to get near that snarling mass.  Finally, I just waded in, grabbed a dog, lifted it out, grabbed a crewmember, told him, “Hold on to this dog!” and went back to grab another, in the same way.  In a few minutes, everything was again calm.  The dogs felt better because they had worked the edge off of their nerves, and no one had been hurt.  The crewmembers were not in such good shape, however; it took them a few days to get over the trauma, and I seemed to have gone up in their esteem for being ready to wade into the battle.

On another day, when I was off the set for a few hours, one of the dogs got loose, took possession, and wouldn’t let anyone into “his” part of the location.  For several hours, everyone had to detour around that area, until I got back and called him off.

Finally, we got to the final scene with the dogs, which was by far the most difficult.  This was the “attack” scene.  In this scene, the “hero” of the film is left staked out on a rock in the desert by his fellow soldiers, and the pack of wild dogs, who had been tracking them throughout the movie, find him and start to attack.  The hero manages to save himself by rolling a grenade into the midst of the pack, which explodes and demolishes the pack.

As is obvious from this description, this scene was not likely to be something the dogs would enjoy doing.  Of course, the “explosion” of the grenade was simply a harmless smoke bomb.  But I knew that the dogs would not at all appreciate having even a harmless smoke bomb exploding at their feet, and I had warned the director that this had better be the last scene the dogs were expected to do, because after this, they would not have fond memories of the set or the people involved.  I also warned him that they had better get it right on the first take, as there was no chance that the dogs would agree to participate in a retake.
Everything was set up.  The scene was being played by a stuntman since the star was not about to expose himself to the chance of being bitten by accident.  The stuntman was rather nervous as well. He asked me if I was sure that the dogs wouldn’t really bite, and I assured him that he was safe.  He took up his position on the rock, and I planted sausage in his boots, pockets, and other parts of his clothing.

The dogs hadn’t been fed that day, so that they would be really eager to get the sausage.  We did a rehearsal, and everything went beautifully.  The filming began.  The scene was filmed several times, from different angles, with the explosion being the last shot.  The dogs performed beautifully in the first shots, running up to the rock, leaping up and grabbing the sausage out of the actor’s clothing and boots, which on screen really looked as if they were attacking him.
And then the time came for the last shot.  The smoke bomb was set in place, the cameras rolled, the dogs were released, and BOOM!

The dogs, as one, turned and ran, heading for the distant hills.  No one was going to get another chance to set off a bomb under their feet!  I whistled frantically, and gradually, four of them turned back and returned to their familiar resting holes under the scrub.  But the fifth, one of the bitches, Hava, continued running like a small brown streak of lightning, until she disappeared into the hills.
As this was the last shot on this location, the crew was all packed up now and ready to go home.  There was a van waiting for me, to take the dogs and me home. Our job was finished.  “What are you going to do now?” the driver asked me.  “Wait,” I said.

The other vehicles drove off on their way home.  After an hour or so, the site was abandoned, except for me, the dogs, and the driver, who was not at all happy about the situation.  We all sat there quietly as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.  As the dusk thickened, there was a noise from the direction of the van, which was parked with the door open.  There sat Hava in the van, ready to go home.  Now that everyone had gone and she was sure no one would set off any more bombs, she was ready to come back.

Well, that had been an interesting experience, but I was glad that it was over. Or, I thought it was over.

 About a week later, I got a phone call from the director.  The shots of the attack had been damaged in the developing laboratory and were unusable.  The scene would have to be shot again.  Would I be willing to come down again with the dogs for a few days?

“You must be crazy!” was my first response.  “These dogs are not stupid - they are not going to be willing to get anywhere near the spot where you blew them up!” But this was a critical scene in the movie.  "You have to do it for us." He pleaded. "This is one of the most important scenes in the film!" "But I really don't think the dogs will perform," I answered.  "We'll pay you time and a half if you are just willing to come down and try," he said.  "No, we'll pay you double!" This was very convincing.  "Well, okay, I'll try it," I answered, "but I certainly can't guarantee that you'll get the scene you want."

 So once again the dogs and I arrived down in the desert.  The dogs were definitely unhappy about the idea; the location had very unpleasant associations for them.  However, I had not fed them for a day, and they were hungry, and when I got out those tasty little pieces of sausage, they started to show more interest in the idea. 

Canaans are very much dogs with minds of their own, and cannot usually be “bought” by food.  However, among the five, there was one bitch, Terra, who was a true chow hound willing to do anything for a tidbit, and now she was hungry.  Two of the others were also willing to consider approaching the spot in order to get their treats.  The last two, true Canaans through and through, were very suspicious of the whole thing, and hung back on the fringe of the group, not willing to come up to the rock where terrible things had happened.

I informed the director that this was about as good as it would get.  I also warned him that this time, there was one take only and after that, he didn’t have a chance in hell of ever getting any of these dogs anywhere near this location again.
The take was a success, though in my opinion it was not as good as the first one that had been ruined by the lab.  The dogs took off, but by now, having been through the whole thing before, didn’t run far.

I waited eagerly for the movie to be released. I wanted to see the results of all this hard work.  But “The Beasts of War” was not a great success in the U.S., and never got to the movie theatres in Israel.  Finally, after a few years, it came out on video, and I managed to get a copy.  I thought it was a pretty good movie, actually, and I was really proud of the dogs.  They looked great on screen!  All of the several weeks of work, of course, came down to a few minutes of screen time - but I was proud of it!

The movie has now been showed on Israeli TV, though I don’t think anyone realized that those are Canaans “starring” in it…

For those who have enjoyed this entry, it is an excerpt from my book, "Tails of Shaar Hagai" - many more stories like this....


  1. Great story! Please post on Facebook if you ever know that the film will be broadcast again! I wonder if I can find it at my library!

  2. I found the DVD of this movie on Amazon, it's listed under The Beast, same actors, same year. I think it's the same movie. I'm anxious to see it now that you've told us about it.

  3. Cool post! I've seen that movie, tho it's been many years and most of it is hazy, I distinctly recall the scene you mentioned where the crewman is tied out on the rock to die. That's pretty cool that you and your dogs got to work on the movie.

    An acquaintance on Facebook shared the link for your "True Collie" post, and I started looking around.