Lovable War Hero ‘Sgt. Stubby’ Makes Film Debut as Top Dog of Heroism
By Tom Konecny, MeetAmerica
We already know that Americans love dogs. So what happens when you tell the true story of an endearing, stray dog rescued by a soldier who not only became the most decorated dog in history, but was the first dog promoted to rank of Sergeant in the United States?
You most certainly have a major motion picture. And you might have the makings of film destined to become one of the breakaway hits of 2018.
“Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero” opens nationwide Apr. 13. You’ll melt over Stubby’s adorable personality, marvel at his remarkable feats and appreciate the film’s historical accuracy.
But know this, you’ll soon realize that heroes come in all shapes and sizes – and species.
More than a pet
The movie begins in 1917 in New Haven, Connecticut during the heart of World War I. Stubby, a stray dog, follows a friendly soldier to his nearby training ground where fellow troops of the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division forge an immediate bond. When the soldiers are deployed to France, Stubby secretly tags along. Though animals were prohibited, Stubby was allowed to stay because of his positive effect on morale.
He’d endure critical wounds following a chemical attack, and upon recovery had heightened sensitivity that allowed him to detect incoming attacks and alert his brothers-in-arms. He could discern English from German speech, and led medics to wounded Americans on the battlefield. He learned bugle calls, drills and a modified dog salute by placing his right paw on his eyebrow.
“For being relatively obscure over the last 100 years, (Stubby’s) story has been carried on by people,” said Jordan Beck, Fun Academy Motion Pictures. “He’s the original working military dog and is a wonderful rescue dog.”
Through 17 battles over 18 months, Stubby became a legendary, likeable and cuddly war hero. He received numerous awards, met three U.S. presidents and earned a post-war job as the Georgetown Hoyas’ mascot. His actions were well-documented while also being graced with a three-column obituary upon his death in 1926, then preserved with his skin mounted on a plaster cast and presented to the Smithsonian Institution.
Four books have been written about Stubby’s fame. His portrait is on display at the West Haven Military Museum. A life-size bronze statue of Stubby is in the works. Yet surprisingly, no movie about Stubby had been made – until now.
“Through the eyes of this dog we’re able to bring history to a way that kids can appreciate it,” said Beck.
La La Lanni Land
Getting this story to the big screen took a heroic effort on its own. Fun Academy is not located in Hollywood, but in Columbus, Georgia, as the first film production and distribution company in the state. The studio came about as a result of the Stubby story, when filmmaker Richard Lanni realized he wanted to tell it in quality animation with an educational component. His idea started seven years ago with Fun Academy financing, creating, distributing and now releasing it North American-wide across 2,000 screens.
Lanni is a documentary filmmaker, but felt that Stubby’s story could reach a wider audience by way of a motion picture.
“(Lanni) realized that this dog was kind of a microcosm of the American experience,” Beck said. “This dog was a great way to explain that you can do great things in life. You can be a great soldier and a great friend.”
Because Stubby’s story took place so long ago, Beck said they took great care to research Stubby’s story. They spoke to the family of Stubby’s owner, Corporal J. Robert Conroy, depicted in the film by Logan Lerman (Lerman, by the way, is an avid dog lover). Fun Academy focused on creating a film that would be a launch pad for historical exploration – a gateway to exploration whereby kids and families would appreciate and want to know more.
Producers made a conscious decision to make Stubby not speak, so as to not turn him into a fairy tale. Rather, they wished to focus on his heroic efforts and the natural, human side of the soldiers during a difficult conflict.
“He’s not a super dog or a super hero,” Beck said. “He’s a regular dog and goes regular dog things. These weren’t professional soldiers, they were citizen soldiers. They’re just guys, just people. But when given the opportunity to make the decision, normal animals, normal citizens, can do some pretty remarkable things.”
Dogs have had a place in combat since wars began, so that doesn’t make Stubby the first war dog – he’s simply recognized as the first by name, and is also the most decorated. He is also the first dog not viewed as a pet or companion, but as an actual soldier. While the U.S. Army since has instituted a working military dog program, Stubby served without any military training. He did everything based on instinct – that street dog survival instinct.
In the film, you’ll notice Stubby’s irresistibly cute personality that filmmakers can’t necessarily validate was true to real life, but Beck knows one thing for certain to which all dog lovers can relate.
“The biggest thing I can take away is the loyalty, and that definitely comes through in the film,” said Beck.
Dog days of spring
Fun Academy is busy these days ramping up excitement for the big screen debut of “Sgt. Stubby.” Premieres have been held in Hollywood, New Haven and Columbus. Test groups have reacted overwhelmingly positive.
“Everybody who has seen this film is really impressed, and with all of the different threads that Stubby represents,” he said. “The largest reaction is that everyone loves a dog.”
Interest in Stubby is on the rise, according to Beck, as the end of World War I reaches its centennial this November. Schools have added Stubby books to reading lists, and Fun Academy has teamed with animal nonprofits and shelters to create grassroots awareness.
Beck believes the Stubby story presents no better way to teach World War I history to children through an apolitical film that doesn’t justify conflict or combat.
“It is not focused on the combat elements, it’s focused on the relationship of this dog and several allies, that human-animal bond,” he said. “This is a film about knowing our history. We need to know who came before us, and that the events of the past have a very, very strong correlation to the events of today. That conflict set the stage for the world we live in now.”
Stubby, like the tail that gave him his name, may be small. But thanks to his bravery over a relatively short period of time – and a well-deserved film – his heroism leaves him running with the big dogs.