Friday, April 13, 2012

Historical Breed Accuracy in Film

Last night I went to see Titanic in 3D. It wasn't my idea, honestly, but I went along because the significant other wanted to see it. The reason why? Because Neil deGrasse Tyson convinced James Cameron to make the night sky more realistic. Someone is quite the astronomy nerd. After a discussion with a friend who has a degree in history and the mention of concern about whether the dime Rose gives to Jack is a period-correct Barber dime, it got me wondering about what other inaccuracies there might be. Of course, me knowing as much as I do about dogs now and having not seen the film since it was originally in theaters (when I was quite young), I was a bit startled to see how historically inaccurate the dogs in the movie were. Cameron is rather infamous for being a stickler for accuracy, but clearly he missed some things.

So, what's the issue? You see several different dogs in the film, which is appropriate as at least twelve dogs were known to be on the RMS Titanic when it disembarked. From what I remember, in the two scenes that include dogs I saw at least three breeds. An Afghan hound, Airedale terrier, and French bulldog come to mind, and I know that a couple of more dogs were also included, though their breeds escape me. Though the bulldog wasn't too inaccurate, the grooming on the terrier and the coat on the Afghan were very wrong for the time period. Watch the clip below to see what I mean.

CH Zardin, an Afghan hound from 1907
That Afghan is all wrong. At the time, the few Afghans that had been brought to the Western world looked extremely different from those you see today. They had far less coat, and the long hair they did have had a woolier appearance. In addition, they frequently had hair that fell over the forehead and breaks in the coat on the lower legs, making the feet appear exaggeratedly large. There was also a lot of variation in the coat on the dogs, with some having significantly less than the dog pictured to the right. The Afghan in the film clearly represents today's type: long, silky, flowing coat all over that takes a significant amount of grooming to keep up. It could have been possible for the dog used in the film to be groomed to a more period-accurate appearance. However, I doubt its owner, who had to put so much time into caring for the coat, would be willing to have large portions of it clipped short. The truth remains that no Afghan from the early 1900s looked like the dog in Titanic.

Afghan hounds from 1913, a year after the RMS Titanic sank

It seems that dogs sometimes go by the wayside in period films. However, if a filmmaker chooses to set a piece in a certain time period and wants to include dogs to "make the film seem more correct," they should take breed history into account. What you see today is very often not what once was common type in a breed. This is especially true of dogs with profuse coat like the Afghan hound. The more time that has passed since the period the film is being set in, the more likely that the breeds have changed significantly. My tip for filmmakers? If you're going to do it, at least do it right and don't fudge historical accuracy just because it may be easier to use an unmodified modern champion.

Historical Afghan hound images are from Pietoro's photobucket.


  1. This is a pet peeve of mine as well! So many movies just don't care about historical accuracy of dog breeds, even when they are so painstaking at replicating every other aspect of the era.

    Another irk is when they show modern-style Pekingese in the palace of the Empress of China. =P

    1. Indeed, the Pekes bother me too! I watched The Last Emperor recently and, though they weren't as bad as they could have been, the Pekes made me a bit upset.

      Today I actually watched the first episode of Downton Abbey and all I could think when I saw the pale, pale yellow Lab was "that dog's the wrong color..."

  2. I see what you're saying. It's a very interesting point that only a dog lover with a keen and critical eye for physical details would make. ;) I guess it doesn't bother me so much because I don't see films as historical documentation, but as an archive of affect. That is, the animals included are chosen for a reason, and they're meant to register a kind of aesthetic or emotional effect on their *contemporary* audiences. Living, moving objects register quite differently than costuming and material objects. There's still a limit to how much you can manipulate animated actors (yes, despite the promises of CGI technology).

    Sure, Cameron may have a reputation for historical accuracy, but that reputation is very much thanks to his publicity machine. The "beautiful" actors and actresses that populate his films wouldn't necessarily have fit in back then, either.

    Fifty years from now, I'm much more likely to look back on Titanic as a record of what an Afghan Hound looks like at the time the film was produced, not what an Afghan Hound looked like in 1912. Same with the actors and actresses -- Leo and Kate have a star persona that resonates with the aesthetic sensibilities of the present, but there is no guarantee that their beauty is timeless and universal, even if their screen coupling has already endured a mere 15 years so far.

    1. I do very much see your point, especially concerning how actors may not age exceptionally well. During this viewing of Titanic I couldn't help but get major vibes from the 1990's due to the haircuts on quite a number of actors, including Leo, during the flashback moments. The "modern day" segments were, of course, far worse!

      It still bothers me a bit, and even worse because Jess confirmed to me in another comment that it's astronomically unlikely that an Afghan was ever anywhere close to being on the HMS Titanic. So, now the wrongness of the breed being used in the film at all is bothering me.

  3. Not only is the Afghan wrong in regards to the coat, it's highly unlikely there was an Afghan on the Titanic. At that time, there were very, very few Afghans in the UK; Zardin was imported from India in 1907 and he was quite the sensation. An Afghan on the Titanic would have made the papers, as Zardin himself made the papers, even in the US. (Zardin and his kennel mates died of a 'mysterious disease,' and do not figure in modern pedigrees. It wasn't until 1921 that the dogs that were the progenitors of the modern Afghan made it to Scotland.)

    The first Salukis didn't hit the US until 1913, so that wouldn't have worked, either.

    1. A Borzoi would have probably been a better choice.

    2. Jess, I thought about mentioning that, but I wasn't sure of my dates beyond when the first Afghans made it to the US so I thought I would stick to appearance.

      As for a sighthound that would be appropriate, there is always this photograph of the captain with a "wolfhound" named Ben, his own dog. But that dog was taken off the ship before the Titanic set sail. From what I've gathered, there were several other breeds that were definitely included in the minimum twelve dogs that were on the ship, including a great Dane, bulldog, fox terrier, Airedale terrier, French bulldog, Pekingese, chow chow, toy poodle, King Charles spaniel, two Pomeranians, and possibly others. There were actually three canine survivors: the two Poms and the Peke. If they just wanted a large dog, a Dane would have worked perfectly well.