One man and his dog: The WWI canine war hero with an unusual Cork connection

Sgt Stubby is the Cork-financed story of a real-life canine war hero, and plans are afoot to use its success to establish an arm of the animation industry in the south, writes Esther McCarthy.

The original Sgt Stubby during WWI.

It's the canine charmer set during World War I that has an unusual Cork connection.

Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero tells the true story of a heroic dog who accompanied soldiers in the trenches of wartime France.

Now its Cork producer says that without the generosity of the city it may never have been made.

The movie, featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Gerard Depardieu, tells the story of a stray dog who formed a bond with a soldier, saved his regiment and civilians from gas attacks, and gave comfort to the wounded.

Three million euro was raised in Cork towards financing the film as its director, Richard Lanni, spends much of his time in Kinsale and France.

Executive producer Tom Sheehan, who is from Cork, said: “We decided to raise funding here in Cork, we raised €750,000 initially from a number of Cork business guys without whom this movie would not have been made. We went to Paris and did the storyboarding, then Richard went to the States and raised more money in the States.”

Further financing was raised in Cork as the film went into production.

“It was tough going trying to keep all the balls in the air but we did it. Without Cork this would not have been achieved.”

Sheehan, who runs the well-known accountancy practice TA Sheehan on Leeside, has known the director for 25 years and had been acting as his accountant for the documentary-making business he’s already known for. It was Sheehan’s first time working in film and as executive producer, his role was to raise finance and manage cashflow during production.

“Richard is a documentary filmmaker. He never made an animated movie,” said Sheehan, who studied at Colaiste an Spioraid Naoimh and UCC.

“He was asked by the WWI Memorial Commission, an organisation set up by the American government to commemorate the centenary of the ending of the First World War. They approached Richard because he had done a trilogy, a documentary called An American Road to Victory.

“They asked him would he make a documentary about Americans involved in the First World War. He lives in France and Kinsale, so he was back in France, researching the story, and came across Stubby.

"He researched some more, thought: ‘My God this is an incredible story. This story needs to be told, our children need to know about this’. The best way to teach children would be to entertain them, so he thought animated movies would be the way to go.

“He came to me and told me the story. We’ve been friends for about 25 years and I’d been acting as his

accountant for his documentary making business.

“We were just coming out of recession here, and there was an air of we’d all been through the mire, and I thought it was a wonderful story to inspire us.”

DOG OF WAR

Lanni was researching a documentary series on WWI for broadcast on public television in the US when he first came across the canine capers of the four-legged hero.

It’s easy to understand why the filmmaker was beguiled; Stubby served for 18 months and was present for several battles with the US army on the Western Front.

He became the most decorated war dog of WWI. The stray was first found wandering the grounds of an army camp in Connecticut in 1917 and befriended a young soldier, Corporal Robert Conroy. He was secreted onboard an army ship to France and survived a grenade strike and mustard gas to help many.

He’s credited with locating injured soldiers in no man’s land, and was able to hear artillery fire before the soldiers, giving them advance warning.

He was also feted for warning civilians of attacks to the extent that the residents of one French town made him a special coat on which were pinned his medals.

“I heard about the dog while researching for the documentary, and thought it was such an amazing story,” said Lanni.

Although he had no background in animation, the filmmaker felt that the format would be the best in which to tell families and children about this time in history through the prism of Stubby. “I don’t think that education and entertainment need to be mutually exclusive,” he said.

“Animation is complex but it is still filmmaking, and if you keep kids entertained they will want to learn.”

He hopes audiences will be as intrigued as he was when he first learned of the dog and his place in history.

“Everything about Stubby was fantastic, but detecting gas attacks was very special. What he did really just touched me — he was an intelligent dog who warned soldiers and nursed Conroy through influenza.”

The film has been well received, earning an 82% ‘positive’ rating from film critics on US aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.

While much of the animation was carried out by a Canadian studio owned by Technicolor, who the filmmakers partnered with, there are now plans to open an animation arm in Kinsale, called Fun Academy Media Group.

The company will continue to work with Technicolor and the plan is for the Kinsale studio, due to open this autumn, to focus on development.

A huge amount of planning is involved in animation where characters are created and developed, production and design is pre-planned and storyboards are created to visualise the look and story of the film.

Lanni is excited at the prospect of working on further productions in the facility he described as “an

incubator” for developing projects.

“We’re carving out a new lane in content and feel there’s an audience there for it, and there is a wonderful culture of animation in Ireland,” he added.

For Sheehan, the film marks the beginning of more projects. Preliminary plans are already in place for a Stubby sequel and a TV series.

Sheehan, too, has been bitten by the movie bug and is keen to be involved in further projects. “I think the city, for the guys who put money into this... It’s not exactly a secure investment, investing in movies, that they believed in it and they followed their gut is incredible.

“There’ll be an industry created in Cork with this. There’ll be a studio, we’ll have students coming down hopefully, from St John’s college, who study animation. It’s going to build slowly but it’s going to be sustainable.”

Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero opens in cinemas today.


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