Lassie, that famous intrepid collie, is as American as shepherd's pie. That's right. The real Lassie is actually British and never knew an accident-prone Yank named Timmy.
British writer-director Charles Sturridge was unaware of the dog's origins until he picked up Eric Knight's 1940 book "Lassie Come Home," the novel that started the world's love affair with Lassie.
"I was surprised by the story, surprised that it was British first of all, but also surprised that it was unexpectedly muscular," he reveals. "It was a better story than I was expecting. It's very different from the television 'Lassie' that I was brought up on, you know, which was an American dog brought up on a farm and having some adventures kind of thing. And this is a story that has morality, scale and an epic journey. So I wanted to make that story, not to reinvent anything really, but to say, 'This is a great story. Let's do it.'"
So Sturridge brought "Lassie" home to the British Isles, specifically Yorkshire, where nine-year-old Joe Carraclough (Jonathan Mason) owns the titular dog who meets him like clockwork every day after school. Unfortunately, with the local mine closing, Joe's dad Sam (John Lynch) is out of work and forced to sell Lassie to the Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole) to please the nobleman's granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers). When the Duke visits his Scottish estate some 500 miles north, taking the dog with him, Lassie escapes and makes the long and perilous journey back to Joe.
While the 1943 Hollywoodized version of "Lassie Come Home" starring Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowell used seven different dogs to play Lassie, Sturridge got by with only using three, with the dog Mason as the main canine "actor" and Dakota as the outdoorsy stunt dog.
"I've had lots of different animals in films before, but never had the whole film sort of predicated on the animal," says the director. "You require an element of innocence in order to be an innovative animal director in the sense in that you kind of don't want to know too many of the problems, otherwise you'd just say, 'Oh, we can't possibly do that.'
"It is an elaborate business to create a scenario where an animal can comfortably perform," he continues. "I mean you can't say to the animal, 'Look, the guy chasing you down the street doesn't really want to hurt you.' What you have to do is construct an entirely different scenario for the animal. The one area where it was unquestionably easy was ... some of the landscape work -- the running up the mountain and so on where in some respects, you have a kind of freedom because the animal just embraces the land and off it goes kind of thing and you just film it."
Having just the right actors working with the animals is also key to a successful animal film. Unlike his young co-stars Mason and Odgers, who make their big-screen debuts in "Lassie," O'Toole is an Oscar-nominated film veteran who knows how to command a room of performers -- even if it's the four-legged variety.
"Before every take ... he would clear his throat in the noisiest way possible to imagine," says Sturridge. "To the rest of us, it was like a very, very, very loud barking, kind of braying repeated sound of high volume. It was a kind of ostensibly a throat-clearing process. Every animal on set went -- zip -- head shot up, spun round every time he did it. 'My God, what's happening over there?' So he has an effortless way of stamping his authority on every situation he's in."
The director also felt fortunate to get "The Station Agent" star Peter Dinklage to play Rowlie, a roaming puppeteer with a dog named Toots who travels with Lassie for part of her way home.
"It's quite difficult to find a way of portraying a character whose decency and moral strength is kind of their quality because it's a hard thing to dramatize," explains Sturridge. "And I felt somehow ... that Peter gets there for me, and I felt -- lazily if you like -- that if cast him I would be able to get that across without having to do a lot of complicated writing to do it."
Although Rowlie is only a supporting character, he's featured in one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes with Toots. This scene is typical of Sturridge's style: He doesn't shy away from the story's grimmer aspects, including the Carraclough's extreme poverty, the separation of families by war and animal abuse.
"If you put this film in a kind of conventional Hollywood screening process, and you asked the audience, 'Which scene would you most like to cut?' They'd all say 'Toots,'" comments the director. "And Hollywood would cut it, not realizing that although people don't like the scene, actually it is very important to the film. It's also important for the audience to take something that is upsetting -- and it's very upsetting. You experience it with [the characters] and you learn with them, and that's part of the pleasure of cinema or a far better fact that you learn those things in the cinema than in real life."
In the end, just like the dog in the film, the Lassie character in all its forms -- British, American and even animated -- has remarkable endurance, lasting in the public consciousness for more than 50 years.
"I think it's a much longer appeal than that frankly, in the sense that our relationship with dogs is one of our oldest relationships as a race that we have," says Sturridge. "We have been relating to dogs for literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, certainly decade after decade after decade since we were living in caves. And there's something very literally sort of primeval about the relationship between the human being and the dog. And Lassie has grown into a kind of iconic embodiment of that."
"Lassie" journeys into limited release beginning Friday, Sept. 1.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times