While watching the canine-centered action-adventure "The Call of the Wild" (in theaters Friday), we couldn't help but wonder: Why is the star dog Buck a lumbering St. Bernard mix and instead of a husky?
Recent screen adaptations of Jack London's famed 1903 novel about the Klondike Gold Rush have featured Buck as a husky (in the 2009 "Call of the Wild" 3D film) or a Malamute/wolf hybrid (in the 2000 TV series).
We asked Harrison Ford, the new John Thornton, what gives?
"Buck is not a husky," says Ford, in the way only Harrison Ford can. He points out that the computer-generated Buck (played by motion-capture actor Terry Notary) actually matches the breed in London's novel. "Dogs were of such value to those who were pursuing Klondike gold because there wasn't another way of getting around. They needed strong, trainable dogs."
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Director Chris Sanders says it's clear how widespread the husky misconception is every time he posts a picture of his new Buck on Instagram.
"People either say, 'Good, that's how the dog was described in the book' or (they're) completely confused and upset. They're like, 'It's supposed to be a husky!' " says Sanders. "My wife is quick to point out, 'If you look at the book, it's actually not a husky.' "
Before he's stolen from his comfortable, Santa Clara Valley home and sold into the dangerous life of a sled dog, Buck is described by London as a powerful mix – the son of Elmo, a huge St. Bernard, and mom Shep, a Scotch shepherd. Later, London explains that Buck, who breaks free, succeeds in the wild because of his size (140 pounds) and his keen intelligence.
London was inspired by a St. Bernard-shepherd mix owned by his friends Marshall Latham Bond and his brother Louis Whitford Bond, later writing, "Yes, Buck is based on your dog."
"When you look at the films, they are not always actual representations of the Jack London story," says Tjiska Van Wyk, executive director for the management group running the Jack London Historic State Park in Glen Ellen, California.
In real life, the Klondike work dog breeds were varied, with Julian, a mighty yellow mastiff, being one of the most heroic and famous, says Jonathan Hubbell, a park ranger at Seattle's Gold Rush National Historical Park.
"But this movie Buck is more true to the book than others," says Hubbell.
The first film, a 1935 version starring Clark Gable as Thornton, featured Buck as a vicious St. Bernard mix. Sanders wanted to make a faithful version of the novel, with Buck at the center. He began with a CG version of a similar breed, a Bernese mountain dog.
But during filming last year, the director's wife, Jessica Steele-Sanders, scoured Petfinder for a household pet and found a St. Bernard and shepherd mix in Kansas – named, appropriately, Buckley.
"She drove to Kansas, paid $25 and then drove back to set," says Sanders. "Everybody took one look at him and said, ‘Let's make that the dog.’ It was almost exact. The way his face looked, the way his eyes looked. Everything."
The filmmakers had a star that could make appearances on the set and at premieres. The Sanders family even formally shortened their new pet's name to match the book's hero.
Telling the story with a computer-generated dog allowed "Call of the Wild" to be told from Buck's point of view.
"We wanted to tell 'Call of the Wild' as it was written, with Buck as the protagonist," says screenwriter Michael Green. "Other films have told a version of John Thorton’s story with a dog at his side. We were able to make Buck’s journey something we could all experience."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Call of the Wild': Harrison Ford's dog Buck isn't a husky; here's why