Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Alpha dramatises the time that humans first turned wolves into dogs. The subsequent relationship between species has been commemorated in countless artworks; I here present an adaptation of one particularly celebrated novel.

The 1973 Italo-Franco-Spanish adaptation of Jack London's 1906 novel White Fang opens brightly enough. It's a snowy day in the Yukon in 1896, and a huge herd of elk are galloping along. High on a ridge, they're being watched by a pack of huskies who are presumably meant to be wolves. After a moment, the "wolves" bolt down the hill, bounding through the snow, chasing the elk, and it's bouncy and fun. Aye! Bouncy and fun! The music by Carlo Rustichelli is peppy and lively, asking us to view the bounding canines as just a bunch of silly ol' pups flouncing around in the snow, and the cutting generally keeps the elk and dogs far enough apart that it's easy to do so. It seems very much indeed like this will be a light family movie about cute animals, right up until one of the dogs leaps on an elk, and then the next shot shows the whole pack pressing their faces deep into a torn-apart elk carcass with a small pool of blood forming under it. The bottom drops out of the music, and several seconds later, the final title card appears: "[Directed by] Lucio Fulci".

Yes, it would certainly seem that way.

45 years after its premiere, I think it's fair to say that the director credit is most, if not all of the reason why people still care about this particular adaptation of White Fang. Fulci is, for the uninitiated, one of the big names in 1970s and '80s Italian horror cinema, the third man you think of after Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The idea of him directing what at least positions itself as being a children's movie is inherently weird and fascinating, though it's important to keep in mind that it wasn't really until the '80s that Fulci fully committed himself to horror; prior to that, he dabbled in just about every genre Italian cinema had to offer, including sex farces, adventures, crime thrillers, political satires, spy movies, and Westerns. The last of these being the most important training ground for making White Fang, naturally. Whether he made other allegedly "family-friendly" movies, I cannot say; he is at any rate not very good at it, for any family-friendliness to be found in White Fang has to battle for space with a lot of material about an alcoholic priest hiding his relationship with his daughter, a whore at the local saloon, and a wicked businessman using shady contracts to control the precious metals market in the Klondike gold rush. Not to mention, the Fulci of '73 was coming right off of two of his most prominent horror thrillers, 1971's A Lizard in a Woman Skin and 1972's Don't Torture a Duckling, and one rather does get the impression that he hadn't quite gotten all the gore out of his system. Certainly not just because of that blood-soaked elk corpse at the beginning, either.

Still and all, for all that the 21st Century viewer is likely to want to fix White Fang into Fulci's career, that's doing a disservice to the movie, which was an enormous box office success in its native country, kicking off a cycle of several unofficial follow-ups (and one official sequel directed by Fulci himself) trying to capitalise on that success. White Fang was itself a little bit of a knock-off: the film was riding off the success of the 1972 multinational adaptation of London's The Call of the Wild starring Charlton Heston. That film was a bit of a fizzle in English-speaking regions (it didn't even come out in the United States until 1975, in part owing to Heston's dislike of the finished project), but it was huge in Italy when it opened late in the autumn of '72. A great bandwagon-jumper like Fulci could hardly say no when that film's producer Harry Alan Towers came a-knocking, looking to make a cheapie Italian followup

So with all that out of the way, how about we just look at the movie? Well, first things first: that viewer which looks to find a faithful rendering of London's novel in this White Fang, looks in vain. The six credited screenwriters, under the general guidance of "Peter Welbeck" (a pseudonym of Towers's), have in some cases used the rough scenario of given scenes the book, and a few character names, but this is largely an all-new story of life in the hostile Yukon in the gold rush days (played, to outstanding effect, by mountains in Scandinavia). Charlie (Daniel Martin) is a fur trader and native chieftain with a preteen son named Mitsah (mononymic child actor Missaele, who made no other films that I can find besides this film and its sequel). And Mitsah, for his part, has a tendency towards anthropomorphising animals that is probably not very helpful in a member of a subsistence hunting culture, but he still insists on deciding that the wolf following him and his father is a Very Good Boy, naming it White Fang and encouraging it to hang around, despite his father's objections. There will never be a better time to mention: in this film, the role of White Fang is played by a German Shepherd. And I get it: you don't have much time or money and you know a guy, got a trained German Shepherd. Gray wolves are difficult. German Shepherds are friendly as hell. Still and all, it's a story entirely about the tension between an animal's wild and domestic ancestry, and filling the title role with a dog who isn't quite so obviously a happy, eager house pet could only possibly have helped sell the illusion.

Anyway, while Mitsah is busily training his "wolf", a pair of men are making their way to the unofficial capital of the gold rush: Dawson City. One of these is trapper-turned-surveyor Kurt Jansen (Raimund Harmstorf); the other is newspaperman Jason Scott (Franco Nero). They're both about to get horribly embroiled in the political life of Dawson City, when they discover that the town's most powerful resident, Beauty Smith (John Steiner), doesn't care to have any government presence in the city that he's turned into a private fiefdom, buying up all the prospectors' gold with worthless promissory notes. Jason and Kurt have only one real ally in town, Sister Evangeline (Virna Lisi), a nun who has recently arrived to establish a medical facility. But they also might be able to make something out of the miserable drunk Father Oatley (Fernando Rey), who has already made an ass of himself in front of the sister, and who is resentful of Beauty given that man's control of the city and especially his domineering sexual relationship with Krista (Carole André), star dancer at the Dawson City saloon and procurer for all of the prostitution that goes on there.

Back over in the part of the film that's an upbeat adventure story for kids, and not a grimy tale of corruption both financial and physical in the Wild West, Mitsah has fallen into frigid water, and White Fang is able to save him, thus finally earning Charlie's trust. But the boy is still in grave condition, and so his father takes him to Dawson City, where Sister Evangeline nurses him back to health, and Beauty Smith offers to buy the dog, in the only plot point taken straight from the book. When Charlie declines, Beauty murders him. And this is the outrage that puts all of our heroes on one side, with Jason leading the fight to oust Beauty.

Watch it looking for any of Jack London, and you'll walk out disappointed and embittered. Watch it as a rather curious example of an Italian Western, though... I'm not going to stand before you and argue that White Fang is a great example of its genre, nor a high point in Fulci's directorial career. It is self-evidently not those things. But it is a peculiar and intriguing attempt to make one film serve three very different audiences. All of the material with Mitsah and White Fang is the kiddie stuff, high adventure in the challenging world of adults, and I will say that Fulci handles this material fare more delicately than I would have expected, while coaxing a strong performance out of Missaele: the boy has an eager, expressive face that reveals a substantial amount of concern and confusion at the big world around him, leaving a character who is pleasantly un-precocious but still alert and wise. The rest of the material is for a grown-up fan of Westerns, perhaps one who appreciates the chiseled manly heroism of Nero, but definitely one who can cotton to the rather deep, interesting working being done by the writers, director, and actors to make Oatley and Beauty Smith into difficult, layered characters rather than just "tragic drunk" and "villainous dandy". An actor of Fernando Rey's stature popping up in this movie caught me off guard, and he's absolutely great in the role, exuding self-loathing and greediness and eventually a deeply soulful sadness and warmth.

The third audience is the one that's really startling: this is a vicious, mean film, and while it's no gory murder mystery, it comes as no surprise that the director's immediate prior film, Don't Torture a Duckling, was a blackhearted, violent affair. Besides that elk hunt, there are at least three genuinely unsettling scenes of violence in the movie. Two of these are very similar: a fight between White Fang and another dog, and then a fight between White Fang and a bear. The latter scene is a remarkable bit of sloppy filmmaking: the bear is played a miserably scrawny cub in shots with people, a medium-sized and obviously angry brown bear in shots where it doesn't actually make contact with the dog, and a man in a very obvious bear costume when it's grappling with White Fang. And I mean very obvious. The ears sit atop the head exactly like a teddy bear. These three different incarnations of one animal cut together just as badly as you'd suppose (though the filmmakers have the presence of mind to limit the screentime of the bear costume to the merest flashes), and that helps make this seem silly rather than greatly upsetting, which is much appreciated: for the scene also involves chunks of flesh being ripped from White Fang's side, as the dog grows increasingly caked in his own blood.

Anyway, both of these fights are filmed with a manic handheld camera, shaking and darting so much that it's frequently hard to see what's going on except as an impression of brown and black smears. Add in the fast cutting, and the fights are genuinely tough and terrifying to watch, upsetting as much because of perceptual challenges as because of the gory, violent content. And then there's the last big violent scene, when White Fang rips the throat out of a bad guy. I mean, he doesn't rip the throat out. He merely grabs the man's throat, as the man screams, and then later we see fake blood painted all over the man's clearly intact neck. Also, the man twitches in an unnecessarily realistic depiction of the moment of death. The scene ends with a shot of White Fang, panting happily like a very good dog indeed, as the music gives a little violent jolt that, coupled with a grave reaction shot of Nero, communicates exactly the sense of horrified shock in a murder mystery when the killer is revealed. It's an unexpected choice for a family adventure movie, is what I'm saying.

These outlandish extremes of tone do, unquestionably, mean that White Fang is a bizarre experience. But it is not, overall, an unsatisfying one. The film's bones as a Klondike-set Western are solid, and the tension in the writing and a acting between the evil but intelligent and psychologically-laden Beauty, the ambivalent, tormented Oatley, and the clever Jason does a whole lot to make this work as a character drama. So too does the unexpectedly downbeat resolution to some of the characters' stories. Now, the film never really does figure out how to be an exciting adventure and a taut story of life in a corrupt frontier town, and so we have the odd sight of a film titled White Fang in which White Fang himself feels like a begrudging add-on whose most salient plot purpose is to give Mitsah a weird fixation that he doesn't necessarily need, and to precipitate the final conflict between Jason and Beauty. That being said, he is quite a good boy - I mean that literally, the way that Fulci and the trainer block the dog on set is terrifically effective and the dog has a weirdly knowing, expressive character as a result. This is especially true in the final scenes, which aren't really "earned", but use the dog so well that I'm inclined to overlook how tacked-on and weird the ending is. This is absolutely a lumpy, even clumsy bit of storytelling overall, and a lot of the editing feels designed to compensate for that even at the cost of the film's rhythm, but it's satisfying enough on its own terms, and contains just enough of Fulci's lean, emotionally hard style to be at least interesting as an oddball auteurist piece as well.