Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Stray Dog’ Review: Harley-Davidson Culture Is Therapy for U.S. War Vets

BY Mark Jackson TIMEJanuary 1, 2021 PRINT

Not Rated | | Documentary, War | 13 June 2014 (USA)

You can’t say that Harley-Davidson culture is strictly American anymore; the entire world has Harley culture happening now. But America’s the originator and main influencer. One look at the following random (and minimal) list of well-known Harley enthusiasts makes it easy to see why:

Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Bridgette Bardot, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Ann Margaret, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Cher, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Jason Momoa, Pamela Anderson, Woody Harrelson, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Willis, Pink, Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke, James Caan, K.D. Lang, Harrison Ford, Lou Reed, James Gandolfini, and Tina Turner. 

Harley-Davidson is also, generally speaking, the outlaw (“1-percenter”) motorcycle club bike of choice. However, those who watched the FX show “Sons of Anarchy,” about that very topic, might be under the impression that they now know quite a bit about biker culture in America.

A good remedy to thinking that “Anarchy” is what American motorcycle club culture is all about is watching the fine documentary “Stray Dog” (winner at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival) by director Debra Granik. Granik launched Jennifer Lawrence’s star into the stratosphere with the Ozark Mountain tale “Winter’s Bone.”

Man and woman on Harley in "Stray Dog"
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall and wife Alicia head to D.C. in the documentary film “Stray Dog.” (Still Rolling Productions)

Granik goes back to the Ozarks to have a look at lawful biker culture. There are many reasons why people ride, but what “Stray Dog” reveals is that most military veterans ride to continue the unique brotherhood and companionship forged by shared combat experience. Additionally, those who’ve experienced the hyperawareness of combat often come away from that experience with a powerful addiction, in addition to possible PTSD. The hyperfocus needed for motorcycling provides a fix for that adrenaline addiction. As one young Desert Storm vet relates, the rush of having been the 50-caliber turret-gunner on a Humvee makes him now need the experience of the open road rushing beneath his Harley V-twin Shovelhead engine.

Granik’s “Stray Dog” is a stark, insightful portrayal of the U.S. biker culture that overlaps with American trailer-park culture, veteran culture, gun culture, hunting culture, military culture, NASCAR culture, eastern U.S. mountain range culture, tattoo culture, beard culture, and home distillery culture, among others. This film covers so much American culture, you can easily make the argument that the lump sum of the above is just American culture, period. That is, it’s anywhere in the USA somewhat removed from urban and suburban areas. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that, being the most warring nation ever, perhaps America, like the biker tattoo, was “Born to Ride.”

Star of the Show

The film’s all about one Ronnie Hall—aka “Stray Dog.” He’s a head-to-toe Harley-accoutrement-clad, chopper-riding, medal-festooned, glad-handing, 60-something Vietnam vet. Operator of the At Ease trailer park (just outside Branson, Missouri), and hirsute multicultural family patriarch.

great grandfather and great grandson in "Stray Dog"
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall with great-grandson Teddy in the documentary film “Stray Dog.” (Still Rolling Productions)

Granik had cast him in “Winter’s Bone” as a local Ozark crime warlord (along with a couple of mean-looking biker buds), and found him to be so interesting that she continued to follow him around with a camera for a couple of years.

But this is no “Duck Dynasty” or “Honey Boo Boo” type exploitation. Great lessons and wisdom abound in the marginal places in life. But as mentioned, in the United States, this lifestyle is not really all that marginal.

But we do get some strong stuff right off the bat. Prior to a group motorcycle run, somebody pulls out a canning jar of clear liquid that gets passed around. By the expressionless faces, you’d think it was water. Then you realize that you’re getting a mountain-culture lesson: That’s not water; that’s 190-proof moonshine—it can peel the paint off your car.

“Yeah, we shinin’,” says one of the bikers’ “old ladies.” And you see the remnants of Ozark Scots-Irish stoicism: No wincing whatsoever, even though every swig of the legendary firewater, by definition, scorches off a few esophageal tissue layers.

‘Run to the Wall’

This particular run is headed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It’s an annual, ritualistic gathering to pay tribute to Vietnam’s fallen, with candlelight vigils, old photos of lost comrades-in-arms, and the finding and tracing of names etched in the polished black stone.

It really amounts to a self-designated, thunderous honor guard, with at least one Harley chopper carrying the American, the MIA, and the U.S. Marine Corps flags all attached to the sissy bar. The understanding of the solace and sense of belonging—not to mention the earth-shattering power of 300,000 revved straight-pipe (unmuffled) engines, and uniforms of black leather, beards, and bandanas—is implicit. Because in these instances, all of the above are absolutely uniforms. Solemnity and tears abound.

man and woman on motorcycle in "Stray Dog"
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall and his wife, Alicia, on the “Run to the Wall” organized motorcycle trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the documentary “Stray Dog.” (Still Rolling Productions)

The life of the American war-vet biker is one of often attending funerals and memorials for newly fallen armed forces personnel, as well as ritual acknowledgment of POWs and MIAs. There’s as much elaborate pomp and circumstance as can be mustered in little forlorn cemeteries out near freeways, or in Rotary Club basements. There’s much saluting, playing of “Taps,” occasional helicopter flyovers, and even one ritual POW enactment with a vet tied up in a bamboo tiger cage.

It’s understated in the film, but Hall still has nightmares from jungle warfare fought with the 4th Infantry Division nearly half a century ago. He thinks the entire war was a mistake now, and the spoils-of-war ear necklace he made in his fool youth weighs in extremis upon his soul. “It was all so unnecessary,” he says. However, he’s still outraged at the hostility and indifference that soldiers encountered when they returned from Vietnam.

40 Acres and an Iron Mule

Hall lives with a collection of small dogs in a beat-up trailer on a beaten dirt patch. He’s king of this trailer community, renting space to RV owners.

Man and woman looking out the door of a trailer in "Stray Dog"
A scene in the documentary film “Stray Dog.” (Still Rolling Productions)

As director Granik said in the Q&A at the press screening, “Small dogs are the little-known therapy for war veterans. They carry them, keep them close to their bodies like extra hearts.” Hall’s got four. Hence, his nickname.

Hall recommends therapy to all fellow vets who’ll listen, and they do listen. Especially the elderly fellow ex-soldier who breaks down after relating his personal POW experience: He’d witnessed a young captive American soldier’s arms being macheted at the wrists.

The key is to get a psychotherapist who’s a vet and who knows. As vets say, “If you ain’t been there, then shut up” (a mild rendition of the actual phrase). Hall’s therapist asks him, “If you forgave yourself, would you be dishonoring them?” to which he replies with a vehement “Yes.” And with the procession of gatherings and rituals and reenactments and grief on display in the film, one gets the sense—especially from Hall himself—that the tears, while genuine, are also a way these veterans feel they can repay their debts of lives taken. And so they take every opportunity. 

Melting Pot

Hall’s conversational in Korean. His first (Korean) wife died. His daughter’s a single mom on hard times. Her own unwed daughter, now pregnant with Hall’s great-grandchild and working two no-account jobs, has her wages garnished. Hall’s granddaughter’s baby-daddy works at a McDonald’s.

This all starts to get into “Honey Boo Boo” territory. But this cultural aspect of Hall’s life, while it does intersect at the crossroads of white supremacy culture, it does not become road buddies with that ilk. There’s no racism anywhere to be seen. Hall’s present wife is Mexican, and he takes in her two teenage boys. He’s got a lot of love to give.

A moving example of this is a scene where Hall and other white biker-veterans stand in a prayer circle with a black mother who lost her daughter, a soldier, in Afghanistan. They kiss her teary face and repair the floorboards that her leaky water heater had rotted out. It’s a display of heartfelt compassion and a powerful reminder that while our media paints America as an allegedly red-blue polarized nation, red plus blue makes purple, and we’ve got a lot more purple hearts than you’d think.

War veterans mourn with mother who lost a daughter in the war in "Stray Dog"
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall (center, R) and fellow veterans in prayer with Annie Washington (center, L), who lost her daughter in Afghanistan, in the documentary film “Stray Dog.” (Still Rolling Productions)

Stray Dog’s Woman

Hall met Alicia while in Mexico, and he studies Spanish to communicate better. She’s deeply religious but would also appear to be a seeker, as her bedroom shrine contains a collection of Catholic saints and Indian deities.

Theirs is a wonderful, uncomplicated love, and she brings warmth and orderliness to his life, along with admonitions to shampoo his beard.

man and wife bikers in "Stray Dog"
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall and his wife, Alicia, in the documentary film “Stray Dog.” (Still Rolling Productions)

She tries hard to fit in, bringing a plate of grilled crickets around the trailer park. One of Hall’s friends, whose teeth he’d helped yank to avoid dentist bills, says, “I don’t like the legs; they don’t chew up too good.” Priceless.

Alicia’s got twins, 19-year-old boys, Felipe Angel and Felipe De Jesus, in Mexico from an earlier marriage. And here’s where the movie takes an abrupt turn; these boys change the film’s perspective.

About Face

Once the two handsome boys have been successfully brought from Mexico to Hall’s inner trailer park circle, we suddenly see this man, Stray Dog, through their eyes.

They’re touchingly old-school courteous and well-mannered; they politely try to resolve the culture shock of moving to rural Missouri from their far more cosmopolitan Mexico City lifestyle, and try to resolve, furthermore, their suddenly dashed expectations of a better life in the United States. “It’s all highways here,” says one of them on a phone call to Mexico.

No nightlife, just the occasional bonfire and attempts by neighbors to teach these shy boys to ride a Harley and shoot a deer rifle. Ain’t that America? It’s bleak. It’s painful to see America from the vantage point of these boys.

They do appreciate Hall’s bending over backward for them, and naturally, they’re grateful to him for taking good care of their mother. To great relief, director Granik related in the Q&A that the boys are now in college. This is a huge load off. That info was not in the film and should have been.

Wrap-Up

All in all, “Stray Dog” isn’t so much about the trauma of the past as it is about trying to make the present work. It’s about meeting people—Harley brothers, fellow vets, and sons of his wife. Hall meets ’em all, and he is of continual, heartfelt service to those in need.

Biker on the phone in "Stray Dog"
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall in the documentary film “Stray Dog.” (Still Rolling Productions)

The film shows the deep human need to be sustained by ritual, and how, when our past bows us down with an unbearable weight, we can take our minds off it by doing good deeds for others and lessening our karmic loads.

It should be noted that the notorious one-percenter gangs are slowly moving away from outlaw biker culture and doing more and more acts of service: rescuing dogs, bringing toys to terminally ill children in hospitals, and the like. Ron “Stray Dog” Hall: exemplary American citizen. Over and out. 

‘Stray Dog’
Documentary
Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Ronnie Hall
Running Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Release Date: June 13, 2014
3.5 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years experience as a professional New York actor, a classical theater training, a BA in philosophy, and recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook, “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World”: https://www.thespecterofcommunism.com/en/audiobook/
Rotten Tomatoes author page:
https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/mark-jackson/movies

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
You May Also Like