Straw Dogs. 1971. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay by David Zelag Goodman & Sam Peckinpah; based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams.
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna, Del Henney, Jim Norton, Donald Webster, and Ken Hutchison. ABC Pictures.
Rated R. 113 minutes.
★★★★1/2Director Sam Peckinpah had a pretty wild ride in the film industry. He made plenty of good films, as well as a couple stinkers. However, atop the best of his pile is most certainly Straw Dogs featuring an outstanding performance by Dustin Hoffman. While the remake was nowhere near the caliber of this near perfect film, we still have Peckinpah to fall back on. And that’s one nice part about remakes, even if they’re bad generally they tend to draw people to the original by virtue of discovering them via the new films being released.
What’s so intriguing about the 1971 classic original Straw Dogs are seemingly lost elements to the films of today. For instance, Peckinpah had Dustin Hoffman and Susan George live together for two weeks, along with writer David Zelag Goodman in order to get a feel for their relationship. Some of what came out of that ended up in the script itself. Even further, Peckinpah and Goodman explore the nature of violence, what creates it, as well as how it affects the people on which it is inflicted. Moreoever, they examine how violence is not definitively American as some people seem to see it due to the media and how America is perceived internationally. So much going on in this film.
What comes out is a tense, first rate thriller with some intense performances. It may be hard to watch at times, however, it is an important film out of the 1970s, which showcased how well a director can manage to draw out visceral performances from their actors, and also how edgy many of the movies at the time were as opposed to a lot less pushing the enveloped nowadays.Straw Dogs is the story of David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George). David moves to England in order to escape America and its plague of violence. They go back to live in Amy’s hometown, at an old cottage style house in a tiny spot around Cornwall.
When they arrive, Charlie Venner (Del Henney) – an old flame of sorts once involved with Amy – seems to be a little too interested in her return. When David has the men hired to repair the old cottage/farmhouse where they’re living, Charlie and his crew – Norman (Ken Hutchison), Chris (Jim Norton), and Phil (Donald Webster) – show up, and eventually things slowly devolve into a tense and standoff-ish situation.
Starting with a bit of machismo, David tries to stake a claim to his home, and really, his wife. Unfortunately, Charlie and his boys have more nasty plans. After they take David out on a hunting trip, leaving him deserted, Charlie heads back to the house where he forces himself on Amy.
This act will change everything, for Amy, for Charlie, and most certainly for the mild and meek David Sumner.
Obviously most of the conversation, and in turn controversy, surrounding Straw Dogs is the infamous rape. Some debate whether or not it is a rape. Furthermore, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest maybe Peckinpah strayed a little too far with some of the script. Such as in a scene around the half hour mark, Amy (George) comes into the house complaining the men were staring. Her husband David (Hoffman) chastises her and says she ought to wear or bra, or else “those types” will be staring; essentially, victim blaming. Though, this is long before she’s assaulted by Charlie (Henney), which then turns into a gang rape as Norman (Hutchison) shows up becoming increasingly violent.
I’m not totally sure what I think about the rape, as far as how Peckinpah meant it to be seen and understood. The entire film it’s hard to fully understand what Amy’s intentions are, in terms of the way she acts around the men who are so obviously leering and drooling over her body. So at times, it does feel as if Peckinpah is almost victim blaming in his own right as director and one half of the screenwriter team with Goodman. Yet I’m still not totally ready to resign myself to saying that’s what his intention was with the initial rape scene and Amy’s behaviour in general.
We see this strange back and forth, tit for tat, between David and Amy that seems to be a weird situation. She actually makes it worse at times because David starts to think Charlie and his crew are messing with him; for instance, the scene where she erases one of his mathematic drawings and replaces it with a straight line ends up coming to bear when he believes it must’ve been them trying to fool up his work. Then Amy takes off her top and willingly walks past her window as the men look on. Now, she should be able to do what she wants in her own home! But it’s like there’s a taunting side to Amy, a part of her that wants to bring out a more macho, more eruptively violent side to her husband than he displays regularly. I can’t make out exactly what’s going on, yet the film still shocks and thrills me at respective times.My best take on it is that Peckinpah is not making a statement about women overall. Mostly, his aim appears to be towards dissecting men. In other words, Straw Dogs is not so much a rape-revenge film as it appears on the surface. Directly in opposition to that, it’s more of an examination of men and their propensity towards violence, the way they hope to mark their territory, to own it.
In a sense, I’m not sure the first supposed rape scene is actually a rape. There’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest Amy might be sort of unhappy with the way David, a quiet American mathematician still green around the ears, doesn’t exactly take charge. In any way. Even in an early scene when they go to bed, she seems to be getting frisky and yet David insists on first setting the alarm clock, totally ruining the moment. From there, I started to notice Peckinpah focused a lot on how David is very intellectual and incredibly obsessed with his own work, his own brain. Then juxtaposed with him, we’ve got these rough and tumble boys from Amy’s old hometown, the good old boys from the country in England, all of whom are very physical, very ‘manly’ as opposed to David. So I think there’s a part of Amy that does want Charlie, or more so she just wants excitement – SHE DOES NOT WANT TO BE RAPED. Let me repeat myself: she does not want to be raped. Merely, I think she wants a take charge man, someone with a bit more machismo than David. CERTAINLY once Norma shows up, there is a rape. An awful one. So that is undoubtedly a full-on assault. Her moments with Charlie are hard to decipher, though, I think in the end they’re able to be figured out. Afterwards, everything is crystal clear.
So perhaps instead of looking at how Peckinpah is painting women, I think it’s better if we spend our time looking at the way men are acting. The men are letting Amy influence them, not by any part of her own. She’s not at fault – it’s the men who can’t control themselves. So when Peckinpah has publicly said he views man as a carnivore in Straw Dogs, I totally understand that sentiment. Even David, he’s no better in the end because he could’ve solved things a long time before any of the crazy events transpired, and yet he chose to merely argue with his wife and not heed the warnings she’d been giving him. Because she did warn him, essentially. She wanted him to take care of the entire situation with Charlie and the rest of the construction crew, yet the sensitive and misguided David couldn’t bring himself to even talk to them. Amy actually suggested packing up and leaving the old cottage. In opposition, David decided to not even do a thing about the fact Amy’s cat turned up dead, hung in their closet.
Can’t you see how David had such a major hand in everything which comes later on?
It’s more unfortunate for her because I believe the reason she didn’t tell David about the rape right away was because A) she was traumatized and B) she wanted to have sex with Charlie after all but was afraid to talk about the rape because then she’d also have to simultaneously admit her adultery. Even more than that, I think Amy is partly disgusted in the end that David wouldn’t stand up to the men for her, for anything she asked him to do before and he wouldn’t do, yet for a suspected child molester/killer he battens down the hatches at the farmhouse and gets ready to attack. It’s more than he did for her, so I think part of what ultimately happens goes to show how men and their revenge are not always reasonable.Now that I’ve said my piece concerning the controversy of Straw Dogs, I want to talk more instead about the Sam Peckinpah style. He’s definitely been known as a filmmaker who showcases and explores intense violence between human beings. Most of all, the violence which men inflict upon one another. This is another way in which you can tell his focus in this film is not on Amy so much as it really lies on David, Charlie, and the other male characters.
I love the scene where David has the men open and set an old metal bear trap in the cottage living room. They eventually get it set properly, and he has them mount it right above the fireplace. I mean, if there ever a metaphor, or a highly evident image of the construction of masculinity, then here it is! At least that’s how I see it. Even more so because later on that bear trap comes into great use for David.
Most of all, there’s a gritty resonance about the films of Peckinpah. It’s certainly evident here, as everything looks so raw and real. You might as well be sitting in the little pub with David as he tries to buy some cigarettes, or right there in the sparse little cottage and farmhouse where the Sumners are living. Straw Dogs contains so much of that beautifully crafted realism which Peckinpah is known for and it’s one of the reasons I love it so much. I saw this for the first time 15 years ago, still a big fan.The best bit of the film is when David erupts and fights back, setting himself violently against the British country boys of Amy’s hometown. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, I think this is full-on more of an evaluation of men than it is women. Because if Charlie were the only one to engage sexually with Amy, it would’ve merely been a fact of her cheating. Which is terrible, sure, but these things happen.
The male domination at the hands of Charlie and Norman – mostly the latter who initiates the vile rape, though Charlie helps him in doing so – is what then sets off the carnivorous side of David; the battle for territory. While Amy had a part in what happened between her and Charlie, ONLY in the sense I believe she did want Charlie even in the slightest bit (again she did not want to be raped I have to be clear on that for people who’ll misread what I’m saying) – it’s all about the men. Charlie thinks he owns Amy, David thinks he owns Amy, then the battle begins.
What I like most, though, is the violence. Honestly. It’s shocking at times and extremely savage. That being said, it’s effective, it is the Peckinpah way, and helps to cement this as one of the most intense thrillers out of the 1970s entirely.I’m only restraining myself slightly from giving Straw Dogs a full 5 stars; right now, it’ll remain at 4.5 out of 5. Still impressive and one of the most iconic movies of the ’70s, in my mind, Sam Peckinpah’s film is a piece of work that will remain highly and hotly debated as long as people are still watching movies. That will never change. Even with the discussion I’ve brought up here, there is ton more involved and you could certainly challenge all of what I’ve said. So the possibilities when discussing Straw Dogs are endless. I never even so much got into the performances – both Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are absolutely wonderful in their tough roles – so that’s another aspect I could’ve probably talked on and on about for another hour or two.
Either way, this is a top notch piece of thriller cinema. It’s got a vicious, visceral edge to it, but if you’re able to get through the sensitive bits there is a lot to enjoy in the end.
See it if you’ve not yet, one of Peckinpah’s greatest works out of an illustrious and wild career. Any comments – reasonable and civil – are welcome, especially if you want to discuss possible meanings, differing opinions on the characters, plot, et cetera.