STRAW DOGS (1971)
Following the disappointingly lukewarm reception accorded the gentle violence-free THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and the severing of his relationship to Warner Brothers after it went drastically over budget, Sam Peckinpah elected to return to the arena of violence that had established his reputation and came to England to shoot STRAW DOGS. It was based on the novel ‘The Siege of Trencher’s Farm’ by Gordon Williams, who dismissed the screen adaptation by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman as unfaithful to his work. Peckinpah was unfazed by this, yet it was to be only the mildest of the controversy the film would bring upon him. Much as I’ve grown to admire aspects of the director’s work, there are aspects here within the brilliance of this film with which I take strong issue.
STRAW DOGS is the story of a meek young American maths professor, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), who comes to Cornwall with his beautiful young wife Amy (Susan George) to work on a grant-funded research paper. She is restless and soon re-ignites the interest of her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney) and the other young male villagers. Gradually, the young couple is ensnared in the slow-burning lust and resentment directed by the townsfolk toward her and he, until she is raped by Charlie and then Scutt (Ken Hutchison). The physical violation is further compounded when David and his wife protect Henry Niles, the simple-minded troubled villager with past sex offences whom they hit with their car. They don’t know that the confused Niles has accidentally just killed a local teenage girl. When the drink-fuelled resentful vigilantes come to take Niles by force, a siege of the couples’ home begins and David is forced to become resourceful and violent to protect his home and wife, resulting in all the assailants being killed. In the end, shattered but somehow at peace, David leaves to drive Henry home, unsure of his future…
The filming of STRAW DOGS seemed to go smoothly in the real environs of Cornwall, albeit with the typically cold British weather (although Dustin Hoffman pointed out in a location interview that it would have been much worse back home for him in New York). Peckinpah said in the same programme that he’d like to have made a second home in Cornwall, which never ultimately happened but was a nice P.R. gesture.
Peckinpah had a penchant for throwing knives at doors on the set as a way of relaxing. His prop master found some old doors they could put out to save him from damaging ones needed for the set. This eccentric habit became so well-known that for his birthday Keith Moon, Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan bought him a door as a present.
One worrying story was that over the course of shooting, relations between Hoffman and Peckinpah toward Susan George all too closely mirrored the film’s distancing between the couple. At first, both men were playful and close in their relationship with her, but as the on-screen plot produceS strain between David and Amy, so Hoffman and Peckinpah gradually became similarly isolated and colder toward her. Now while this could to some extent be mitigated In Dustin’s case due to being caught up in the subjective throes of method preparation, it is much less excusable of Peckinpah. He had the benefit of greater overall objectivity but was intentionally freezing her out. This is backed up by producer Dan Melnick, interviewed in the German documentary I saw, ‘Passion and Poetry: Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs’. Melnick urged the director to be gentler with her, but Peckinpah refused. “I’m getting the performance”, he said unapologetically. It’s hard to forgive this treatment of an actress, particularly a very young vulnerable one who was required to undergo extremely traumatic rape enactments. That is precisely the time for greater compassion and sensitivity, perhaps even on-set counselling; no film’s veracity excuses that behaviour.
This leads us to by far the most troubling element of STRAW DOGS, which I’ll deal with here in greater detail. The rape scene overshadows everything else in the film and I feel must be addressed before praising other aspects, out of responsibility. (I find these kind of scenes extremely hard to take and avoid determinedly exploitative films such as I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE). Specifically, violation of Amy is done twice in the same scene, and whilst the second rape is clearly against her will, I can’t accept Peckinpah’s defence that she is not consenting as the first goes on. She definitely struggles to begin with, but as Charlie overpowers her and has his way, she changes into urging him to be gentler, caressing and placating him: “Easy…easy”. That can’t be interpreted any other way than a move into consent. Even though the two have a past history, it is no defence for forced rape and ignoring the obvious here does Peckinpah no credit.
Having addressed the most damning part of the film before the ensuing release controversy, let me move on to the areas of STRAW DOGS that I feel are hugely praiseworthy. The casting, for example, is tremendous. The villagers, led by the intimidating Peter Vaughan, are impeccable in their simmering resentment and contrasting geniality. David Warner is a shrewdly sympathetic choice for Niles, making great use of his natural vulnerability and inner complexity. Susan George is marvellous as Amy, alternating between sexy and childishly provocativeness, and a heartfelt tortured anguish toward the climatic battle. The absolute stand-out performance though is given by Dustin Hoffman. It would have been a tragedy if STRAW DOGS’s irresponsible handling of rape had buried this film as his work is a magnificently nuanced and heartfelt model for complex truth on screen. He is perfectly cast as the mild-mannered, non-confrontational nebbish David who gradually is driven to become engaged and let out his capacity for primitive violence in defence of the sanctity of his home and wife. Critic Pauline Kael condemned the film for a perceived pleasure taken by David in channelling his primal side into thot of a man of violence. I disagree about this being overt, partly because director and actor are careful to never show Hoffman being ‘heroic’. His dispatching of the intruders via barbed-wire, hot alcohol and man-trap are always shown as reactive and are driven by fear more than some desire to display impressive kick-ass skills. This is not a Jason Statham or Steven Segal vehicle where such a character suddenly displays superhuman invulnerability and a bad-ass propensity for macho impressiveness. If that had happened, we would lose any human identification that drives the compelling action so thrillingly. There is risk and vulnerability here constantly during the invasion. We never forget David is having to be resourceful to overcome this awful violation and much of this is due to Dustin’s restraint in committing to the role’s integrity. His little smile as he surveys the carnage, murmuring “Jesus… I got them all” can be read as the wonderment of the little guy who only now realises he has triumphed over the bullies, not simply as enjoyment of being a successful murderer. Post-traumatic relief is also not the same as sustained pleasure. Nor does the film imply that he’s now permanently released an uncaged beast of aggression. As he drives Niles away, the second smile that acknowledges an unexpected future is allowable, (even though there is a possibly distasteful sub-text that it will be without his wife).
Norman Savage’s criticism of the shot footage in the climax is ironic as the final twenty-minute siege is brilliantly edited in razor-sharp quick cuts for pace and breathless intensity. The harsh blaring of the bagpipe record is a bizarrely terrific sonic layer adding to the disorientation.
Upon release in December 1971, STRAW DOGS was heavily condemned for the two consecutive rapes and the aforementioned perception that it condoned violent solutions to problems. The timing of the film was unfortunate. The month afterwards, a climate of censorious fervour was whipped up by CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Unlike Kubrick’s film, there were no reported instances of copycat acts of brutality in the aftermath of STRAW DOGS, but it still drew unwelcome hostility that detracted from its complex and valid themes. The film struggled with classification, being banned under the Video Recordings Act on video-tape for home audiences in Britain, despite being passed uncut originally for the cinema. Over the years it was belatedly re-released intact, enabling fully-informed appraisal, since a former cut version truncated the rape scenes into one and distorted the scene from being fairly judged.
David Warner was amused by the pretensions of scholarly critics who believed that his character’s lameness and the sling-bound arm of T.P McKenna in the film were somehow part of a sub-texual connection to David’s impotence with his wife. In the documentary, he sets the record straight that his injury was a pre-shooting accident that made him sceptical about being fit to do the film, and McKenna’s arm damage was caused by someone falling on him during one of the crew parties.
Check out the striking posters as well that superbly reflected the turbulent themes of the film.
STRAW DOGS is ultimately a powerful, complicated film with much to offer as well as being controversial. One always has to be mindful that in praising its strong virtues, this in no way discounts its mis-handling of a societal taboo as well. Judge for yourself…