Straw Dogs: Savage Cinema Or Misunderstood Masterpiece?

THN has taken a look back at legendary hell-raising director Sam Peckinpah’s original take on the Gordon Williams novel The Siege At Trenchers Farm. The film’s title change came from an ancient Chinese phrase Peckinpah believed hints that every man has a breaking point, and with it brings its own untamed animal.

The film featured a still ‘on the rise’ Dustin Hoffman, fresh from classics THE GRADUATE, MIDNIGHT COWBOY and LITTLE BIG MAN. His now iconic performance was almost swept under the carpet, in a film that on its initial release was treated like an abandoned child by audiences and critics alike.

Peckinpah, like so many others in his profession, cut his directing teeth working on television. His first big break in the movie business was with MAJOR DUNDEE, starring Hollywood legends Charlton Heston and Richard Harris. It was Peckinpah’s next feature however, that made him a force to be reckoned with. THE WILD BUNCH was a film that turned the western genre on its head. A blood-red violent epic that featured A-list actors in the roles of cold-blooded villains that the audience were really rooting for. It was a film that set the bar for the decade that followed, creating film-makers that essentially said ‘Screw You’ to the Hollywood system, going on the make movies that said something about the ever evolving world, showing the ugly side of human nature and how man was really capable of behaving. Directors like William Friedkin (THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE EXORCIST), Francis Ford Coppola (THE GODFATHER, APOCACALYSE NOW), Martin Scorcese (MEAN STREETS, RAGING BULL) and Michael Cimino (THE DEER HUNTER, HEAVEN’S GATE ) made perfect examples of features that would go on to become classics of the era.

Sandwiched between THE WILD BUNCH and Peckinpah’s 1970s classics PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and THE GETAWAY was STRAW DOGS. Released in 1971, the film was savaged by critics, not for being in any way a bad film, but for its use of extreme violence and the notorious and prolonged rape scene that blurred the lines of no-means-yes. Many accused Peckinpah of glamourising rape, portraying women in the film appallingly and showing an unacceptable amount of violence.

Set in a small Cornish village on the South West coast of England, the plot follows newly-weds David and Amy Sumner (Susan George), who return to Amy’s childhood home to settle down for the quiet country lifestyle. American Mathematician David immediately struggles to fit in amongst the locals, facing awkward silences and whispers in the local pub proving to worsen his situation. The character of Amy meanwhile, catches the eye of her former boyfriend Charlie Venner. This leads to David subsequently employing Charlie and his crew of labouring misfits to do repair work on the couple’s home in order to appear friendly and polite  – a bad move with Amy’s dominating personality. Whilst not content with just sitting at home playing the doting wife, in an ode to the young mischievous girl she once was, Amy’s true personality begins to come to the fore. When cracks start to form in the couple’s relationship, Charlie and his clan seize the opportunity to drive a wedge between the two before ‘that’ notorious scene sets in motion the chain of events that lead to the violent last act. The small role of mentally challenged character, Jeremy Niles (the great British actor David Warner) becomes as important as those of the main performers. Hoffman’s mild-mannered performance eventually turns as equally savage, if not more so, than the ‘villains’ when pushed to the absolute limit. Peckinpah wanting to prove a man can only be pushed so far before his own violent animalistic instincts kick-in.

The shoot was not without its problems as Hoffman, ever the perfectionist, was unhappy with Peckinpah’s choice of the female lead Amy. In his eyes the character would have never married such a young and immature girl, with Hoffman going so far to call her ‘Lolita-ish’. Heavy drinker Peckinpah also encouraged and joined in drinking sessions between the cast members Peter Vaughn, Del Henny, Ken Huchinson and T.P. McKenna that would go well into the night. These sessions were known to often end in bar room brawls (evidence of this can actually be seen on screen with actor McKenna, who plays level headed Major Tom Scott, sporting a sling throughout the movie after breaking his arm in one of their many ‘bonding’ sessions!). Peckinpah himself was almost replaced, after falling ill when he and actor Del Henney got drunk one night after filming and decided to go for a stroll in freezing temperatures, unprotected from the elements. Add to the fact actress Susan George walked off set numerous times, believing she was not given enough input into how she wanted the character of Amy portrayed.

Upon its release it was no surprise STRAW DOGS was given an ‘X’ certificate. Then years later was unfairly thrown in amongst the ‘video nasty’ bunch in the UK after appearing on the British Board of Film Classification’s Video Recordings Act Of 1984, effectively banning the movie due to the way the violent rape scene is portrayed on screen. Finally in 2002, STRAW DOGS was eventually released on video and DVD for the first time in the UK and has since gone on to find a cult audience in the same way the similarly treated A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has. My own first viewing came in the mid 1990s when I managed to get hold of an old eighties US Laserdisc version from a market stall. I distinctly remember being blown away by its unrelenting finale, being left with a residual resonance imprinted on the brain of the ever growing build-up of tension, that eventually gives way to Dustin Hoffman’s pressure cooker performance. Hoffman was able to capture the very essence of his character without the requirement felt by some actors to over play these types of roles, making the key scenes both enigmatic and thrilling to watch. The audience are kept acutely aware of the moral character of David, who is shown to be just lingering on the right side of rectitude (or is he really the villain of the piece?). He is willing to use anything at his disposal in protecting his wife, home, and a man with the mental age of a child, from the marauding presence outside.

Now with Hollywood deciding STRAW DOGS is ripe for a remake it will be interesting to see how director Rod Lurie will handle such material. Lurie was in fact a former top movie critic who, after becoming disillusioned with Hollywood’s film output over the years, decided to give directing a shot. His two most high profile efforts were the political thriller THE CONTENDER (2000) and action-thriller THE LAST CASTLE (2001). Both were gripping and enjoyable films with superb casts.

So to answer the question – is the film a savage piece of film-making exploring man’s inner beast or a masterpiece, misunderstood and bogged down by an important but controversial scene? – maybe it is not for me to say, but in my eyes it’s brilliant, brutal, thought-provoking and Sam Peckinpah wouldn’t have it any other way.

Man can only take so much, there’ s a Straw Dog inside us all…

The original STRAW DOGS is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

 

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Craig is leading the charge as our north east correspondent, proving that it’s so ‘grim up north’ that losing yourself in a world of film is a foregone prerequisite. He has been studying the best (and often worst) of both classic and modern cinema at the University of Life for as long as he can remember. Craig’s favorite films include THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, JFK, GOODFELLAS, SCARFACE, and most of John Carpenter’s early work, particularly THE THING and HALLOWEEN.

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