Straw Dogs (1971)

A quick visit to good ol’ Wikipedia will let you know that Straw Dogs came out the same year as A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and Dirty Harry, all of which were considered by the general public to be excessively violent films. Those other films undoubtedly have some rough sequences (especially the slap-happy home invasion of A Clockwork Orange), but Straw Dogs probably takes the cake for the most disturbing usage of violence in any movie of that era. Though Peckinpah had endured harsh criticisms for his portrayals of violence in his earlier films (especially The Wild Bunch), Straw Dogs would reach new heights (or new lows, depending on who you ask) with regards to what can and cannot be shown in a mainstream feature film.

Dustin Hoffman’s David and Susan George’s Amy have just started a quiet stint in the English countryside, during which David plans to finally get some work done and Amy plans to nag David and putter around looking for the cat. A few of the locals throw long and blatant gazes toward the leggy Amy, much to the subdued frustration of David. Eventually, the locals begin to test their limits toward the young couple – and eventually the gazing becomes staring, the staring becomes touching, the touching becomes harassment and the harassment becomes outright violence.

A long and complicated scene in which Amy is raped provided much of the fuel for the fire of controversy that ignited immediately upon release of Straw Dogs. There are actually two rapes back-to-back by two of the vicious locals, the first of whom is a man Amy knows and used to date. There is a sickening ambiguity to this first sequence in which Amy, initially resistant, seems to fight the event off less and less as it progresses. The promiscuity of her character throughout the film was also harshly criticized, which somehow morphed into a criticism of Peckinpah’s depiction of women in all of his films.

Regardless, it’s the second rape that many perceived to be the excessively brutal one. Amy very clearly resists and despises the occurrence, and while the second happening isn’t actually as graphic as the first Amy’s reaction is what makes the sequence so completely disturbing. This scene was immediately cut by studios prior to the film’s release and the uncut version was slapped with an X rating.

The paradox here lies in there fact that cutting the second sequence left that ambiguity of the first to sit and fester, with many audiences believing through the end of the movie that Amy had ultimately allowed the horrible event to occur. Studio muddling is a characteristic of nearly every Sam Peckinpah film, and fairly noticeable in his films from Major Dundee onwards. The reworking of Straw Dogs provided the ultimate irony not only by confusing audiences with last-minute editing, but by effectively highlighting the most disturbing portion of the film in an effort to lighten things up.

Still, whatever form you find Straw Dogs in will mark an important turning point in Peckinpah’s career. Violence on the Western front is one thing – Westerns by their nature are violent, set in seemingly lawless lands, populated by drifters with no names or backstories or ties to society. Peckinpah essentially takes these traits and plops them into a town in England to watch what happens. The local brutes – especially those played by Del Henney and Peter Vaughan – capture that Western-bandit quality of general disregard for societal structure and general desire for personal satisfaction no matter the cost.

Straw Dogs isn’t a Western. The ultimate message, though – or one interpretation of the film – may be that the setting matters little, the players involved matter little, the circumstances surrounding these particular players in this particular place matter little. Peckinpah’s mankind is prone to violence, will grow to wrest a violent tendency from the most unassuming of men, and Straw Dogs depicts this unpopular but unwavering philosophy in an important way.

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