Straw Dogs (1971 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Sam Peckinpah|
|Produced by||Daniel Melnick|
|Screenplay by||Sam Peckinpah
David Zelag Goodman
|Based on||The Siege of Trencher's Farm
by Gordon M. Williams
|Music by||Jerry Fielding|
|Editing by||Paul Davies
|Distributed by||Cinerama Releasing Corporation|
|Running time||117 minutes
113 minutes (Edited cut)
|Box office||$8 million (rentals)|
Straw Dogs is a 1971 psychological thriller directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. The screenplay by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman is based upon Gordon M. Williams's 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm. The film's title derives from a discussion in the Tao Te Ching that likens the ancient Chinese ceremonial straw dog to forms without substance.
The film is noted for its violent concluding sequences and a complicated rape scene. Released theatrically the same year as A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, and Dirty Harry, the film sparked heated controversy over the perceived increase of violence in cinema.
The film premiered in U.S. cinemas on December 29, 1971. Although controversial in 1971, Straw Dogs is considered by many to be one of Peckinpah's greatest films. A remake directed by Rod Lurie was released on September 16, 2011.
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (January 2013)|
David Sumner, a timid American mathematician and basketball player, leaves the chaos of college anti-war protests to live with his young wife, Amy, in her hometown of Wakely, a fictional village in Cornwall, England. Almost immediately, there is tension between the couple as David becomes immersed in his academic work and differing ideas regarding the nature of their relationship come to light: David wants the traditional division of tasks, with the man earning wages, and the wife satisfying his needs in the kitchen and bed. Amy wants greater participation from David if she is going to accept such a role: she wants him to perform all the traditionally male tasks, like fixing the toaster, but also to involve himself in her community.
Chris Cawsey, Norman Scutt, Riddaway, and Charlie Venner, Amy's ex-lover, are Wakely locals hired to renovate the Sumners' isolated farmhouse. They openly resent David for his intellectual pursuits, and persistently harass him. When Amy discovers their cat strangled and hanging by a light chain in their bedroom closet, Amy claims the workmen did it to intimidate David. She presses him to confront the villagers, but he refuses. David tries to win their friendship, and they invite him to go hunting in the woods the next day. During the trip, David is taken to a remote forest meadow and left there, after the workmen promise to drive the birds towards him. Having ditched David, Venner returns to the couple's farmhouse where he rapes Amy. Scutt arrives, forces Venner to hold Amy down, and rapes Amy as well.
After several hours, David realizes he has been tricked and returns home to find a disheveled and withdrawn Amy. She does not tell him about the rapes. The next day, David fires the workmen, claiming that they have performed poorly and wasted time. Later that week, the Sumners attend a church social where Amy becomes distraught after seeing the men who raped her. They leave the social early, and, while driving home through thick fog, accidentally hit the local village idiot Henry Niles, whom they take to their home. David phones the local pub about the accident. However, earlier that evening Niles had accidentally strangled a flirtatious young girl from the village, Janice Hedden, and now her father, the town drunkard, Tom, and the workmen looking for him are alerted by the phone call to Niles's whereabouts.
Soon the drunken locals, including Amy's rapists, are pounding on the door of the Sumners' home. After a few minutes of their breaking the windows and hammering on the door, the local magistrate, Major John Scott, arrives and after attempting to defuse the situation, is shot dead by Tom. At this point the father and the workmen agree that they cannot go back on what they have done, but only continue. David realizes that they will not allow anyone in the house to live and begins preparing to defend his home. First he heats two saucepans of cooking oil. Then, when one of the locals attempts to enter through the window, he ties his hands together at knife-point. As more men appear at another window, he scalds them with the boiling oil, temporarily incapacitating them. Then he lays down a large mantrap in his living room and sends Amy upstairs to hide.
When Tom and Cawsey enter and attempt to shoot David, he knocks the shotgun out of Tom's hands, causing it to fire and mangle the man's foot. He then engages in a fight with Cawsey, beating him to death with a fire poker. Finally, Charlie appears and holds David at gunpoint, but before he can shoot him, the two hear Amy screaming. As they both run upstairs, the fifth man, Scutt, is there. He tells Charlie to take David downstairs and kill him, so they can rape Amy again. Instead, Charlie shoots Scutt and David begins to fight Charlie. As they reach the living room, David, despite Amy's pleas not to, kills Charlie by springing the mantrap over his head, crushing his neck. As David looks at the carnage around him, he murmurs, "Jesus, I got 'em all." He is then attacked by Riddaway and, losing the struggle, asks Amy to fetch the shotgun and shoot him. Amy hesitates before retrieving the weapon and shooting Riddaway dead.
David is driving Niles to town when the latter turns and says, "I don't know my way home." David smiles and replies, "That's okay. I don't either."
- Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner
- Susan George as Amy Sumner
- Peter Vaughan as Tom Hedden
- T. P. McKenna as Major John Scott
- Del Henney as Charlie Venner
- Jim Norton as Chris Cawsey
- Donald Webster as Riddaway
- Ken Hutchison as Norman Scutt
- Len Jones as Bobby Hedden
- Sally Thomsett as Janice Hedden
- Robert Keegan as Harry Ware
- Peter Arne as John Niles
- Cherina Schaer as Louise Hood
- Colin Welland as Reverend Barney Hood
- David Warner as Henry Niles
- June Brown (deleted scenes) as Mrs. Hedden
Sam Peckinpah's two previous films, The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, had been made for Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. His connection with the company ended after the chaotic filming of Cable Hogue wrapped 19 days over schedule and $3 million over budget. Left with a limited number of directing jobs, Peckinpah was forced to travel to England to direct Straw Dogs. Produced by Daniel Melnick, who had previously worked with Peckinpah on his 1966 television film Noon Wine, the screenplay was based on Gordon Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm.
Peckinpah's adaptation of the novel drew inspiration from Robert Ardrey's books African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, which argued that man was essentially a carnivore who instinctively battled over control of territory. A significant difference between the novel and the film is the Sumner couple have a daughter who is also trapped in the farmhouse. Peckinpah removed the daughter and rewrote the character of Amy Sumner as a younger and more liberated woman. The film was shot on location at St Buryan, Cornwall.
Beau Bridges, Stacy Keach, Sidney Poitier, Jack Nicholson, and Donald Sutherland were considered for the lead role of David Sumner before Dustin Hoffman was cast. Hoffman agreed to do the film because he was intrigued by the character, a pacifist unaware of his feelings and potential for violence that were the very same feelings he abhorred in society. Judy Geeson, Jacqueline Bisset, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, Carol White, Charlotte Rampling, and Hayley Mills were considered for the role of Amy before Susan George was finally selected. Hoffman disagreed with the casting, as he felt his character would never marry such a "Lolita-ish" kind of girl. Peckinpah insisted on George, an unknown actress at that time.
Straw Dogs received generally positive reviews; review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes currently holds a 91% 'fresh' rating. The website's consensus of the film is: "A violent, provocative meditation on manhood with some of the most controversial scenes ever shot for a mainstream movie".
The film earned rentals of $4.5 million in North America and $3.5 million in other countries. By 1973 it had recorded an overall profit of $1,425,000.
The film was controversial on its 1971 release, mostly because of the prolonged rape scene that is the film's centerpiece. Critics accused director Peckinpah of glamorizing and eroticising rape and of engaging in misogynistic sadism, and male chauvinism, especially disturbed by the scene's intended ambiguity—after initially resisting, Amy appears to enjoy parts of the first rape, kissing and holding her attacker, although she later has traumatic flashbacks. It is claimed that "the enactment purposely catered to entrenched appetites for desired victim behavior and reinforces rape myths". Another criticism is that all the main female characters depict straight women as perverse with every appearance of Janice and Amy used to highlight excessive sexuality. 
The violence provoked strong reactions, many critics seeing an endorsement of violence as redemption, and the film as fascist celebration of violence and vigilantism. Others see it as anti-violence, noting the bleak ending consequent to the violence. Director Peckinpah defended Straw Dogs as an exploration (not an endorsement) of violence, that was purging him of obsessions with violence resulting from human inability to communicate; that David is the story's true villain—deliberately, yet subconsciously, provoking the violence, his concluding homicidal rampage is his true self.
The village of St Buryan was used as a location for the filming with some of the locals appearing as extras. Local author Derek Tangye reports in one of his books that they were not aware of the nature of the film at the time of filming, and were most upset to discover on its release that they had been used in a film of a nature so inconsistent with their own moral values.
In 1984, Straw Dogs gained more notoriety in the UK after the British Board of Film Classification banned it per the newly introduced Video Recordings Act, "because of Amy's violent rape". The film had been released theatrically in the United Kingdom, with the uncut version gaining an 'X' rating in 1971 and the slightly cut US R-rated print being rated '18' in 1995. In March 1999 a partially edited print of Straw Dogs, which removed most of the second rape, was refused a video certificate when the distributor lost the rights to the film after agreeing to make the requested BBFC cuts, and the full uncut version was also rejected for video three months later on the grounds that the BBFC could not pass the uncut version so soon after rejecting a cut one.
On July 1, 2002, Straw Dogs finally was certified unedited on VHS and DVD. This version was uncut, and therefore included the second rape scene, in which the BBFC's opinion "Amy is clearly demonstrated not to enjoy the act of violation". The BBFC noted that:
|“||The cuts made for American distribution, which were made to reduce the duration of the sequence, therefore tended paradoxically to compound the difficulty with the first rape, leaving the audience with the impression that Amy enjoyed the experience. The Board took the view in 1999 that the pre-cut version eroticised the rape and therefore raised concerns with the Video Recordings Act about promoting harmful activity. The version considered in 2002 is substantially the original uncut version of the film, restoring much of the unambiguously unpleasant second rape. The ambiguity of the first rape is given context by the second rape, which now makes it quite clear that sexual assault is not something that Amy ultimately welcomes.||”|
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