Sometime in the northern winter of January 1972, director Sam Peckinpah was busy replying to angry letters from furious movie fans that walked out of his latest film, Straw Dogs, dazed and confused. Violence and its capacity to cleanse and renew has been an enduring fantasy of the cinema since its very beginnings, but Straw Dogs was something else. Savage and sexual, it had its fans but many critics and punters found it sick, depraved, pornographic.
Released the same year as A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs seem to emerge from an altogether different movie universe than Kubrick's rarefied fantasy. A revenger's tale, Straw Dogs has the stink and sweat of lived experience about it. It's a fleshy, wounding thing to sit through, as hard to shake as a nightmare, as unsettling and exhausting as an all-night row with a lover. It's a movie of constant tension where the characters, played by a superb cast, are at loggerheads with one another from the get-go, needling, tormenting, and aggravating emotional sore spots. Peckinpah's probing, slashing editing style opens the inner lives of these people, exposing their deepest wounds. Straw Dogs is a film of jagged edits, and abrupt slashing cuts, like an unwanted poke in the chest. Where most action movies lead an audience into the secure delusion that violence is a cure-all for psychic pain, Straw Dogs unsettles precisely because its bloody mayhem ends in an emotional dead-zone.
It was the film's two major set-piece episodes, though, that enraged feminists and pacifists in the audience: one is a double rape scene, that momentarily has the victim willingly participate in her own degradation; and the other is the story's climatic massacre full of such gruesome detail it was instantly labeled as grotesque and sadistic. Pauline Kael called the film, “A fascist work of art". Years later, Peckinpah explained to a Canadian critic that Straw Dogs set out to explore a strange, self-defeating psychological dilemma: “…people who seek out, consciously or unconsciously, their executioners… victims who take pleasure in being swallowed up.”
Set in England, Straw Dogs was based on a novel called The Siege of Trencher's Farm. In it, Dustin Hoffman plays David, an American mathematician, who has fled the tumultuous social upheaval in the US with his wife, Amy (Susan George), to resettle in Amy's home-town of Wakley on the Cornish coast. She is much younger than David, attractive and rather immature. He is a little mousy, but underneath the double-knit pullover and wimpy glasses David is seething. The marriage is a mismatch. It's pretty clear from the first scenes that the couple's frustration with themselves and each other can no longer be suppressed. The village is a weird place, full of hostility and aggression. David becomes a virtual chew-doll for the local louts. They tease his Ivy-League affectations and effete mannerisms and ogle Amy. Amy's old boyfriend, Charlie Venner (Del Henney), seeing the cracks in the façade of her marriage, begins to prey on her vulnerability – a situation that leads to the film's terrible rape scene. Amy does not reveal her ordeal to David. The film ends in a lengthy battle scene, where David defends the couples' home against invaders, including Charlie.
Peckinpah, who died in 1984 aged 59, was already known then as “Bloody Sam”, famous for The Wild Bunch (1969), a film of apocalyptic, graphic violence. In life, he was called a “bad boy”. He goaded the media with a highly cultivated image as a knife-throwing, hard-drinking individualist who refused to play the studio game, who hated the “Suits” that ran the movie business. (He had been blacklisted in Hollywood as “impossible” for years.) After Straw Dogs was labeled misogynistic, he gave lots of interviews; he sounded a little crazed and evasive and used words like “whore” and “slut”, which did not exactly help to over turn the attitude that he was an angry woman-hater in love with violence.
Today, many of Peckinpah's friends now think he was a passive/aggressive and even a mild sufferer of schizophrenia. Whatever, in private, according to biographers like Marshall Fine and David Weddle, Peckinpah grieved over the way Straw Dogs was, for its maker, misunderstood. In writing the script Peckinpah searched for ways to deepen the film's classic “worm-turns” story of a mild man driven to violence. For the director, this was a puerile middle class fantasy of potency. Influenced by screenwriter-turned amateur anthropologist Robert Ardrey and his book The Territorial Imperative, Peckinpah found a theme, says Weddle, that he understood: “It was the good fight, the exquisite pleasure of murder that man lusted after more than sex, Ardrey explained – it was the control of territory, not women, that most men battled for.”
Peckinpah felt almost all the critics, even the ones who liked Straw Dogs, missed this point. David was not a defender of honour, the way most movie avengers are drawn; he was acting out of his own dark impulses, even his dislike of his wife and his contempt for her needs. Peckinpah summed his feelings up succinctly: “David is the heavy in this pic.” A director's public utterances about their work can't often be trusted; but any close viewing of Straw Dogs reveals the authenticity of Peckinpah's assessment. Straw Dogs is full of moments where David can alter the course of action by being sensitive to his wife, her frustrations. He doesn't. He incites violence. He learns something about himself. And he likes it.
Peckinpah felt punters and critics were reviewing his life and not his film. One man wrote to the director: [Straw Dogs] is a “horrible exploitation of violence… unnecessary and totally offensive… I see no reason for this film being produced or shown… it serves no useful purpose… you must be a very sick man.” The director replied: “Thank you for your comments. I didn't want you to enjoy the film. I wanted you to look very close at your own soul.”
Last year, Rod Laurie's remake of Straw Dogs was released in the US. It didn't work at the box office there, and in Australia it's gone straight to DVD. It's based on the screenplay by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman, and even though it includes most of the original's major plot points and retains much of the dialogue from the 1971 film, it translates the action to Mississippi. James Marsden and Kate Bosworth play the couple, and they've been transformed into a screenwriter and minor actress. Alexander Skarsgard plays Charlie. Laurie is no hack; he made the compelling political drama, The Contender in 2000. But there's something misshapen and smarmy about his Straw Dogs, mostly because instead of making a movie about a bad marriage, the story becomes one of sexual jealousy, fermented by class resentment. It justifies Marsden's violence; it redeems him, which is to say the film soothes and affirms, something that Peckinpah refused to do in his Straw Dogs.
Someone says to Hoffman's David at the end of the 1971 film: “I don't know my way home,” as they leave behind the mutilated corpses of David's victims. David smiles, and says: “Neither do I.”
According to Kris Kristofferson, friend and occasional star for Peckinpah, the unease, the loathing and anguish that pervaded the mood of his movies was something he knew: “Somebody once said to me that Sam looked like someone stalking an animal much larger than himself… and I think that animal was violence.” Most artists aren't prepared to expose themselves. Peckinpah always did.
Straw Dogs (1971) and Straw Dogs (2011) are available now on DVD. For more on Peckinpah check out David Weddle's book '“If they move…Kill 'Em,” The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, Grove Press, 1994.