If there has ever been a more over-interpreted and misinterpreted film than director Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 drama Straw Dogs, I’ve yet to encounter it. Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey have had more ink spilled over them, but most of the ideas tossed about are on the money and far less is read into them. Also, those two classics have one big thing going for them that Straw Dogs does not. They are great films.
Co-written by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman from from Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, Straw Dogs is neither as good a film as its hagiographers claim – for Peckinpah had all the subtlety and psychological depth of a sledgehammer – nor as irredeemable a bit of pornography as it detractors insist. Above all, it is a dull and mediocre work.
Dull is not a word that has likely ever appeared in a review of Straw Dogs, but what else can one call a film that telegraphs its ending in the first twenty minutes and that has all the realistic character development of a Warner Bros. Road Runner cartoon? Excuse me: Let me rescind that. Wile E. Coyote, at least, plumbs some true existential angst.
By contrast, the nearly two-hour-long Straw Dogs is not even that innovative; it’s certainly not “naturalistic,” either, for the ultra-violence it depicts was done better – and more realistically – that same year in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and earlier by Peckinpah himself in The Wild Bunch and by Arthur Penn in Bonnie and Clyde. Additionally, the Straw Dogs scenes of cretins trying to break into the lead characters’ home are pale echoes of both George Romero’s masterful low-budget Night of the Living Dead and the Vincent Price horror classic The Last Man on Earth (later remade as the Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man).
The revenge theme, for its part, was done more engagingly in Wes Craven’s campy feature debut Last House on the Left and with more depth in the film that inspired Craven, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Straw Dogs, however, would be followed by other films showing increasingly stylized violence, among them Deliverance (1972), Death Wish (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976), all with different styles and artistic merits.
Not helping matters, the politics and psychology found in Straw Dogs are badly dated. This is especially true of the infamous “double rape” scene. Compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, released a few months later, the motivations offered in Peckinpah’s film seem downright silly – something especially noteworthy since Hitchcock built a career on pseudo-scientific Freudian motivations for his criminal characters, but abandoned all that for realism in his underappreciated 1972 gem.
Not surprisingly, the misinterpretations of Straw Dogs start with the title. It is commonly assumed that Peckinpah took the title from a passage from the Tao Te Ching:
Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.
The straw dogs referred to were tiny effigies used in ceremonies that were burnt and discarded at the end. But if this is the true source, the title is rather lame for none of the characters in the film serve any vital role in any ritual.
Also, linking mediocre art to greater source material is a standard way for many artists try to cover their failures with a patina of depth. A more likely provenance for the title comes from the simple colloquial American slang that a straw dog is a seemingly frightening thing that turns out to be not all that frightening – i.e., a dog whose proverbial bark is worse than its bite. This interpretation gives the title an added irony that seems more in keeping with Peckinpah’s temperament. After all, the film’s bespectacled lead character, the mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), ends up having a bite far worse than his almost nonexistent bark.
Yet, even if the title can be seen in a deeper and more ironic light than most critics give it credit for, Straw Dogs fails because Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman’s screenplay is much too sloppily written. The tale is larded with one-dimensional caricatures – especially the cretinous male townsfolk who sing songs of sex with sheep and are fascinated with rats – implausible action, and a male fantasy character in the form of David’s blonde, nubile, big-breasted English wife Amy (Susan George).
Dustin Hoffman in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs
Worse, the acting does absolutely nothing to liven up the bad writing, as Dustin Hoffman turns in what may well be his worst performance until the ridiculously bad Rain Man. As the story goes, Hoffman loathed Straw Dogs and took the part only for the money; that seems quite apparent on-screen. Susan George is just another blonde bimbo, despite some critics’ attempts to make her performance seem notable. While watching Straw Dogs, ask yourself this: Is there any scene in which George appears that one could not imagine any other actress doing as well or better?
The actual plot is quite slight: The Sumners have left the U.S. for Amy’s Cornish hometown, but he is resented by the xenophobic locals; the ostensible reason is that he is a nebbish American who has bagged a local goddess who had spurned a former beau, Charley Venner (Del Henney).
Amy is a terminal flirt who wears no bra, struts her stuff in front of the local troglodytes, going as far as flashing her lovely breasts out a window at Venner’s workmen pals. But since she is a local, should she not know that they are lustful monsters? Does this not suggest that she wants both their attention and the violence concomitant with it? Or is she really as dumb as she seems?
David seems to be a wimp who has no convictions on politics – such as the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam War – which the locals query him on. Those locals include Venner’s cretinous pals Cawsey (Jim Norton), Riddaway (Donald Webster), and Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison), in addition to the patriarch of a sick family, Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan), whose teen son Bobby (Len Jones) and teen daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) are incestuously involved and enjoy voyeuring on the Sumners.
Janice also apes Amy’s over-the-top sexuality by showing off her younger charms and trying to seduce the local idiot, Henry Niles (an unbilled David Warner), who was once guilty of molesting young girls, and whose brother John (Peter Arne) has avoided institutionalizing him.
Tom Hedden loathes the Niles clan, even though his family is just as sick. In fact, all of the English villagers, including Amy, are sick in some way. This fact shines through in her claims that she hates being ogled while doing everything to encourage it. The lone exception to this seemingly genetic inbreeding is the town constable, Major John Scott (T. P. McKenna).
Amy tries to spur David to act more manly; this is especially true after the locals kill the Sumners’ cat and hang it in their closet. Some critics claim David killed the cat, but it’s clear from his initial reaction to it that he is wholly unaware of what happened, for it is the same visceral reaction he had to earlier violence at the local bar.
Amy subverts his attempts to corner the workmen into admitting their deed, and in reaction he accepts their invitation to go bird hunting the next day. This is when Venner goes to the Sumner home and the infamous “rape scene” occurs. Actually, Venner does not rape Amy – just as Sean Connery doesn’t rape Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie.
It is a classic violent sex/seduction act. She says no, but her body says yes as she leans up against Venner, rubbing against him. When he rips her robe and tosses her to the couch, she simply lies there and makes pouty lips at him before writhing her body to accept his thrust – long before one could declare such an action a mere physical response to orgasm. She neither screams nor resists, getting even more passionate as the violence rises. (Feminists may not like it, but many women do get turned on by rough sex in which a man dominates them, especially after they’ve put up token resistance.)
When Venner penetrates Amy she has visions of sex with David; after he comes they lay side by side, cuddling. This is not a rape. She loved the sex, and only hated herself for loving it, considering that Venner is more overtly manly than David – right down to his brawny chest hair.
When Venner is done, however, he does indeed become an accessory to rape when his buddy Norman wields a gun and Venner holds Amy down as Norman sodomizes her. Only during this scene is she being fully resistant.
But we have seen Amy at her worst: the eternal cock tease and harridan who loves emasculating her husband; the faithless wife who invites violent sex to “get back” at David’s impotence (if not sexually, then emotionally); and then the bitch who gets her comeuppance when Venner assists his crony in sodomizing her. Of course, all the men in the film will get far worse than Amy does, but feminists apparently stopped watching the film at this point, content that they had “proof” of both the film’s and director’s intent.
Dustin Hoffman in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs
The ending is famed, and justly so. In the car, Henry says, “I don’t know my way home” David smiles and says, “That’s okay, I don’t either.” If only the rest of the film had the subtlety and enigmatic poesy of that ending, Straw Dogs would truly be the masterpiece its acolytes proclaim.
It’s not, for a number of reasons aside from the trite characters and plot. In fact, not even John Coquillon’s cinematography, and the film editing by Paul Davies, Roger Spottiswoode, and Tony Lawson are not up to earlier Peckinpah standards. Jerry Fielding’s Oscar-nominated score neither heightens nor distracts, thereby rendering it functional at best.
Something else worth noting is that in Straw Dogs the use of slow motion is not nearly as effective as in The Wild Bunch because it merely extends the lame situations, rather than focus on the pain. For instance, when Venner and David fall down a stairwell struggling over his rifle, there is simply no need for it because:
a) the scene is in the dark,
b) it releases some of the adrenaline the scene has been building before the climax
c) it’s simply not filmed that well.
Similarly, when Venner slaps Amy before their sex scene there is no reason for the use of slow motion because it neither detail her pain nor eroticize her body.
The Criterion Collection’s two-disc DVD is a good package, but with some clunker features. Disc One has Straw Dogs – a good transfer in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio – plus, for unknown reasons, an isolated music and effects track, and a terrible commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince. Prince’s commentary, in fact, may be the worst I’ve ever heard, even worse than Annette Insdorf’s execrable work on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. It’s as if every bad critic of the last several decades has been distilled into Prince’s inane monologue.
There isn’t a single aspect of Straw Dogs that he does not misinterpret, even when the evidence contradicts him on-screen; Prince is not interested in objective analysis, but in the hagiography of a film he calls a masterpiece. For instance, he parrots Peckinpah’s claim that David is the villain of the film. Why? Well, neither director nor critic can explain that, but it sounds provocative and it is the sort of red herring that artists like to toss out to the stolid to feed their interest in art that otherwise does not engage on its own merits. Thankfully, he does reject the idea that David is the Machiavellian cat killer who manipulates all the violence in the film.
Unfortunately, however, Prince does buy into the noxious notion that all art is a biographical corollary to the artist; i.e., that David is somehow a representation of Peckinpah, his own rages and fears of masculinity, and his own ambivalence toward marriage. Likewise, he takes a hard line on Venner’s supposed rape of Amy, mouthing the usual banalities and misinterpretations even though, as stated above, what takes place is clearly not rape.
Disc Two is better. It has all the supplements, including the 82-minute documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron; a 26-minute vintage film of Dustin Hoffman on the set of Straw Dogs; behind-the-scenes footage; interviews with Susan George and the film’s producer, Daniel Melnick; selected correspondence between Peckinpah and both his viewers and his critics (Time magazine’s Richard Schickel and The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael); as well as three TV trailers and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
The booklet insert comes with André Leroux’s 1974 interview with Peckinpah, and an essay by Joshua Clover, which is almost as bad as Prince’s commentary. At one point he even claims the following:
One might do best by calling it a war movie; Straw Dogs is unthinkable without recourse to Vietnam. Made in 1971, little illusion left about the nature of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, the movie invokes the conflict namelessly almost from the start. The campus troubles Amy and the “uncommitted” David have left behind can be nothing other than anti-war protests.
This is a patent absurdity. It’s like claiming Paradise Lost is a critique of Cromwellian England, while lacking supporting evidence. Merely because David has left the U.S., and is an American in a foreign land does not evoke Vietnam War parallels, for he is not a Colonialist. Well, David has also gotten a grant, which could have had residency requirements; plus he’s simply a White Liberal type with a penchant for travel, as we learn. But even if we accept that he came to England to avoid the draft or make a political statement, the rest of the demented violence of the Cornish locals has no direct parallels to Vietnam. None.
In his defense, Clover is not the only critic who has butchered their interpretation of the film. The infamous Pauline Kael loved Straw Dogs, but mislabeled it “fascist,” as if a band of local loonies are the equivalent of a nationwide junta, while many of her female acolytes condemned both the film and the director for “misogyny.”
Even the powerful Roger Ebert muffed his criticism of the film. While he correctly thought it one of Peckinpah’s weaker efforts, especially when compared to The Wild Bunch, his reasons were unfathomable. Ebert wrote: “The most offensive thing about the movie is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel.” The very thing that sticks out about Straw Dogs, however, is that it is amoral. The characters are shown doing crazy and violent things, but with little consequence for their behavior. That is not hypocrisy, it is anarchy.
Overall, Straw Dogs is well-crafted, but lacks any real depth; it is especially wan when one considers all the decades of intervening cinematic treatises on violence. In truth, Peckinpah was simply not that profound a filmmaker. In a sense, he was a more barbaric version of Alfred Hitchcock, who was similarly fascinated with violence – though Hitchcock’s films were generally less scattershot in quality than Peckinpah’s. Neither man, I might add, had the depth to truly plumb artistic greatness. If they ever achieved it, however briefly, it was by sheer happenstance, not by design.
Its own self-importance, in fact, is what makes Straw Dogs far less enjoyable than, say, Last House on the Left or Night of the Living Dead. The former is so silly and unpretentious that its images and violence lodge in the viewers’ mind – such as the infamous fellatio-biting scene – while the latter relentlessly depicts inexplicable violence.
Straw Dogs should have been more grounded in reality, or more campy, or more straightforward in its naked bile for mankind. As it is, it sits on the fence while being so predictable that it becomes tedious. There’s not a moment where this viewer could get into any of the characters and identify with them – let alone care for their fate.
Also, note that Peckinpah will show the beginning of acts of violence, but never the results – e.g., we see no real penetration of Amy, and we do not see David’s brutality. The camera always looks away, even when he is tossing grapefruits at his cat. While this may seem commendable on the director’s part, it also neuters the visceral effect of the violence so that we get in effect a serial killer of a film tidied up for children, showing all the “fun” of violence with none of the consequences. Thereby, Peckinpah’s set-up is not a statement of ethics, but merely a poor artistic choice.
Shock filmmaker David Fincher (Fight Club), a manifest Peckinpah acolyte, once said, “I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again.” Well, aside from his love of a rather routine Steven Spielberg thriller (and the director seems to have gone all downhill since then), Fincher’s dictum is not met here, for even the controversy of the alleged “double rape” and the violent ending seem nowadays to be much ado about very little.
In short, controversy does not always equate with quality; Straw Dogs feels increasingly like a puerile attempt to shock viewers (something it no longer does) despite its pretensions of offering something deeper. Ultimately, it is no more than a passable B-movie with a pedigreed director and A-movie production values.
Not a single image sticks out in this viewer’s mind, not even the film’s blurred opening of kids in a playground – which quotes Peckinpah’s earlier The Wild Bunch. And when an artist cannot at least equal his earlier glories, that’s a sure sign of a lesser work of art no matter how one interprets the piece’s inner workings.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Director: Sam Peckinpah.
Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman & Sam Peckinpah.
From Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman. Susan George. Peter Vaughan. T.P. McKenna. Del Henney. Jim Norton. Donald Webster. Ken Hutchison. Len Jones. Sally Thomsett. Robert Keegan. Peter Arne.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.