The Controversies of Straw Dogs 30 Years Later
“Bloody Sam” Peckinpah made a name for himself with his vicious western The Wild Bunch in 1969. After controversy surrounded his professional methods, he took to England to film Straw Dogs, a movie that 30 years later remains as controversial as the director himself. Straw Dogs is certainly a frustrating film to watch. Those familiar know that it’s generally praised or condemned for its content to two extremes: is it a misogynistic, self-fellating film or an insightful look at humanity’s savagery? Looking at it on its 30th anniversary I aimed to ask, why can’t it be both? The truth is that it is both – but not equally or without great fault. It is nearly impossible to separate Peckinpah’s tumultuous history in both his personal life and his films while still viewing his work with an objective lens. Still, while Straw Dogs employs brief insights into human behaviour, unfortunately it is failed by its disgusting portrayal of women, lack of any clear statement on violence, and its complicated and controversial rape scene.
Based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, by Gordon M. Williams, a wormy intellectual, David (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy Sumner (Susan George) move to a village in Cornwall, England where she grew up so he can focus on work and perhaps restore their relationship. It’s apparent there was trouble brewing in David and Amy’s marriage before we meet them and this is only exacerbated throughout the rest of the film. Dustin Hoffman is in his early glory as the awkward mathematician who somehow succeeds in maintaining just a modicum of likeability, at least to start. David is jealous and weak, peeking behind curtains and asking probing questions about Amy’s local ex-boyfriend. Amy in turn provokes and punishes; taunts David and makes work difficult while he demeans and neglects, consistently speaking to her like a child. They are mismatched on all levels, even when Amy approaches him sexually he deflects and never meets her urgency. “I love you Amy, but I want you to leave me alone.” he says, and Amy wants more than he is able to give. They criticize each other relentlessly, both giving a ridiculous view of marriage that will frustrate the hearts of even the closest lovebirds. But there is another cinder burning in the fire of the village and this heat has been felt long before the Sumners arrived. This is leaked through small glances and exchanges between the townsfolk mostly surrounding family drama and the locals’ tendency to take the law into their own hands. These two coals pressed together create a combustion in the last 20 minutes of the film where literally all of the infamous violence takes place.
Peckinpah notoriously had some trouble portraying women in his films, and his portrayal of Amy is maddening. In fact, any woman in Straw Dogs is shown exclusively to stimulate sexual desire: she is all legs, nipples out, with a coy smile and beckoning finger. She is temptress, seductress, and child all at once. Amy lingers topless in the window, skirt up in the car, and draws the lewd gaze from the local men working on their garage. Even her husband tells her she “shouldn’t go around without a bra and expect that type not to stare.” It’s the classic boys will be boys defense that has always allowed for such flagrant disrespect of women, the type repeatedly shown without merit in Straw Dogs. Susan George gives an earnest performance, doing her best to show us some semblance of the endearing woman she could be if treated right. When she isn’t pouting, Amy is insufferable, messing with David’s equations and provoking him to fight. If it isn’t she who is drawing the eye and frustration of her admirers then it’s little Janice Hedden roping in simple-minded Henry Niles, seducing him to touch her when David won’t give her the chance.
Like most films that feature one, Straw Dogs is famous for its controversial rape scene. Without room for interpretation, this is a very clear, very violent sexual assault despite earlier audiences contending that by welcoming men into her empty home and walking around naked, Amy invites them to claim she was “asking for it.” The handymen convince David to go hunting with them and, while he’s distracted, they head one by one to his home to rape Amy. First comes Charlie, her ex-boyfriend who has “had some of her before.” She offers him a drink before he begins to plaster himself on her. We all know this story; it’s part of so many of our own histories and the histories of our friends or sisters. She asks politely for him to leave, he refuses. She yells, he refuses. She hits him, he hits back. He drags her by her hair to the couch and rips the clothing off her body and rapes her while she protests and cries.
What’s is deemed most controversial about this scene is a moment where Amy seems to begin to enjoy the act. This likely has more to do with the American cut of the film to meet rating standards than anything else, but there it still opens room for discussion. I think it’s unfair and incorrect to suggest Peckinpah’s motive was to celebrate the act of rape, or claim that some women like it. It’s extremely obvious that Amy does not enjoy the subsequent assaults by the other men, she briefly appears to only during the one her ex-boyfriend Charlie commits. I think the director effectively considered and portrayed what an extremely complicated scenario it was. Most can agree it’s a hard scene to watch because of its realness; Peckinpah was showing a vulnerable and awful moment. Nobody can know what goes on inside Amy’s mind, but her behaviour does turn. Is it because she knows that there’s nothing she can do? Is it because she thinks he might treat her better and it will be over with sooner? Is she clutching to old memories of when they were together as a last resort? If we consider all possible angles, this scene in all its ugliness somehow shows a softer, more compassionate view of women (and the complexity of human emotion) than we’ve seen from the rest of the film.
What should be truly controversial is not that Amy appears to enjoy the rape, it’s that the scene exists at all! Ultimately it’s purpose is to eke along a weak narrative. In fact, the novel upon which the film is based doesn’t even include it. Regardless, Peckinpah deserves some recognition for astute scenes that follow to illustrate the trauma of rape which further indicates a glimmer of compassion and understanding in his heart. Cementing the fact that David and Amy are beyond meaningful connection, she refrains from telling her husband about the horrible crime she has been victim to. With a steady eye she faces her abusers all together in the town church for a celebration. Lambasted with flashbacks and physical reactions we join her despair and anxiety scored only by the sounds of the crowd and the maddening party noisemakers blown by happy children. This is the most sympathetic gaze given to any character throughout the film but it is brief and bitter, cut short by Janice who has lured Niles to some darkened barn to touch her underage breasts.
Something like this has happened before, and this enrages the men and off they go to take his head. In a mad dash of coincidence, David ends up hitting Niles with his car and taking him to the farmhouse to wait for medical attention. When the men realize where Niles is, they lose their minds to drink and anger and lay siege on the farmhouse with David and Amy inside. And so, Peckinpah shows us two types of masculinity and the power imbalance is phenomenal. There are the alpha-males in the village, resentful of David for his American way of life and for stealing a woman of their own. They hover like vultures over the Sumners while working on the garage and plot and scheme. Their potential for violence radiates out of their bodies as they lust after Amy and stare David down. At times it comes across like this is the type of man Amy wants. She calls David a coward, criticizes his inability to handle manual labour or confront the men for killing their cat. She openly challenges him in front of them when they already believe he is a joke. She constantly questions his masculinity with her words and behaviour, effectively calling him weak. In fairness, David is weak, but not just in his fear of confrontation. David is weak because his values and projected persona are completely false: by the end of the film he gives in to the violence and letting it go so far in the first place. If he was the intellectual and evolved man he claimed and wanted to be, his behaviour would not ultimately mirror that of the rapists: beating Amy, dragging her by the hair, threatening her life and imposing his will upon her while maniacally protecting the home. David resorts to violence in the end, murdering all of the men due to his own too late and skewed commitment to his values. When it comes down to it, he sacrifices more out of principle to save Niles from revenge than his own marriage or the happiness of his wife. A strong man would be neither like David Sumner nor the village men at all.
Some critics feel this film is a response to the recent emergence of “effeminate” men in the late ‘60s, suggesting this type of man is lesser and puts his family in harm’s way by avoiding physical force. Knowing that Peckinpah fancied himself a real “man’s man” who appreciated machismo, this seems possible. Still others believe that his motive was to show that when pushed into a corner like rats man will always rely on violence and that this is the most effective solution or a rite to masculinity. Early in the film there are some sharp statements about violence in America: “I hear it’s pretty rough in the states,” says one of the guys, “bombing, rioting, sniping, shooting the blacks, can’t walk down the streets, they say. Did you see anybody get [hurt]?” David replies with a humour that (rightly) none of them seem to grasp, “Just between commercials.” Unfortunately these types of strong, tongue-in-cheek statements are abandoned early out the gate. So maybe this isn’t a film that celebrates violence, but it doesn’t seem to say much at all with conviction. What does seem to come across is Bloody Sam’s relentless and violent anger. When you can see the personal wounds from other directors in their films, usually it is also evident that through their artform they have come to wrestle with them. Instead, Peckinpah appears to give us a look at the hideous skeletons in his closet and screams, “Do you like it?” When its not dressed up in a cowboy hat and sprawling across the Wild West with boyhood charm, I’m not sure I do. After confronting all of this, I’d still argue Straw Dogs is a must-see film for its distinctly ‘70s slow burn aesthetic, and Peckinpah should be respected for his incredible additions to the Western genre, if only for those hot controversies that have kept us talking for so long.
Featured Image: Cinerama Releasing Corporation