Straw Dogs is a 1971 psychological thriller directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman andSusan 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.
David Sumner, an American mathematician, comes to live with his glamorous young wife, Amy, in her hometown, a small village in a remote part of Cornwall, England.
Amy's return is of particular interest to her ex-boyfriend, Charlie Venner, and his cronies, Norman Scutt, Chris Cawsey and Phil Riddaway, who are immediately resentful of the outsider who has married one of their own. David hires the men to carry out repairs to the isolated farmhouse he and Amy have rented, Trenchers Farm. Tensions in the Sumners' marriage soon become apparent-explicitly so when Amy stands topless in a window in full view of the workmen.
When Amy discovers their dead cat hanging by a light chain in their bedroom closet, she claims the workmen are responsible. She presses David to confront them, but he refuses. Later, the men invite David to go hunting in the woods with them. During the hunting trip, the workmen take him to a remote forest meadow and leave him there with the promise of driving the birds towards him. Having ditched David, Charlie Venner returns to the couple's farmhouse, where he initiates sex with Amy. She at first resists but eventually appears to submit, repeatedly embracing and kissing him. As Amy and Charlie lay together, Norman Scutt enters silently and forces Venner at gunpoint to hold Amy down while he rapes her in a sequence far less ambiguous as Amy screams and struggles to break free, to no avail.
The next day, David, who is seemingly unaware of his wife's ordeal, fires the workmen. 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 mentally handicapped Henry Niles, a local villager. They take Henry to their home. David phones the local pub to explain about the accident. However, earlier that evening Niles had accidentally strangled a flirtatious young girl from the village, Janice Hedden. 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. The local magistrate, Major Scott, arrives to deal with the situation, but is accidentally shot dead by Tom. David realises that he, Amy and Niles are now in mortal danger, and prepares to defend his household.
David throws boiling cooking oil onto the locals, stunning them temporarily. He then turns some music on loudly so as to make his footsteps inaudible. Tom enters the house, armed with his shotgun, but David forces the gun down with the fire poker, making Tom accidentally blow his own foot off. As he goes to turn the lights on, David spots Chris Cawsey in the living room. After a brief but tense standoff, David manages to beat Cawsey to death with the fire poker. At this point, the music has ended, and Venner approaches with a shotgun. Before he can shoot David, they hear Amy screaming for help. They investigate and find Norman attempting to rape her again. Realising Venner intends to kill him, Norman begs to be killed; Venner complies and shoots his best friend dead. Immediately after, David wrestles the gun out of Venner's hand and manages to kill his wife's rapist by ensnaring Venner's head in a bear trap. As David and Amy relax, Phil Riddaway appears and attempts to kill David, only to be shot dead by Amy. With the mob taken care of, David drives Niles back to town.
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 that in the novel 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.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 91% of 33 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 8.3/10. The consensus reads: "A violent, provocative meditation on manhood with some of the most controversial scenes ever shot for a mainstream movie". Roger Ebert ofThe Chicago Sun-Times rated it 2/4 stars and described the film as "a major disappointment in which Peckinpah's theories about violence seem to have regressed to a sort of 19th-Century mixture of Kipling and machismo." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "a special disappointment" that is "an intelligent movie, but interesting only in the context of his other works." Variety wrote, "The script (from Gordon M. Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm) relies on shock and violence to tide it over weakness in development, shallow characterization and lack of motivation." Entertainment Weekly wrote that the contemporary interpretation was that of a "serious exploration of humanity’s ambivalent relationship with the dark side", but it now seems an "exploitation bloodbath". Nick Schager of Slant Magazine rated it 4/4 stars and wrote, "Sitting through Peckinpah's controversial classic is not unlike watching a lit fuse make its slow, inexorable way toward its combustible destination—the taut build-up is as shocking and vicious as its fiery conclusion is inevitable." Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote, "Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is a movie that has remained important to me for 40 years. Along with Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs stands as a transgressively violent, deeply '70s film; one that still retains its power to shock after all these years."
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. Author Melanie Williams, in her 2005 book, Secrets and Laws: Collected Essays in Law, Lives and Literature, stated, "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, in that every appearance of Janice and Amy is used to highlight excessive sexuality.
The violence provoked strong reactions, many critics seeing it 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. Dustin Hoffman viewed David as deliberately, yet subconsciously, provoking the violence, his concluding homicidal rampage being the emergence of his true self; this view was not shared by director Sam Peckinpah.
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.
The studio edited the first rape scene before releasing the film in the United States, to earn an R rating from the MPAA.
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 in 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.