“Heaven and earth are ruthless and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs” I have ABSOLUTELY no fucking clue what this Chinese proverb means, but for some reason, the term “straw dogs” stuck with producer Daniel Melnick and legendary director Sam Peckinpah. Thus, they named their film “Straw Dogs” instead of “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm”, the name of the book that they adapted. And if you think about it, it’s a really wise decision since the original name is sorta sucky for a film of this magnitude.
Magnitude, I say? Yes, MAGNITUDE! For those unfamiliar with what “Straw Dogs” represents, you would have to go back in time. In 1969, Sam Peckinpah released his western/Vietnam War social commentary “The Wild Bunch” – arguably one of the best movies EVER MADE! However, most people didn’t think so when it first came out. It garnered controversy over its graphic violent content, which at that time, was never seen in a movie before. Two years later, he released “Straw Dogs” and boy, did that film PISS people off. The film itself represented an era in Hollywood where films began to literally “push the envelope” in terms of violence and sex. Two main examples were the dystopic sci-fi satire “A Clockwork Orange” (my second favourite film of all time) and “Dirty Harry” (that starred Clint Eastwood as a bad-ass cop with refuses to play by the rules).
Today, these classic films are praised more for their social commentary and less on their shock value. But it’s this shock value that leaves a permanent “CONTROVERSIAL” label on these films. And “Straw Dogs” is no different. Why did I decide to review this film, you ask? Well….
(a) Hollywood, for some strange fucking reason, decided to remake one of film history’s most controversial movies for a new generation. And I’m still wondering why. I haven’t seen this remake yet, but hopefully if I do, I’ll review it.
(b) I had hoped to view both the original and remake of “Straw Dogs” in a ridiculous attempt to ‘compare’ the two. But I think we all know which is the better film.
But what makes this film about straw dogs so effective and powerful? Well, for one thing, it isn’t about straw, dogs or Chinese philosophy! Confused? I’ll explain.
An American mathematician named David Sumner (played by a young Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (played by the attractive Susan George) live in a small English village called Cornwall. Like some guys, David is a timid man who hates violence and tries to stay away from trouble. Like most husbands, David focuses more on his work than on his wife. But this all changes when a group of male townsfolk are assigned to help repair David and Amy’s farmhouse. The guys taunt and tease David, and ogle at Amy. They even go as far as to (spoiler alert) RAPE Amy! Just when things couldn’t get any worse, the couple become trapped in their own home as a bigger group of male townsfolk, through a series of events, decide to attack them. The result is a final confrontation where David must now face the violence he has sworn to avoid, by becoming violent himself.
David Sumner – Dustin Hoffman
Amy Sumner – Susan George
Tom Hedden – Peter Vaughan
Norman Scutt – Ken Hutchinson
Henry Niles – David Warner
MY THOUGHTS: Seeing this film again after all these years made me understand what made it truly effective and powerful, and how it could be easily misunderstood. First and foremost, this film DOES NOT celebrate violence – physical or sexual. But it is VERY DIFFICULT to keep this in mind during the film’s disturbing scenes, especially the notorious rape scene. What made the scene notorious wasn’t the rape itself, but the implication that (GASP!) Amy ENJOYED IT! That scene pissed the hell out of viewers, and as a result, the film was banned in England. HOW IRONIC! But it is the complexities of the characters that makes “Straw Dogs” really work. These characters are human beings, and susceptible to both good and bad. This does not mean that we should accept the decisions that they made. There is no true hero or villain in the film. You’re not supposed to feel sympathy for the rapists when they are BRUTALLY killed in the film’s climax, but then again, you’re not supposed to really root for David when he BRUTALLY kills them. I had to put the word “brutally” in capital letters, because the deaths in this film are so shockingly violent (for a 1970s film) that even Macaulay Culkin, ex-child star of the home defense comedy “Home Alone”, would piss his pants! For a Peckinpah film, “Straw Dogs” is well-shot, well-paced, WELL-EDITED and well-acted. But of course, the best performance in the film belongs to Dustin Hoffman. His slow transformation from timid mathematician to bad-ass home defender is both amazing and powerful. And this is the point of the film. Everyone has a breaking point. And anyone, if pushed that far over the edge, can react violently. Yes, YOU TOO!
40 years later, “Straw Dogs” is still a disturbing, intelligent and powerful film. It isn’t meant to be loved. It was meant to be shocking. It was meant to make you think about it DAYS after you’ve seen it. And it will be the subject of debate for decades to come. If “The Wild Bunch” is Peckinpah’s best film, then “Straw Dogs” arguably deserves second place.
SHOULD I SEE THIS FILM? Obviously, this is not a film for everyone. But if you want to see a film that entertains (and I use this term loosely), shocks and makes you think, then I highly suggest that you see “Straw Dogs”. If you LOVE 1970s cinema like I do, then you should see this film. If you think thrillers these days are too reliant on gore and jump scares to truly scare an audience, then you should DEFINITELY see this film. And just so you know, the remake, which maintained the film’s sexual and violent content, was accused for celebrating the very same things it was supposed to demean. Talk about not getting the point!
MY RATING – 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Definitely see this movie”)