The Nature of Violence: Classic Peckinpah

STRAW DOGS (1971) U.K.  118 mins.  Dir. Sam Peckinpah  STARRING: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, Jim Norton, and David Warner

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner in "Straw Dogs"

Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 controversial classic Straw Dogs could be called a horror film. Yes, the horror being what a man is capable of when pushed passed his limits. It is a movie that could be written off as pure exploitation. After all, Sam Peckinpah revolutionized cinema in the 1960s with graphic violence in his films, such as the acclaimed revisionist western The Wild Bunch. His movies reflect the themes of masculinity expressed through retaliation with violence. Straw Dogs is no exception. Some call it pornography. This is nothing but a reasonable judgment considering the explicit sexual violence present in the film. And yet, one would have to wonder about the story behind a film that was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years.

The plot concerns a timid, American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman in arguably his best performance) and his attractive, young wife Amy (Susan George) as they move into a home in the countryside in her native England. David is continuously harassed by the locals, and he refuses to take any action. After his wife is raped (in a controversial scene) the film changes course. The disappearance of a teenage girl and the hunt for a child murderer sets off a chain of events that push David over the edge, and take him on a vengeful killing spree.

Dustin Hoffman, left, and Susan George, right, in "Straw Dogs"

This sounds like a very ugly movie, and it is. Straw Dogs is an unforgiving, unflinching look at the violent impulses within oneself. Its characters are unsympathetic. Even the protagonist, by the end of the film, is reduced to a brute himself. In many ways, the film is uncertain of exactly what it wants to achieve. There are no morals (typical of a Peckinpah picture). It is reminiscent of a western: a story of a man in a lawless land who must adapt to survive. The film takes no sides, there isn’t a right or wrong: each character pursues his or her own appetite, whether the circumstances are reasonable or not.

I came to this film expecting some fun, action-packed early 70s movie (this is Peckinpah after all). Boy, was I surprised. I found myself put off by a film that seemed pointless. It was without direction. The plot of the film went nowhere, and I felt strongly that Peckinpah wasn’t sure of what kind of movie he wanted to make. I felt like I had just seen a sick, stupid film. A week later, I rewatched Straw Dogs and I loved it. The performances were only better. The infamous rape scene (in which Susan George’s characters begins to enjoy the rape) bothered me as it hadn’t before. I suppose it had to do with not the betrayal of her husband, but with the ultimate surrender of herself to what she knew was inevitable. At the end of the film I was left unsettled at the sight of a bloodied Hoffman standing among a festival of corpses, smiling. “I Got em’ all.”

Susan George as Amy

Peckinpah seems to have quite an appetite for carnage, and he appears to have succeeded in making the ultimate “bad-ass movie”. But it wouldn’t quite be fair to judge a film on how disgusting or violent it is. We may be taken aback, but all that does is bring into further question what we have just seen. I don’t think Straw Dogs is an exploitation film. The dialogue is too rich and the character development is so deep. Bloody Sam clearly knows what he’s doing. Every shot is carefully planned. No car chases or gunfights are added for effect. Each action that takes place is relevant to the plot, in one way or another. In the climax, our hero willingly lets a small situation escalate to ridiculous lengths in order to prove himself a man. The bloodbath that would ensue could easily have been avoided. But then, we wouldn’t have a movie.

The ending scene of the film, my favorite in the whole picture, involves Hoffman and the (unbeknownst to him) child murderer Henry Niles he has hidden in his attic for the last thirty minutes of film. David Sumner has succeeded in defeating his intruders and proceeds to drive an injured Niles back into town.  As they drive down the dark, foggy road, Niles says, “I don’t know my way home.” David looks over at him and smiles. “It’s ok. I don’t either.”

So there it is. Straw Dogs is potentially a great film; of course it depends on how the viewer chooses to interpret it. It is a savage film, and that may be enough to limit its audience.

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3 responses to “The Nature of Violence: Classic Peckinpah

  1. Yes, I like the word ‘potentially’. Being British, I always felt the movie was held back by some rather stodgy acting, with Del Henney leading the way. Hoffman, to me, was an odd choice in the role, I never felt comfortable with his characterisation. Of course, he was lesser known then, but I just had a believability issue there. The meek shall inherit the earth? Not if Peckinpah has his way, they won’t…!

  2. That rape scene still sticks in my mind, which is a good thing (not meaning to sound weird). It has a true look and feel of a great revenge film, and something I would do, if pushed to the limits.

  3. Still need to see Straw Dogs.

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