Controversies: Straw Dogs

Author: Stevie Simkin

The 40th anniversary of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs has not gone unrecognised. This autumn an anniversary DVD was released with a heap of extras and there was even a (dreadful) remake recently released nationally at cinemas. Straw Dogs is included in the first round of publications about controversial films which have been released since the 60s. This series also includes such films as The Passion of Christ (1989), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1987) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Dubious praise indeed.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, this, as with the other titles in the series is an academic study of why the film became controversial, its making and production, how it was received critically in both the UK and the USA, the cuts it faced and its lasting legacy. Illustrated throughout, needless to say much of the book’s focus is on the controversies surrounding the rape scenes and Simkin studies what became known as the ‘rape myth’ (that in the first rape between Susan George’s character and her ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney), although she initially fights him off her expression after and even during indicates that she might be enjoying it). This scene, although not as graphic as history has led us to believe, is nevertheless a very troubling scene in that if it is exploitative it gives a very worrying view on what type of man the adventurous Sam Peckinpah is. Immediately following this act, Amy is raped again by Venner’s friends; this time she appears to be anally raped. There is clearly no acquiescence here and the rape is more brutal in character. Simkin’s book charts the struggle between Peckinpah and the young actress Susan George’s with the dual rape scene. The experienced director envisioned it one way while George fought to make it less exploitative. Elsewhere in the book Simkin goes into the background of Peckinpah’s film as well as the overall message, the very thing that was missed by many critics who saw the film as merely violent exploitation.

Dustin Hoffman, fresh from recent Hollywood successes, appears in his first British-set film – it’s somewhat strange to see him amidst the Devon locals. He plays David Sumner, a mathematician recently arrived from America with his new English wife Amy to live in the village she grew up in. The newlyweds are refurbishing her father’s farmhouse for them to settle into. They’ve left America to escape the violence enveloping the country following the unpopular Vietnam War and race riots. But the pair soon discover that the threat of violence is never that far away, even in what should be a rural idyll. And here’s the crux of Peckinpah’s film – miss this and you’re missing the point of the film – violence is never too far away, no matter where you try to escape too. Very much a zeitgeist film, Straw Dogs tackles the subject of violence head on and shows how the pacifist David Sumner turns from a peaceful man to someone who realises he must stand and fight.

Simkin looks at Straw Dogs in its socio-cultural and historical context, the production and the question marks that arose during it, and the various stages of censorship it went through. As with all the books in this series, this analyses the exact cuts that were made, why they were made and if they were ever restored. It also looks at the actual banning of the film (which often leads to a film gaining automatic cult status) as well as the cultural impact that these cuts and/or their inclusion makes. Following on from this, it looks at individual scenes in the film (principally the dual rape scene) but crucially also looks at the social climate in Britain and America at the time including the Vietnam War. The book concludes by looking at the history of rape revenge in cinema from such video nasties as I Spit on Your Grave (1978 and the 2008 remake) to more recent films as Wrong Turn (2003) and The Last House on the Left (1972). Strangely, what Simkin does seem to miss, however, is the aforementioned recent remake of Straw Dogs.

Despite this flaw, all in all this book flows somewhat better than other such similar books and makes a good, condensed and thorough study of the film.

Chris Hick

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