Saturday, September 17, 2011


Controversial filmmaker Sam Peckinpah forsook his traditional Old West setting for his sixth film "Straw Dogs" (***1/2 out of ****) to show how the most harmless milquetoast in the twentieth century could metamorphose into a man of extreme violence. Basically, Peckinpah explores the theme of survival of the fittest. British author Gordon Williams' novel "The Siege at the Trencher's Farm" served as the literary source. According to Peckinpah biographer David Weddle," Peckinpah did not like the Williams title so he changed it to "Straw Dogs." The Peckinpah title came from a quote in Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu's "The Book of 5,0000 Characters." The passage that Peckinpah cited was: "Heaven and Earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs: the sage is ruthless and treated the people as straw dogs. ... Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows?" According to Marshal Fine and Garner Simmons in their respective Peckinpah biographies "Blood Sam" and "Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage," actor Walter Kelly gave the director Tzu's quote. More than just the title changed as the filmmakers adapted the Williams novel. Initially, wrote Simmons, "Logan's Run" scenarist David Zelag Goodman penned two early drafts of the script. Goodman told Simmons about some of the differences between the novel and the film. Two of the minor changes concerned the protagonist; George Magruder was an English professor in the novel rather than an astrophysicist like David Sumner. The biggest change, however, was that no rape occurred in the novel. Furthermore, according to Simmons, Williams distanced himself from “Straw Dogs” because he hated Peckinpah's use of sex, not violence. Sex emerges as the stimulus for the conflict since two females in “Straw Dogs” are such nymphs that they are prepared to die for it.

Wimpy American mathematician David Sumner (a bespectacled Dustin Hoffman of "The Graduate") settles on a sabbatical in serene Cornwall, England, far away from the violence and unrest raging in America so he can work on a grant. When the villagers ask him if he has witnessed any of the turmoil in America, David replies that he only glimpsed the violence between the commercials on television. David's cryptic response and his subtle indictment of the media speaks volumes. The rustic British hamlet, where "Straw Dogs" takes place, was the hometown of David’s promiscuous wife Amy (Susan George of "Lola"), and their marriage appears to be deteriorating because his Lolita-type spouse wants him to pay more attention to her than the work with his equations on a blackboard in his study. Simmons quotes Hoffman who wasn't entirely sold on either the casting of Susan George as well as the notion that David would have wed such a selfish, shallow-minded dame. Indeed, the first time that we see Amy, she is traipsing through the village with no bra with an adolescent boy and girl following in her footsteps toting what appears to be huge steel-jawed animal trap. Apparently, Amy bought the trap as a birthday gift for her husband. Amy excites the locals with her no-bra-look. As it turns out, one of these locals is none other than her old boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney of "Brannigan") who Amy hasn't seen in six years. Charlie helps David load the man-trap into their convertible Triumph coupe. Ironically, Charlie will later on have a close encounter with the unwieldy contraption before fade-out. Moreover, Charlie foreshadows the use that the bear-trap is put to when he observes that it was designed to catch poachers.

David hires Charlie to help Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison of "Ladyhawke") complete the work on the roof of his garage on the basis that he knows Amy. What David has no way of knowing is that Amy and Charlie have a history as a couple. When Charlie makes a pass at Amy in the village, Amy deflects his advances, little knowing that David is watching them from the pub where he went to buy cigarettes. Meantime, these ruffians are more intent on watching Amy parade around bare-chested than perform their chores. At one point, Amy appears bare-chested so that they can see her and then she complains to David about how they practically licked her body. David's response is to acknowledge their good taste in women. Simultaneously, the locals are not sure about how to deal with David. They aren't too excited by David's preppy look, his white tennis shoes, and his glasses. Peckinpah makes a point of showing David's wardrobe from the perspective of one of the villagers. Of course, the local constable, Major John Scott (T.P. McKenna of "Red Scorpion"), and the Reverend Barney Hood (Colin Welland of "Villain"), treat David with kindness, but rough-hewn Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan of "The Mackintosh Man") and his relatives reserve nothing but contempt for him. Eventually, Tom's evil relatives and their friends take David on a duck hunting trip. Basically, the hunt amounts to a snipe hunt, such as in the classic Robert Mitchum movie "Home from the Hill," and they abandon him in the wilderness. During this subterfuge, Charlie and his mate, ex-convict Norman rape Amy. Earlier, Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton of "Hidden Agenda") stole a pair of Amy's panties and flaunted them like a trophy in front of Norman. Norman observed that he had no use for her panties. Instead, he preferred to have what was in them. First, Charlie rapes Amy in a lovingly tender fashion. Second, Amy looks like she is enjoying the experience. This is the part of "Straw Dogs" that outraged feminists. Later, when Norman gets his hands on Amy, Norman shares none of Charlie's tender sentiments. A conflicted Charlie finds himself holding down Amy so Norman can sodomize Amy while she shrieks in agony. Amy doesn’t forget the humiliation of being raped and suffers through it flashbacks during the church party. Meantime, a simpleton, Henry Niles (David Warner of "The Omen") arouses trouble because he was not jailed for a sex crime. Charlie mentioned to Amy that they take care of their own, and Henry is allowed to roam the streets as long as he stays out of trouble. Nevertheless, Henry is seen playing with the children at different times during the action. Everything comes to a head during the church party when Tom's slutty daughter Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett of "Baxter!") tries to take advantage of Henry after David wants nothing to do with her. Repeatedly, Tom has warned Henry's brother John Niles (Peter Arne of “The Pink Panther”) to keep an eye on his slow-witted brother. Says Tom, "Your brother; been hangin' around the girls again. You'd better keep a closer watch or we'll be puttin' him away!" This subplot is part of the narrative that Peckinpah and Goodman never provide much clarification about so that we know what Henry did that made him emerge as a threat to Tom.

The simple-minded Henry and Janice retire to a barn for their assignation. Clearly, poor Janice doesn’t realize that she is playing with fire. Henry kills her in a scene straight out of "Of Mice and Men" with a conspicuous lack of remorse. Later, on their way home from the church party, David collides with Henry because the road is shrouded in fog. Amy isn’t happy with David because he brings the injured Henry into their house. A drunken Tom and his mates show up at David's house and demand that he hand over Henry. David refuses and chaos ensues. When Major Scott tries to intervene, Tom kills him by accident and things degenerate into chaos. Amy wants David to hand over Henry to Tom and company, but our hero refuses. At the same time, he tries to maintain his nonviolence, but Tom and company sorely try him until he retaliates. David warns them in no uncertain terms. He says, "I will not allow violence against this house." By the time that the dust settles, Tom Hedden has blasted his own foot off with his shotgun. Charlie winds up killing Norman with Tom's shotgun, and Charlie stumbles into the man-trap as he is giving David a thorough thrashing. Indeed, everybody but David, Amy, and Henry survive this nightmarish fracas. Dustin Hoffman delivers a dynamic performance as a meek, mild-mannered man who achieves manhood during a baptism by fire. Peter Vaughn makes a nefarious villain. Vaughn's scene in the pub when David runs into him for the first time foreshadows Tom Hedden's sadism.

Several scenes stand out individually. First, Peter Vaughan's scene in the pub when he calls for another pint before the pub closes and then raises hell until he gets it sets him up as the chief thug. He doesn’t like David Sumner for the first moment that he sees him. The next interesting scene occurs when David careens in his Triumph between a truck and a bull dozer as the two approach each other. The villagers driving the truck flag David to pass them but then they accelerate so that he has to step on the gas to avoid hitting the bulldozer. Momentary though it is, this scene is exciting. Repeatedly, throughout the action, the villagers test David’s mettle. Peckinpah orchestrates the final quarter-hour for maximum suspense and tension. At this point, Peckinpah has established who the thugs are and their agenda. David has emerged as an individual who goes out of the way to avoid violence. When Tom and his mates launch their home invasion, David finds himself in a corner with his irritating wife goading him on to retaliate. The bloodiest that "Straw Dogs" gets is when a lout blows his foot to smithereens with his own double-barreled shotgun. Peckinpah foreshadows the use of a giant steel mantrap and his use of violence is still grisly but it seems toned-down but realistic compared with his classic western "The Wild Bunch." The ambiguous ending will prompt many interpretations. As David is driving the retarded Niles home, Niles says, "I don't know my way home." David replies, "That's okay, neither do I."

In some ways, "Straw Dogs" is reminiscent of those western movies where vigilantes storm a jail, abduct a prisoner from a lawman powerless to thwart them, and then lynch him. Watching Dustin Hoffman miraculously outsmart these five dastards makes this movie a sight to behold. Unfortunately, despite its lyricism, “Straw Dogs” was not a major Hollywood hit. Nevertheless, it showed that Peckinpah could make more than just westerns.