In Hazell Plays Solomon (which I reviewed here), the eponymous London PI ducks into a Leicester Square cinema for a break during a case. Even though the title is not given we are fairly sure that what is on the screen must be Straw Dogs, which was co-written and directed by Sam Peckinpah and based on The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams (reviewed here last week), not coincidentally also co-author of the Hazell books. Our hero doesn’t think much of the movie (“it was comic-cuts melodrama”), echoing his creator’s unhappiness with the adaptation, which is a shame because, for all its changes and clear faults, this controversial film is a memorable and often remarkable ‘Adults Only’ rumination on the dangerous allure of violence.
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog - you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected. I also submit it for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey – blog for links to the other participants’ reviews, click here.
“I care. This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house”
In the original book (which I reviewed here last week) the main couple are George and Louise Magruder and their marriage is clearly on the rocks right from the beginning. They try to make it through a tough winter at the back of beyond retreat that she has found for them in England while he works on his book but even their daughter’s presence can’t stop their incessant backbiting – he is an American and feels out-of-place, she is an Englishwoman who has come home except she isn’t from Cornwall so is a stranger too. He let her choose the place to try and make her happy but she just sees this as just another example of his abrogating his family responsibilities and not fulfilling his role as a ‘man’.
Dustin Hoffman and Susan George play the Magruder roles in the film, which have been changed in many ways. They are now named David and Amy Summer and are much younger than the prematurely middle-aged equivalents from the book – as a result the daughter has also been excised entirely. He is now a mathematician while Amy is a local Cornish girl who has returned home, which is a very smart idea as it focuses the drama considerably, making George / David even more of an outsider and his wife’s withdrawal from him easier to understand. The sexual politics of the film are much more outspoken than the book’s and more convincing, though neither gives a particularly enlightened perspective on the subject. The film is much subtler though and the first half of the film in particular paints a much more plausible and credible picture of an insecure young man and his dissatisfied wife who undermines him, reacting against his unwillingness to confront violent situations head on.
Amy is presented right from the start as sexually provocative, parading around town bra free and with a bare minimum of clothing, becoming the object of lustful and disapproving glances all round – she is also frustrated by her husband’s occasional condescension and superior tone despite the fact that he seems to be running away from his problems (it is implied that he is trying to avoid the Vietnam draft), pushing her away even sexually. This aspect of the story becomes personalised in the shape of Charley Venner (Del Henney), an old boyfriend of Amy’s, and a new character for the film version. Other major changes include the depiction of Niles, played without credit (due to an insurance wrangle) by David Warner. In the book he is the local bogeyman, responsible for the deaths of several children almost a decade before but found incompetent to stand trial. His escape from an asylum coincides with the disappearance of a local girl and triggers the siege that forms the crux of the story. In the book he is a sad and pathetic creature, well beyond harming anyone ever again. In the film however he is actually responsible for the death of the missing girl (in the book she turns out to be fine) - this makes the decision by David Summer to defend him even more equivocal and problematic. But then, this is a film that goes out of its way to make things as uneasy as possible for its audience, exploiting our desire for straightforward issues and resolutions but taunting us instead by making the viewing experience a much more complex and morally ambivalent one.
The plot of the book is followed fairly closely but emotionally this is a much tougher experience and with a more violent climax though, in fact, the body count is reduced. The film’s most talked about sequence however - one completely absent from the book – sees Amy raped by her old boyfriend. This is initially presented ambiguously to suggest that she may in fact be giving in willingly but this is cancelled out completely by the brutality of the latter part of the scene. The aim is to shock the audience but also render them complicit in the highly mixed signals of the story – in addition this is an event to which we are privy but David is not. This make us question further the applicability of the archetype of the man on the frontier defending his home and his wife from marauders, which the novel so explicitly evoked. Instead this raises the allegorical nature of the story by making it less clear just what it is that David is in fact defending – the man in question, the child murderer Niles, is certainly a monster while David and his wife seem to have little going for them as a couple; he doesn’t even realise the trauma she has undergone. And yet we would normally expect to be rooting for him – but should we?
“Ok, you’ve had your fun. I’ll give you one more chance, and if you don’t clear out now, there’ll be real trouble. I mean it”
Peckinpah, mainly a director of Westerns at this point, is a perfect fit for this material as his poetic and somewhat morbid sensibility is ideally suited to a story that is as much about the end of civilisation as a defence of its emblems. In the desire to make audiences really associate with the damage being wrought on the psyche of the protagonists, the film’s stance is much more ambiguous than that of the book - Peckinpah would later claim that David and Amy, as their ‘civilised’ exterior is ripped away, become in fact the villains of the piece, not Niles and not the marauding locals who are after him (led by the great Peter Vaughan) either. It is little wonder that original novelist Gordon Williams had so little love for this interpretation of his much more straightforward novel, not least for its controversial depiction of sexual violence, all the more powerful for its comparative tact in its on-screen presentation. It certainly remains the most contested aspect of the film and inevitably it created massive censorship problems - for decades in fact the film was not available on home video at all in the UK and other countries (for more on this, I recommend Stevie Simkins’ new book on the film in the ‘Controversies’ series published by Palgrave Macmillan (see here and here for more details).
When released in the UK, the film was vilified in the press and compared negatively with Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange, which was taken far more seriously as a comment on sex, violence and sexual violence in society. The lone contemporary critic to take a more nuanced view, and one that I completely concur with still, was Charles Barr who, in “Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics” (published in 1972 in Screen) brilliantly dissected the two film’s approaches. While the arty-ness and icy demeanour of Kubrick made the film more palatable to the intelligentsia by providing a distancing filter through various alienation effects, Peckinpah’s more immediate take on similar material is much more troubling. By engaging the viewer in the plight of the characters emotionally but then subverting standard responses to what might be considered right and wrong (in the movies at least), it takes a much tougher (and riskier) path in my view and in this regard at least deserves recognition for taking a more ambivalent point of view. In many ways the correct film to compare it to would be Deliverance, which was released the following year and which has much more in common with the Peckinpah movie and its visceral yet complex depiction of the human capacity for violence and in its unwillingness to plump for easy answers. This is carried right through to its ending, which seemingly resolves all its conflicts in an action climax and yet leaves the destiny of its characters completely open – these are the final lines of dialogue heard in Straw Dogs:
“I don’t know my way home”
“That’s okay. I don’t either”
It is a film that in this way rather than reinforce views about violence with detached and unthinking condemnation, challenges audiences by making them feel really uneasy with the depictions of sex and violence on screen, to really question their tolerance for such representations and therefore their own value system. The film is undeniably heavy-going but I believe worthwhile for those prepared to take a chance on very edgy material. It was remade forty years later, set now in America, and turned everything that was subtle and provocative in the original into a distressingly insipid and exploitative experience. I shall comment on it no further.
For additional writing on the book and the film versions, you would do well to read the articles posted over at Palimpsest, Indiewire, The Daily Rotation and Sound on Sight, as well as Martin Barker’s detailed analysis at Participations.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Daniel Melnick
Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography: John Coquillon
Art Direction: Ray Simm
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney, TP McKenna, Peter Vaughan, David Warner (uncredited)