Straw Dogs (1971)
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna, Del Henney, Jim Norton, Donald Webster, Ken Hutchison, Len Jones, Sally Thomsett, Robert Keegan, Peter Arne, Cherina Schaer, Colin Welland, David Warner
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Expectations: High. I’m very excited to see this.
Having just read The Siege at Trencher’s Farm, I was thoroughly excited to watch Straw Dogs for the first time. It’s a very well-regarded film of Sam Peckinpah’s and one that is always mentioned when talking about his best work. I knew going in that the film diverged quite a bit from the book, but I had no idea just how off the rails it got. Instead of the taut, thrilling tale that the book tells, Straw Dogs is mostly a very boring and meandering film, and one that simply does not do the book justice.
David Sumner and his wife Amy have temporarily moved to the English countryside of Amy’s youth so that David can finish his mathematics book. He’s working on some deep shit and needs the peace and quiet to sort out his thoughts. A few of the able-bodied townsmen, including one of Amy’s old flames, are building the couple a garage and clearing out the rat infestation in the old farmhouse. Tensions run high between David and Amy because David is focusing all his time on his work when she would rather have that focus pointed squarely on her.
Reading the book prior to watching this is something of a blessing and a curse for this film. On one hand, it made me frustrated and I questioned why everything was changed or re-ordered in the film. On the other hand, without reading the book, I don’t think I ever would have made it through the whole thing because it’s so painfully boring and aimless in its first hour. As I stated in my review of the book, the first few chapters of it are slow and methodical, skillfully setting up the rest of the events but not always the most exciting reading. If this property had carried over to the film, perhaps it would have been better, but because of all the additional scenes and overall changes, this boring intro section lasts till nearly eighty minutes into the movie. WTF.
Let’s talk about the film’s controversial nature, specifically the rape scene. The book has no rape scene so one would expect that its inclusion here would have a meaning or purpose within the framework of Peckinpah’s version of the story. If there was any meaning to be garnered from it other than “women need to be pushed down and told what to do” then it is lost on me. This is the worst part of the book, the minor misogynistic theme, amplified to the nth degree and for no good reason. It’s disgusting and has no reason to be there, playing out more as a sicko’s pornographic fantasy than anything else.
And oddly enough, the violence in the filmed version is actually toned down from the book! I was shocked. The kills are very over-the-top for the time and blood sprays bountifully from the wounded, but at the end of the day it’s nothing compared to the contained rage and emotion handed out in the book. David’s transformation into a determined protector of his home is never fully realized here as he stops to quietly contemplate virtually every act of violence he commits, and in the end he has to depend on his wife to save him in the final moments! In the book he gouges the last motherfucker’s eyes out!
Another very irritating aspect of the film was how Peckinpah decided to handle the character of Niles. In The Siege at Trencher’s Farm, Niles escapes from a mental institution, where he is held for life because he had raped and murdered some little girls many years earlier. He is mentally handicapped with the mind of an eight-year-old, so his punishment was not death as it normally would have been for any man fully in control of his faculties. In Straw Dogs, Niles is just the village pedophile and seemingly sane and able-minded. He’s not even in the movie much until Peckinpah decides to move along with the book’s storyline eighty minutes into the film. Anyway, the book’s character never does anything other than get caught in the middle, and because of his illness, it’s a true moral dilemma for George and the reader. In the film Niles clearly assaults two girls so the viewer cannot get behind David’s responsibility to protect him. In the upbeat and odd ending, David smilingly drives off with Niles in the seat beside him. This conflict works in the novel because of the ambiguity, but in the film it makes no sense, unless the point is to once again hammer home that David is a fucking idiot, which is something that comes up often.
As for the filmmaking, I’ve never been much of a Peckinpah fan and this does nothing to change that. The final half hour is the best part of the film in terms of raw filmmaking skill and editing, but nearly everything up to that point is disjointed and boring bullshit. Sure, there’s an interesting shot here and there, but it’s hard to be impressed by one shining gem surrounded by so much shit. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Peckinpah himself is the reason why Gordon Williams’ book has been out of print for so long, knowing that reading it would instantly tarnish any reputation this film has for being good and/or classic.
I know a lot of people like this, but I’m just calling it like I see it, and what I saw was pretty awful. It all would have been so much better if it had stuck to the book’s perfectly plotted narrative and snowy setting, instead of investigating Peckinpah’s desire to forcefully rape the women of his past that turned him down. There’s a remake coming out soon too, and at first I was frustrated that they had the balls to remake this “classic”. Now having seen it, I’m still frustrated that they’re remaking it, but not for the same reasons. Now I’m just angry that they aren’t making a proper filmed version of the book I read. Argh, hopefully more elements of it will be used, but I won’t hold my breath.
Oh and the music that ironically garnered the film’s only Oscar nomination is fucking awful.
Consider me in the opposite camp, Will. Although I should clarify that I haven’t read the book that you refer to. Perhaps that actually helps in my appreciation of the film which I personally think it one of the most powerful ever made. A true masterpiece. Here’s my full review: http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/935
The book is great and much better than the film in my opinion. We’ll have to respectfully disagree because to me the film is anything but powerful. Your review is good and your observations are valid, but the film does nothing for me.
There is an obviousness to the themes Peckinpah explores, but seldom have those themes before or since been dealt with as viscerally and effectively. Hopefully the remake can at least do something like this, but probably not. Good Review Will!
Wow, good review… though I have to disagree with the outcome, Straw Dogs is phenomenal. I too like Dan have not read the original material. However I’m surprised you found it boring, the opening hour is rife with tension between both David and Amy and David and the locals. I love the whole play on English man’s home is his castle stuff and that the opening scene features a man trap which you know is going to be wrapped around someone at some point and not till the very end does Sam serve it up.
Here’s my review for what it’s worth, it’s somewhat less detailed than yours… http://reeleyes.wordpress.com/2011/08/31/359-straw-dogs/
Also regarding the rape scene, I saw this the other day from Brett Easton Ellis… https://twitter.com/#!/BretEastonEllis/status/110062705293012992
Love the site and more than happy to agree to disagree, after all that’s what it’s all about.
Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the review, and I am also fine with agreeing to disagree.
I honestly didn’t feel a lot of the tension in the first hour, but some of that might be attributed to having just read the book and my knowledge of what happens throughout the story. The film plays out in quite a different way than the book, and to me, is much less interesting. Also in the book, his wife is English but she doesn’t know the townspeople, so all of the tension is between George’s (David in the film) responsibility to his non-violent stance by protecting Niles & the invading townspeople. I don’t think that sexualizing his wife adds anything to the story. I don’t argue that the rape scene isn’t erotic in some way. It’s shot to be so, but I just take issue with Peckinpah’s decision to shoot it in such a way in the first place.
Hahahaha, I like your review. Much more to the point than mine! Thanks again for coming by and commenting!
Cool. Well we’ve sorted out Straw Dogs, what next?
I don’t know, we’ll think of something.
I also read the book before seeing the movie and I was also very dissapointed. I felt that Staw Dogs did nothing to capture the intensity and jeopardy that took place in the last half of The Siege at Trencher’s Farm. After reading the book it would be impossible to view Straw Dogs as something original and not consider it a very weak adaptation of a book that was brilliant.
All right, someone on my side! Totally agreed, the building intensity of the book’s siege is leagues better than the film. Thanks for coming by and commenting!