From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Straw Dogs is a 1971 film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. A dark, psychological domestic drama, the screenplay by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman is based on the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams. Controversial to this day, the film is noted for its violent concluding sequences and a complicated rape scene that critics point to as an example of Peckinpah's (and Hollywood's) misogyny. Released theatrically the same year as A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and Dirty Harry, the film sparked heated controversy over the perceived escalation of violence in cinema. It is considered one of Peckinpah's greatest films.
David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a timid American mathematician, leaves the chaos of college anti-war protests to live with his young wife, Amy (Susan George), in her hometown of Wakely, a fictional village in Cornwall. Almost immediately, there is tension between the couple as David becomes immersed in his academic work and differing ideas regarding the nature of their relationship come to light: David wants the traditional division of tasks, with the man earning wages, and the wife satisfying his needs in the kitchen and bed. Amy wants greater participation from David if she's going to accept such a role: she wants him to perform all the traditionally male tasks, like fixing the toaster, but also to involve himself in her community.
Wakely locals, including rat catcher Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton), Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison) and Riddaway (Donald Webster), who are doing repair work on the couple's isolated farmhouse and Amy's former lover, Charlie Venner (Del Henney) show blatant resentment and suspicion toward David and his intellectual pursuits, taunting and harassing him. David discovers their cat strangled and hanging by a light chain in their bedroom closet. Amy claims the workmen did it to prove they could get into their bedroom and to intimidate David. She presses him to confront the villagers, but he refuses. David tries to win their friendship, and they invite him to go hunting in the woods the next day. During the hunting trip, the workmen take him to a remote forest meadow and leave him there with the promise they will drive the birds towards him. Having ditched David, Venner returns to the couple's farmhouse where he rapes Amy. Norman Scutt arrives, forces Venner by shotgun to hold Amy down (who doesn't see Scutt due to his silent entrance), and rapes her as well.
After several hours, David realizes he's been tricked and returns home to find a disheveled and withdrawn Amy. She does not tell him about the rapes. The next day, David fires the construction men, claiming that they have not worked enough and wasted time. Later that week, they attend a church social where Amy becomes distraught after seeing the men who raped her. David and Amy leave the social early, and, while driving home through thick fog, they accidentally hit the local village idiot Henry Niles (David Warner), whom they take to their home. David phones the local pub about the accident. However, earlier that evening Niles had accidentally strangled a flirtatious young girl from the village, Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett), and now her father, the town drunkard, Tom (Peter Vaughan), and the workmen looking for him are now alerted by the phone call to Niles' whereabouts.
Soon the drunken locals, including Amy's rapists, are pounding on the door of the Sumners' home. After a few minutes of their breaking the windows and hammering on the door, the local magistrate, Major John Scott (T. P. McKenna), arrives and after attempting to defuse the situation, is shot dead by Tom by accident. It's decided at that point that the father and the workmen agree that they cannot go back on what they've done, but only continue. David realizes that they will not allow anyone in the house to live and begins preparing to defend his home. First he heats two saucepans of cooking oil. Then, when one of the men attempts to unlock the window, he ties his hands together at knifepoint. As more men appear at another window, he scalds them with the boiling oil, temporarily incapacitating them. Then he lays down a large mantrap in his living room and sends Amy upstairs to hide.
When Tom and Cawsey enter and attempt to shoot him, he knocks the shotgun out of Tom's hands, causing it to fire and mangle the man's foot. He then engages in a fight with Cawsey, beating him to death with a fire poker. Finally, Charlie appears and holds David at gunpoint, but before he can shoot him, the two hear Amy screaming. As they both run upstairs, the fifth man, Scutt, is there. He tells Charlie to take David downstairs and kill him, so they can rape Amy again. Instead, Charlie shoots him and David begins to fight Charlie. As they reach the living room, David, despite Amy's pleas not to, kills Charlie by springing the mantrap over his head, crushing his neck. As David looks at the carnage around him, he murmurs "Jesus, I got 'em all." He is then attacked by another villager and, losing the struggle, asks Amy to fetch the shotgun and shoot him. Amy hesitates before retrieving the weapon and shooting the villager. David is driving Niles to town when the latter turns and says, "I don't know my way home." David smiles and replies, "That's okay. I don't either."
- Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner
- Susan George as Amy Sumner
- Peter Vaughan as Tom Hedden
- T. P. McKenna as Major John Scott
- Del Henney as Charlie Venner
- Jim Norton as Chris Cawsey
- Donald Webster as Riddaway
- Ken Hutchison as Norman Scutt
- Len Jones as Bobby Hedden
- Sally Thomsett as Janice Hedden
- Robert Keegan as Harry Ware
- Peter Arne as John Niles
- Cherina Schaer as Louise Hood
- Colin Welland as Reverend Barney Hood
- David Warner as Henry Niles
Straw Dogs received generally positive reviews; review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes currently holds a 93% 'fresh' rating.
The film was controversial on its 1971 release, mostly because of the prolonged rape scene that is the film's centerpiece. Critics accused director Peckinpah of glamorizing rape and of engaging in misogynistic sadism, especially disturbed by the scene's ambiguity — after initially resisting, Amy appears sympathetic toward her rapist, although later she has traumatic flashbacks. Peckinpah's defenders claim the scene was unambiguously horrifying, that Amy's trauma was truthfully portrayed.
The violence provoked strong reactions, many critics seeing an endorsement of violence as redemption, and the film as fascist celebration of violence and vigilantism, while others see it as anti-violence, noting the bleak ending consequent to the violence. Director Peckinpah defended Straw Dogs as an exploration (not an endorsement) of violence, that was purging him of obsessions with violence resulting from human inability to communicate; that David is the story's true villain — deliberately, yet subconsciously, provoking the violence, his concluding homicidal rampage is his true self.
In 1984, Straw Dogs gained more notoriety in the UK after the British Board of Film Classification banned it per the newly-introduced Video Recordings Act, because of Amy's violent rape. The film had been released theatrically in the United Kingdom, gaining an 'X' rating in 1971, and an 18 rating for the cut version in 1995. In 1999, a partially cut version of Straw Dogs again was refused a license, the BBFC objecting to what it considered "the clear indication that Amy comes to enjoy being raped".
On July 1, 2002, Straw Dogs finally was certified unedited on VHS and DVD. This version was uncut, and therefore included the second rape scene, in which the BBFC's opinion "Amy is clearly demonstrated not to enjoy the act of violation". The BBFC noted that:
- "The cuts made for American distribution, which were made to reduce the duration of the sequence, therefore tended paradoxically to compound the difficulty with the first rape, leaving the audience with the impression that Amy enjoyed the experience. The Board took the view in 1999 that the pre-cut version eroticised the rape and therefore raised concerns with the Video Recordings Act about promoting harmful activity. The version considered in 2002 is substantially the original uncut version of the film, restoring much of the unambiguously unpleasant second rape. The ambiguity of the first rape is given context by the second rape, which now makes it quite clear that sexual assault is not something that Amy ultimately welcomes.