Sunday, 19 May 2013

Wild in the country… Straw Dogs (1971)

Oh, this is a tricky one. The vague premise of this blog is to review my dusty old VHS videos with a view to digitising/ upgrading to DVD or dumping… This is a remarkable film but will I ever want to watch it again? Straw Dogs is a very intelligent and superbly well-made but it’s also harrowing and cruel…a tale that forces the viewer in on themselves. It’s not comfortable.

So much has been made about the violent transition of the main character – played with brilliance by Dustin Hoffman – and especially the graphic rape scene(s) involving Susan George: they make or break your appreciation of the movie.

Del Henney and Susan George
George’s character, Amy, is involved in partially consensual sex with Charlie, a man who was formerly a boyfriend. He forces himself on her and she – shockingly – starts to enjoy the experience. Would anything she said have stopped her assailant? He goes way beyond permission but in the complex psychology of the moment she acquiesces – the tears from her eyes a mixture of guilt and pleasure… or is this the only way she can get through this? Peckinpah dares us to not look away…

Moments later, one of the gang turns up behind Charlie and, wielding a shotgun, does commit rape. It is unpleasant and very real, the camera unflinchingly close up on George’s agonised expression. Is this the director playing with our sympathy: “you think this stuff is sexy, well this is what it really looks like...?”

Dustin Hoffman
But is this any worse than the slaughter that takes place in the last half hour of the film? There are no gradations of violence in this film and the director is here to make us question the nature of entertainment and passive viewing...

Hoffman plays David, a New York mathematician who has married Amy, a very pretty if un-academic, English rose and returned to her native Cornwall to complete work on his thesis. They drive into the local village in their sleek Triumph Stag sports car, the very model of a sophisticated couple. Naturally enough the locals treat them with suspicion, envy and not a little lust.

Sally Thomsett and Susan George
Peckinpah’s camera lingers on George’s chest as she walks to the car and she encounters the rugged Charlie Venner (Del Henney) with whom she once had a brief fling… she’s moved on but he hasn’t.

The other young men of the village stare with amused disbelief at the un-manly academic who struggles to engage them on their terms.

Del Henney and Susan George
The local pub is a-brim with violent undercurrents as the local aged alpha male Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) locks horns with authority, challenging the landlord and only been kept in check by the magistrate (JP McKenna).

Then there’s the village strangeling, Henry Niles (David Warner) who appears to have indecently assaulted a child in the past and now lives in the protective custody of his elder brother…on his last chance: an accident waiting to happen.

Peter Vaughan, Del Henney and Dustin Hoffman
The couple’s garage is being renovated by some of the local lads and David finds them difficult to manage. At the same time he is spending far too much time with his chalkboard for Amy’s liking… Their sex life is still vivid but she’s getting bored.

Hoffman was apparently against George’s casting not seeing how his character could cement a relationship with such a pretty yet un-intellectual girl but she acts very well… I’d really like to hear what she has to say on the Criterion DVD commentary.

She the focus of the local men’s dislike of David – how can she possibly see more in him than in them? It’s just not right...

The Lads confronted by David
One of the men kills Amy’s cat and she eggs David on to confront them but he hasn’t the moral courage to do it, preferring to offer them beer and agree to go hunting – he really wants their approval, so much easier than accepting their incomprehension.

But the hunt is a ruse to lure him away so that Charlie can have his way with Amy… a moment that is made so much worse as he is followed by cousin Norman (Ken Hutchison). It is horrible and yet, when David returns from his own humiliation (they left him for hours) he is too self-absorbed to notice any change and Amy suddenly finds herself incapable of sharing.

They drag themselves to social engagement at the local church and the wheels begin to come off as Henry is lured away by one of the local teens (Sally Thomsett in trade mark mini). Frightened by the shouting when she is reported missing. Henry accidentally kills her when trying to hold her safe… a tragic accident.

Susan George, David Warner and Dustin Hoffman
The local men are roused from their drunkenness and begin a search for both parties. David and Amy knock Henry over on their way back to their cottage and David calls the village for help.

The men arrive intent on extracting the location of the missing girl but Henry is too scared to answer… suddenly David begins to locate his backbone and starts to push back in defence of his home and property. Polite society is being stripped away and he is gradually steeling himself for a fight.

Under siege
This begins the final battle as the body count starts to grow and the options run out in an unlikely fight to the death. Does David bring this on himself? Could he have prevented this by being more assertive earlier and is this what he really wants: an escape from the reasoned existence that is suffocating his ambition… a way out from academic block?

Peckinpah later claimed that David is the real “heavy” who almost engineers the face-off thereby revealing his psychotic tendency. He also said that there were two types of girl: “women and pussy” putting Susan George in the latter category. Fair to say Sam was a complex man…

Can't find my way home...
But, typically, this film does say something about the nature of manhood, violence and sexual discourse and it does it in a way which makes you feel complicit. No one walks away without having to question his own response.

Dusty verdict: keeper for those moments when you become complacent. Film entertainment sometimes comes at a cost and violence should have real meaning or it desensitises us all.

The Triumph Stag


  1. Susan George! !!!! What a gorgeous creature a lovely smile and a cracking body ... i'd make love to her for days and days.

  2. Based on the novel The Siege of Trenchers Farm 1969 by Scottish journalist/novelist Gordon Williams. Who later co-wrote Hazell with Terry Venables. The novel is excellent as well.