by Allan Fish
(UK 1971 118m) DVD1/2
Some men goes for women
p Daniel Melnick d Sam Peckinpah w David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon M.Williams ph John Coquillon ed Paul Davies, Roger Spottiswoode, Tony Lawson m Jerry Fielding art Ray Simm, Ken Bridgemann cos Tiny Nicholls
Dustin Hoffman (David Sumner), Susan George (Amy Sumner), David Warner (Henry Niles), Peter Vaughan (Tom Hedden), Del Henney (Charlie Venner), Ken Hutchison (Scutt), T.P.McKenna (Maj.Scott), Colin Welland (Rev.Hood), Sally Thomsett (Janice), Jim Norton (Cawsey), Peter Arne, Donald Webster,
Head in a mantrap anyone? I didn’t think so. Here’s a film that must really have proved popular with the Cornish tourist board. Straw Dogs is undoubtedly a film for very strong stomachs, but also one for people with thoughtful minds. Anyone who sees it as merely an exercise in machismo and violence, sexual and otherwise, are totally missing the point in an alarming way. At its heart, Peckinpah saw this as an Anglo western, with the homesteaders fighting off cattle barons replaced by a young couple fighting off angry villagers. It’s a film that provokes an angry response, not just from its central protagonists, but from the audience.
Amy Sumner is returning home to her Cornish village to Trencher’s Farm with her American husband, David, a mathematics professor who wants a peaceful climate in which to write a treatise. At first they are accepted into the community, but Amy’s ex, Charlie, contrives to get David out of the way so that he can rape Amy and, when local mental case Henry Niles accidentally murders a young girl and David steps in to protect him from the angry mob, they besiege his house in a fight to the death.
The English countryside plays a significant factor here and the photography of John Coquillon (who also saw the primeval darkness in the landscape in Witchfinder General) is almost painfully beautiful. Here is a film that, ultimately, is about violence and what violence brings, much like Michael Reeves’ aforementioned horror film, but it’s also about so much more. At times one is reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, with its isolated couple caught up in a Civil War realising they are complete strangers and showing their real character in the face of a crisis. The crisis here is in the final siege and it’s here that David (superbly played by Hoffman) realises Amy is a stranger to him and, at that point, no longer cares for protecting her. He’s happy to do what it takes, including slap her across the face, to take control. Dogs is a film that shows, perhaps dangerously, that violence not only breeds violence, but that violence committed against you can bring a response that you don’t expect. Not just standing up to it, but enjoying the rush. Two horrific attacks take place in the film, firstly the rape of Amy by Charlie (inter-cut with the blatant symbolism of David out hunting with a primed gun). She doesn’t want him, but during the rape she begins to get off on it, she enjoys it (at least until the point before the second more brutal rape) and that is what is so controversial about the scene. It provokes a real feeling of unease. However, later on David feels the same release when the siege brings out a pleasure in dishing out violence that he never knew he had. At first it’s a matter of principle, “this is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house.” But as the siege gets more drawn out and bloody he gets ever more rational and enjoys every bit of destruction he can dish out. And that is what makes Straw Dogs so discomforting to watch. Amy may finally help by blowing the final intruder away, but we know their marriage is finished.
In the end Straw Dogs is a film that everyone must see, though perhaps as Susan George has pointed out, you must be in the right frame of mind. It cannot be casually popped in the DVD player. If Peckinpah may have been a sexist bigot and his film overtly masculine, it’s also as damning an indictment and warning of the addictive power of violence as the cinema has yet offered.