Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens analyses the mechanics of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial masterpiece Straw Dogs and finds that the roots of this tale of honour and revenge begin in the school playground…
“I don’t know my way home,” says simpleton Henry Niles to a dishevelled David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece Straw Dogs. David, with one lens of his spectacles broken and cuts and bruises to his face, smiles and calmly replies: “That’s okay, I don’t either.” The two men drive towards the little Cornish village nearby, their futures uncertain. It’s a poetic and fitting climax to David’s story – a man who arrived in the intimately scaled, unassuming English village timid and withdrawn, concerned more with his work than his restless, lascivious wife, and who leaves having found a bravery, or indeed an anger, he did not know he possessed. What he does with it now is up to him, but his life may have taken on a momentous change, one that will govern his future self.
Sam Peckinpah’s film can easily be described as one of the greatest ever made. Not because it sparked such controversy but because it rewards the discerning viewer with something unique on each and every viewing. It is thought-provoking, angry, and provocative. It is cold and detached yet displays the human condition as if laid naked in all its primal glory. It’s disgusting, painful, and upsetting yet at times funny, profoundly beautiful and inspiring. Just sample the rape of Amy cut between David shooting birds in the Cornish countryside. It’s at once a horrific image and a picturesque one – Amy’s sweaty, frightened face and muted anguish coupled with the blissfully unaware David as he watches the odd bird fly into a blue sky over rolling English hills. Of course, underlying it all is this married couple’s violation by apathetic thugs – and Peckinpah displays this violation during this particular scene via two very different routes. Amy is sexually violated, her body and person dismissed as nothing more than an object, while David’s honour is corrupted. He has failed to foresee the plan to leave him in the wilderness, he has failed to protect his wife, and he has failed to protect his home. In the space of only a minute or so, Peckinpah has taken the viewer through a series of emotions, all differing in their intensity depending on the person.
And that’s the beauty of the film. No matter what you think of Straw Dogs it provokes a reaction. Whether that reaction is good or bad, it sheds light on the dark side of human nature, and whether we like it or not, it exists. The film essentially comes from the school playground. Witness the opening shots of children playing – Peckinpah’s camera suggestively watching the kids jumping and running around gravestones. Here, when we are young, we find our first instances of joy and unhappiness outside of the family home. Joy playing with friends and meeting new people; unhappiness at the strict regime, the taskmaster head teacher, and the bully. And, it’s the bully that Peckinpah focuses on.
Dustin Hoffman’s David and wife Amy (Susan George) return to the south-west English town where she grew up. David is a mathematician and has a grant to continue his work. In Amy’s now vacant family home he feels he will get the peace and quiet he needs. But she’s happy to be back in her old hunting ground, taunting former-lover Charlie Venner with her seductive attire. She even displays her naked body at the window when she knows he’s outside working on the house roof, her body available for Venner and his co-workers to see. Immediately we witness David and Amy’s relationship as one that has lost its sexual spark. He is apathetic towards her, while her playful attempts at seduction fail to detract him from his work or his daily routine such as setting the alarm clock or taking his watch off before bed.
Part of David’s ultimate rage comes from his perceived virility in the face of powerful, rugged, alpha-males including Amy’s ex-boyfriend. She resorts to childish pranks such as drawing on David’s blackboard and flirting with the workers in front of her husband. She is presented as a spoiled and restless child craving attention, her mild annoyances dispelled by David in father-to-daughter retorts. “Don’t play games with me,” he says, “I’ve got a lot on my mind.” In one scene she stands before him having slashed a long line of chalk over his calculations on the blackboard. She looks at him chewing gum like a child with sweets they shouldn’t be eating before teatime. She then takes out the gum and, mischievously, sticks it to the blackboard. Peckinpah is telling us about this couple’s relationship but he’s also underlining that this story starts with the juvenile delinquents of the school playground.
The bullying in the film begins with jokes at the expense of the American. David can hear the workers talking about him and laughing. It’s that sense you get when you hear someone laughing and wonder if they are laughing at you. The bullying takes a turn for the worse when the workers, when travelling home, encourage David, who is driving behind them in his car, to overtake their truck. Unbeknown to him they have instigated a near head-on collision with a truck coming in the opposite direction.
Peckinpah allows the film to gradually get darker – each prank becoming more and more destructive. The bullies decide to murder Amy’s cat and hang it by the neck in the couple’s bedroom closet. Amy tells David they did it to prove they could get into his bedroom – yet another stab at his virility. She begs him to do something about it (a wry request for affection as well as an angry cry for protection) but, after initially deciding to confront them, thinks better of it. He’s scared to confront the bullies. Even though he knows they did it, and he knows they taunt him behind his back, he feels inadequate. The cat hanging dead in the closet is a stark and obscene precursor to the rape of Amy – a further violation of David’s honour and a direct attack on his ability as a protector of home and family.
However, David never learns of the rape, but we as an audience know it occurred. When David is finally driven to defend himself by force it isn’t because of his wife but because he knows his life is now in immediate danger. We are positioned firmly behind his retribution because we know his wife has been raped. Although it isn’t made clear, David’s defence of his home and his person is not a selfish act that dismisses his wife (who he continually tells to go upstairs out of the way). His timid persona has always shied away from violence. He has so far failed to stand up to the bullies because he knows he is outnumbered and in a losing situation. For this, he feels less powerful in front of his beautiful wife because he hasn’t fulfilled his duties as the alpha male. His violent offensive is fuelled by the primal need to preserve his life and to re-state his position in his wife’s eyes. Whether he has eventually fallen out of love with her or not (the killing of Venner when David ignores Amy’s plea to spare his life may be read as the jealous destruction of a love rival, or David intending to hurt his wife who still retained feelings for her old lover), he has established that he can defend her. Quite simply, she asked him to stand up the bullies and now he has. She did not take into consideration the damage such revolt would cause, he on the other hand, did. It is only when the magistrate is murdered in cold blood that David, his calculating, observant mind deducing his options are very limited, takes the steps to suppress the bullies.
It’s interesting that David never becomes personified as child-like. The other characters all do. David Warner plays village simpleton Henry Niles. He’s the overt adult-child and has the mental age of a pre-schooler. He is presented to us as untrustworthy and dangerous. Amy is another child, governed by her father-like husband David, who she constantly annoys to gain attention. The other children are the bullies – men who have simply transferred their playground tricks to adult life – hiding toys and chasing prey has become murdered cats shut in closets and driving dangerously on the roads. During the climatic confrontation we see the bullies explicitly taking on the role of children as they play on tricycles, two characters racing each other down the driveway. Another character wears a toy-like fake nose, and incessantly squeaks a push-button horn on the tricycle like an over-sugared youngster with no authority figure to shout “cut it out!”. This uncontrollable, unpredictable juvenile culture is destructive and anti-authoritarian through Peckinpah’s cinematic gaze. But witness the murdering delinquents of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the infant killers of Cronenberg’s The Brood – all films released in the late 1970s – for similar notions on the early formation of the id. The inspiration behind these films is largely due to the anti-establishment sentiment prevalent at the time, as well as the freedoms allowed to filmmakers to make movies with studio backing but without creative constraints. However, ultimately, in Straw Dogs we see David’s hesitant reaction to provocation turned on its head. He is returned to the playground where his diffidence probably first surfaced. In finally being forced to break free of his reserved, self-containment, he is given a new lease of life. He has taken on the bullies, where in the past he has been unable to, and defeated them.
Interestingly, Straw Dogs is styled like an American western set in the English countryside. This leftfield choice isn’t surprising since Peckinpah’s most celebrated movie is The Wild Bunch and up until 1971 he had only concerned himself with the western genre. The Wild Bunch is a sort of non-traditional interpretation of the western that has sometimes been referred to as the anti-western. Here, Peckinpah relocates the conventional setting to an English pub and isolated village. Protagonist David enters the pub early in the film and is immediately recognised as an outsider. He’s the lone American amongst these British brutes. Add some swing doors to the pub’s entrance and you wouldn’t know whether you were in Truro or Tombstone. It is here that David first meets his would-be nemesis Tom McKenna. McKenna offers to pay for “the American’s” cigarettes, a sly moment of one-upmanship. David’s meek insistence that he can pay for his own cigarettes is ignored. It’s a neat introduction to the eventual showdown between these two men. However, Peckinpah suspiciously never fully reveals which of these two characters is the hero and which is the villain: the outlaw and the Sheriff.
When the showdown does take place it features the classic stand-off transported to the modest green hills and cold night air of the British Isles. McKenna and his gang give David the ultimatum: deliver Henry Niles to them or else they will break in and take him. David refuses, he knows they will kill Henry. Peckinpah curiously stages the fight on the basis that David is defending his home, his wife, and himself, and McKenna is defending the honour of his daughter and the village against Niles’ dangerous psychosis. However, David is driven to instigating physical retribution because of the humiliation he feels at the hands of the bullies who now stand behind and support McKenna’s plight. He is angry and ashamed, he is now ready to fight his corner. Does he keep Niles inside the house purposely to ignite violence? Likewise, McKenna might be doing what, in his mind, is the right thing to do. But, McKenna is acting as executioner where he has no authority to do so. Conversely, these two men are both hero and villain.
The climatic battle is given a kinetic energy by the immediacy of fast cuts and Peckinpah’s unsteady camera; it’s disorientating and unnerving. John Coquillon photographs the interior and exterior as two opposing entities: the dark night sky contrasted by bright backlights and an unforgiving mist, the warm interior given a clinical finish by the electric lamps of the house. The scene is at once mysterious and surreal, and conversely homely and recognisable.
Straw Dogs is a powerful and brilliant deconstruction and exploration of the human condition in the face of provocation. It is one of the most affecting movie experiences one can have, and one of the most rewarding. In some ways Peckinpah, by 1971, was a Hollywood exile who arrived in the UK unsure of his next project. We can only be thankful for this studio-imposed injustice – Straw Dogs is his greatest achievement.
Written by Daniel Stephens