Straw Dogs (1971)

Dir: Sam Peckinpah, 1971


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After The Wild Bunch, quite possibly Sam Peckinpah’s most (in)famous film.

Often described as a Cornish Western, Peckinpah’s telling of Gordon Williams’ novel The Siege Of Trenchers Farm, is an incredibly brutal and censor-baiting depiction of how someone can be pushed to breaking point.

Dustin Hoffman is David Sumner, a mathematician who is married to an English girl, Amy (Susan George).

Feeling that the states is too violent, pacifist David believes England will be much safer for the couple and Cornwall is where Amy is from.

The couple’s marriage is strained and broken. The mathematician is writing a book on maths and Amy feels neglected.

Craving attention, Amy takes to flirting and flashing at the local workmen from her bedroom window.

The workmen are carrying out work on the married couple’s cottage. However, one of the workmen is Amy’s ex-boyfriend, Charlie.

The locals don’t accept David, with him being American and taking Amy away. He is often humiliated by the workmen.

The workers invite David to go shooting with them, which he accepts. This is simply a ruse to abandon him in the fields.

While away shooting, Amy is raped by Charlie and then his friend.

A mentally challenged man, Niles (David Warner) is untrusted by the locals.

A young girl, Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett), flirts with Niles and he strangles her.

Driving back home from church, the Sumner’s accidentally knock Niles down in his car and take him to their house.

The locals search for Niles and receive a phone call informing them where he is.

A mob descend on the Sumner’s home and leave David no choice but to fight violence with violence.

Straw Dogs has a reputation for being ultra-violent and nasty and, to be fair, it doesn’t quite live up to that reputation.

As is typical of Peckinpah, the violence is filmed in slow motion. But it’s not as graphic as legend would have you believe.

Rather than being an action film, it’s more of a psychological study of how a non-violent man can become the thing he hates.

The violence he loathes and abhors is apparent in him. Once it rears its ugly head, David is a different person.

A slow burner, Straw Dogs captures the descent of a marriage and the transmogrification of David from a pacifist into a killer.

The most talked about scene is the rape. Although it’s not explicit, the problem arises during the first half of the rape when Amy is raped by her former lover.

What starts as clearly a rape becomes something else as Amy submits to Charlie and, maybe, enjoys it. It is an ambiguous scene.

What is especially interesting about that scene is the how the censorship applied to it did the exact opposite of what it was meant to achieve.

The British censors took umbrage with the second attack on Amy. They felt it was too much and couldn’t be passed.

They insisted on cuts being made to tone it down. However, by making the cuts the scene is now STRONGER than it originally was.

The BBFC turned what was a vaginal rape into an anal one. The censorship altered the intention to something worse.

A case example against censorship, it perfectly highlights how it can change the meaning of something and make it worse.

It’s the rape, though, that has always been the source of contention in the UK .

Because Amy is seen to reciprocate the attack, the censors have always held the view that this is an endorsement of a myth that women like being raped.

It was this thought that prevented a UK video release for many years.

Straw Dogs was released twice uncut by two different distributors on the new video medium in the early eighties prior to the enforcement of regulation.

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One of the two UK video releases. This one was Guild Home Video. The other was Video Collection International.

After the enforcement of regulation, the videos were withdrawn.

The film was submitted to the board several times to the board for a video certificate and was always rejected citing the problematic rape scene.

Unfortunately, Britain was some subject to some horrific massacres that brought to the fore the question of video violence.

It was in the aftermath that a submission was made but a certificate was turned down with the board feeling that it wasn’t appropriate to be releasing a notoriously violent film with the current controversy.

When the film was released in America, the second half of the rape scene was removed entirely leaving only Amy’s submission.

Strangely enough, it was this print that was submitted to the board for a cinema re-release in 1995 by the British Film Institute. The BBFC agreed to pass it uncut as the scene couldn’t be repeatedly viewed and taken out of context being within the confines of a theatre.

Over the next coule of years, talks were often held about a possible video re-release but was always turned down.

In 1999, again, the US print was submitted to the board. With the abscence of the second rape, the BBFC couldn’t pass the film without heavy cuts reducing the what could be taken as the victim’s pleasure of being raped. In total, the board asked for around three and a half minutes.

The distributors rights to the film had expired by the time a mutual agreement on the cuts were made, so couldn’t implement them. Left with no choice, the censors rejected it.

In the same year, a different distributor asked the board to look at the film but, this time, it was the uncut version.

Because the censors had just rejected a cut version they couldn’t, then, pass a stronger one so this was also refused a certificate.

However, in 2002 and after a major overhaul of the guidelines, the uncut version made its way through the doors of the BBFC.

With the second rape intact, Amy’s enjoying of Charlie’s assault was contradicted by Amy’s fear and pain in the second one.

The second attack was pivotal to the scene as it clearly demonstrates that Amy does not derive any pleasure from being sexually assaulted and, therefore, counterbalances the previous rape.

The addition of this second half allowed the board to make a case for certification, uncut, as denounces any myth of women liking rape.

So, in 2002, Straw Dogs was finally unleashed into people’s homes for the first time since 1988.

To be fair, it’s a love it or hate it film. It has divided critics since 1971.

I love it. For me, it’s got just the right amount of build up to the finale and is interesting to see the decline of these damaged people.

The action isn’t too over the top, either. A film like this, Peckinpah could easily have gone to the extreme but, wisely, he holds back.

A gripping drama about being an outsider and howthe mildest of people can have the wildest of sides.


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