Straw Dogs (1971): How do you like your manhood?

Although he stimulated fierce controversy that lasts to this day, Sam Peckinpah left an undeniably indelible impression on the world of cinema. With an ethos predicated on forthright anti-sentimentalism, Peckinpah gave us stylish and lurid examinations of masculine psychology featuring protagonists who usually possess an idealistic bent, only to have to ultimately sacrifice it in a pragmatic offering to a reality that is awash in violence and cynical self-preservation. With the likes of The Wild Bunch, The Getaway and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah’s depictions of flawed and atavistic men who believe in rigid codes of honour and brute force have beckoned cries of anti-intellectualism, misogyny and a celebration of toxic emotional repression. His films inhabit a world where one’s word is one’s bond, where it’s unforgivable to roll over and take it no matter how vicious you have to get, and where women tend to be duplicitous creatures bereft of the ability to understand the hero’s sense of self. Or, at least, that’s how detractors of his work dismiss it.

Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s 1971 adaptation of Gordon M. Williams’ The Siege Of Trencher’s Farm and the only one of his works to have been banned, is one of the most misunderstood films in cinematic history. Long deplored for showcasing a Neanderthal-like philosophy of problem-solving and adding sensationalistic content that was absent in the source novel, Straw Dogs actually retains an unfairly overlooked dimension of complexity that renders it essential viewing now and forevermore.

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a pacifistic American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), a significantly younger Englishwoman. Having been given a grant to author a book about mathematical applications in astronomy (and desperately wishing to escape the violent social upheaval surrounding the Vietnam War and other ills), David and Amy leave the United States with the aim of relocating to the remote Cornish farmhouse of Amy’s childhood. David is confident that the isolation and simplicity of England’s West Country will provide the perfect setting for starting afresh and getting into a productive kick.

As they settle into Trencher’s Farm, a quaint abode sitting alone on the outskirt fields of Amy’s village, the Sumner’s presence arouses the attention of a frosty and suspicious clique of local men. This group consists of Amy’s former boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and his lackeys Norman (Ken Hutchinson), Chris (Jim Norton) and Phil (Donald Webster). Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) is the de facto authority figure among the men, a burly and violent alcoholic who also happens to be Venner’s uncle. Archetypal representations of provincial bullies, Charlie and his ilk hold court in the local pub and take an instant if passive-aggressive dislike to David, essentially because they perceive him as a supercilious outsider who has ‘taken’ one of ‘their’ women.

As luck would have it, this gang also happen to be the only half-capable labourers residing in the town, prompting David to hire them for restoration work on the farmhouse garage. What begins as intimidating coldness and snide remarks slowly escalates into increasingly mean-spirited pranks upon David, most insidiously turning their unsavoury attentions toward Amy as she and David begin to encounter problems in their relationship. A man without a country, David finds his tolerance stretched to breaking point as the native’s predatory machismo and his own marital strife pressures him into defending his home, his wife and his life in ways that he can scarcely comprehend.

Make no bones about it, this is a very violent picture and one that, much to continued chagrin among certain critics, conveys a troubling characterisation of woman therein. It is not, however, the cut-and-dry glorification of brutally standing your ground and defeating nemeses that made the hair of its opponents curl when it was released almost half a century ago. For a start, gung-ho illustrations of good vs. evil (or a reasonably decent protagonist vs. far worse antagonists) actually requires a hero who generates pathos and retains a code of conduct that demonstrates them as a morally superior agent.

David is no such character. From the outset, this ivory tower academic is not only meek and ineffectual but also arrogant and condescending. Silently contemptuous of the local boys and their rough-hewn manner, David gradually reveals himself as a narcissistic abuser as he callously spurns Amy’s attempts at communication and affection, tersely reprimanding her for distracting him from his work and gaslighting her when she accuses him of neglectful partnership. Amy’s feelings of abandonment and resentment manifest in risqué teasing of Charlie and the men, but would a film that espoused an inherently damning view of women not paint her as disloyal apropos of nothing? Seeking attention or admiration elsewhere in light of a partner’s disinterest is neither a rare phenomenon nor unique to women, and I don’t agree with notions that Amy is intended to be received as some kind of treacherous ‘hussy’ who would have always behaved contentiously, regardless of provocation.

Amy’s ordeal as an individual and objectified woman reaches an apogee in what is easily the film’s most notorious sequence. At home on her lonesome, Amy is visited by her long-ago beau Charlie, and what begins as a tensely awkward deliberation on their own failed togetherness transforms into an uncomfortable sensual fugue where Amy is simultaneously incensed by Charlie’s arrogantly chauvinistic sexuality and yet able to briefly forget David’s cruel alienation of her. Amy’s emotional solitude axiomatically inspires pain, pain that allows her to be more receptive to a euphoric recall of Charlie as a strong, protective, virile and direct life-mate, all of the aspects that David wilfully falls short on. Her violent resistance to his macho tactility briefly gives way to an ambivalent yearning for the sincere lover’s touch, only for Charlie to betray her in the vilest way possible, an act that cements him as just as much of a degenerate coward as David, if not worse. Both Amy and Tom Hedden’s daughter Janice are portrayed as nubile and playful but, far from being conniving femme fatales, they are both victims in a milieu composed of men with no principles, empathy or ethics.

Admittedly, I haven’t read The Siege Of Trencher’s Farm and therefore cannot speak to complaints that the film is a reductive simplification of the novel’s themes. Beholding the movie as a self-contained work, I unequivocally posit that it is incisive not only in regards to the civilisation/barbarism dichotomy but also delusional psychopathologies. David is a hopelessly pompous idiot even during his interface with the village’s more refined elements, quintessentially displayed when he and Amy welcome local Reverend Barney Hood (Colin Welland) into their home for the evening.

When Hood poses questions about the moral responsibilities of the scientific community, David elects to smugly embarrass the man as opposed to offering a dignified and cogent rebuttal to his statements, amplifying the pseudo-intellectual cloak that conceals his impotent rage and erratic self-esteem. As we segue into the stage of climactic violence where David defends the resident developmentally disabled ephebophile Henry Niles (David Warner) from the wrath of the Venner-Hedden thug coterie, it is as clear as the nose on your face that this wouldn’t be happening if David had a backbone in the first place. Far from empathetically shielding a vulnerable person from the intentions of brutes, he is narcissistically exploiting an opening for catharsis, proving his masculinity to himself, his neglected and abused wife be damned. In diametric circumstances, I wonder if David would even glance twice at the bloke.

It is an uncompromising and, contrary to popular opinion, cerebral treatise on the aforementioned dilemmas. John Coquillon’s cinematography and Jerry Fielding’s score achieve a unison effect of disquieting and visceral familiarity with the characters and subject matter, and there is a superficially fascinating irony in the fact that one of America’s most infamously macho directors chose to visualise a tale where one of his countrymen was the effete and toxic milquetoast, the descendants of Redcoats instead symbolising manlier times. Probably because, as many haters have yet to learn, the film isn’t as simple as that. It is one of Peckinpah’s greatest and most intelligent pictures, and it demands your attention now.

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