The scent and sensibilities of controversy

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs was notorious, but can the remake repeat its incendiary impact? Geoffrey Macnab investigates

Monday 24 October 2011 18:15

Why would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs? That is the question that Rod Lurie's new version of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 film has provoked. Peckinpah's version of Scottish writer Gordon Williams' novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm is a pariah of a movie. Notorious for its rape scene and other instances of unbridled violence, this was a film that disgusted even hard-bitten British critics and became labelled as a video nasty.

Forty years on, it is instructive to read the initial reviews of Straw Dogs in the UK press. Many of the same reviewers who had been fighting against censorship found themselves on the same side of the battle lines as "Mrs Whitehouse and Daddy Longford and Cliff Richard," as critic David Robinson put it. They called for the film to be banned, and attacked the BBFC for passing it almost entirely uncut.

"What the film censor has permitted on the screen in Straw Dogs makes one wonder whether he has any further useful role to play in the cinema industry," the Evening Standard complained. "To have made such a vicious and degrading film appears an aberration of judgement on someone's part. To pass it for public exhibition... is tantamount to a dereliction of duty."

"Can a film be brilliantly made but thoroughly bad?" asked The Guardian, answering a resounding yes to its own question. Predictably, the distributors took advantage of all the huffing and puffing from the critics, quoting the most negative reviews on posters, thereby drumming up further business.

Straw Dogs wasn't just another exploitation pic that could be dismissed as genre fare for sadistic viewers. This was a biggish-budget Hollywood film from a major director near the height of his powers and with a top star (Dustin Hoffman.) What irked its detractors was that its violence wasn't gratuitous. It was underpinned by its writer/director's bleak view of humanity. As Peckinpah's biographer David Weddle notes, the director had steeped himself in the work of the anthropologist Robert Ardrey at the time he made Straw Dogs. Ardrey contended that the capacity for (and enjoyment of) violence was a basic human instinct... and that man remained, in essence, a murderous ape.

The film tells of the metamorphosis of David Summer (Hoffman), a timorous academic. He has come with his young wife Amy (played by the 20-year-old Susan George) back to her home village on the Cornish coast. He hopes to spend a year doing research. By the end of the movie, after the rape of his wife, the killing of her pet cat and weeks being taunted by the locals, he fights back with a brutality that surpasses that of his antagonists. The last reel features a siege scene in which he keeps the blood-crazed locals out of his house.

What's most disturbing about the movie is that, in some atavistic way, David enjoys his own transformation. As the lurid publicity campaign pointed out, "The Knock At The Door Meant The Birth Of A Man And The Death Of Seven Others." Many were also appalled by the ambivalent way that Peckinpah depicted rape. When Amy is sexually assaulted by her former boyfriend (Del Henney), the scene switches tone. As Henney later recalled, "Halfway into it, it turns into a sort of a love scene, a tender scene." The tenderness, though, is rapidly undercut when Amy is attacked brutally by a second man.

Arguably, the context was what made Straw Dogs so shocking. If this had been a Western about a pioneer protecting his family or a Coriolanus-style classical drama, the violence might have seemed more understandable. The film wasn't set in lawless frontier land but in a contemporary and seemingly idyllic Cornish village.

Peckinpah portrays superbly well the suspicion that the Cornish villagers feel for outsiders as well as their contempt for someone as feeble as they perceive Hoffman's American academic to be. The scenes in which he tries to ingratiate himself with the locals in the pub are full of menace and grim irony.

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The film that had been so blithely passed for the cinemas in 1971 had a difficult afterlife in the UK. In 1984, after the Video Recordings Act was passed, it was banned and dubbed a video nasty. Peckinpah's formal mastery and willingness to probe the dark side of human psychology are applauded by some, but Straw Dogs has never escaped its tainted reputation.

By contrast, Lurie's remake has seemed remarkably untouched by its predecessor's notoriety. In the era of "torture porn," the violence no longer appears so remarkable. There haven't been any censorship rows.

Lurie's version is an intelligent and cleverly crafted thriller but one which risks falling between stools. Arguably, it isn't extreme enough for genre fans. Nor does it provoke the same questions about voyeurism and violence that have been posed by art-house films such as the similarly themed Funny Games.

Lurie has changed the locations from rural England to the Deep South. The main character (James Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter rather than an academic. He is working on a script about the Battle for Stalingrad. He plots a story about the Russians being drawn into a fight for survival against the Nazis, little realising that their experience will soon be mirrored by his own.

Kate Bosworth plays the bride: a local girl who went to Hollywood and made a name as an actress. Instead of Peter Vaughan's Cornish patriarch, James Woods plays an alcoholic ex-football coach who is devoted to his teenage daughter and ready to lynch anyone who harms her. Lurie enjoys contrasting Marsden's pampered LA-type in his sports car with the locals, who judge a man by his ability to hunt, fight and play sports. The settings are different, but he cleaves closely to the storyline of the original.

The rape sequence remains very uncomfortable to watch but pivotal to the plotting. (Bosworth reportedly called Susan George before shooting the scene.) While his wife is assaulted, Marsden is out hunting, trying to get in touch with his masculine side but cutting a ridiculous figure.

A former film critic, Lurie is a skilled film-maker who knows his source material and is aware of every pitfall in front of him. What the new Straw Dogs lacks, for better or worse, is the psychopathic intensity Peckinpah brought to his material. Peckinpah was a subversive director who knew how to craft a movie. His films were more personal than they may have appeared. Thanks to Straw Dogs, he became one of the most notorious film directors in the world. The key question his work provokes is whether he used violence in a thoughtful way to tackle big themes of life, death and human nature... or whether he just delighted in blood. It still hasn't been satisfactorily answered, which is one reason why his work is still watched and debated so fiercely today.

The remake of 'Straw Dogs' is released in cinemas on 4 November

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