Mired in controversy since it’s release in 1971, American maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Gordon Williams 1969 novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” is the story of a young couple, nebbish mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his beautiful and sensual new wife Amy (Susan George) who move back to her hometown in Cornwall so that David can focus on work and less on the upheaval of anti-war America. As David and Amy try to settle into their new home, David is concerned about his wife’s lack of inhibitions and the leering eyes of the workers they have hired to help fix up the property. When Amy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney) starts making advances, the tensions begin to rise, leading to a bloody siege that pushes pacifist David to the very brink of bloodthirsty madness.
40-years after its initial release in the US and the UK (and it’s subsequent ban on video in the UK in 1984–as part of the video nasties crackdown), Straw Dogs is a film that is difficult to view through anything other than the tinted lenses of time. With time, the film gains a lot of perspective and in many other ways, becomes even more controversial. To that end, it’s impossible to consider the legacy of Straw Dogs without tacking the films more notorious element–the rape of Amy.
The extended rape sequence in the film, which is intercut with David’s hunting expedition is a juxtaposition of violence—with the meek David learning how to use a gun while his wife is violated in their home. It also foreshadows the violence later to come in the story. While the rape scene was trimmed for the initial theatrical release it was reinserted into the film later for subsequent VHS and DVD releases. What makes the scene so controversial is not the extent or the brutality of the moment—as witnessed in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, or Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, or the legendary I Spit on Her Grave. No, what makes the scene so cringe inducing for audiences then and undoubtedly today, decades after the feminist movement and political correctness, is the familiarity of the rape. Amy is raped by a former lover. The rape is never outwardly violent, no hitting, no tearing of clothes, no singing in the rain. The rape is slow and calculating. It is clear that Amy is distressed, but her groans are subtle and she never truly fights back almost resigning herself to the rape.
Audiences, the MPAA, and the British censors were up in arms. Peckinpah appears to have had the audacity to have shot a rape scene where the victim seems outwardly to almost enjoy the rape. What’s even more controversial is that with Amy parading around bra-less and with full knowledge exposing her breasts to the workers outside her bedroom, over-masculine, apologists might even see Amy as ‘asking for it’—a defense that for years excused unwanted sexual advancement. It’s a worst-case date rape scenario where the victim’s sexual familiarity with the perpetrator and actions could be seen by a twisted few as something to be overlooked, understood or worse yet, even condoned. The fact that after the event, Amy refrains from telling David, could even be construed as further interpretation of her compliance in the rape. Only later when Amy flashes back to the event—at a public gathering— do we see how truly scarred she is.
Peckinpah was a ‘mans-man’ director, obsessed with violence, and with heavy right-wing political leanings. The entirety of Straw Dogs and the story that surrounds both the rape and the later explosion of violence from pacifist David is mired in Catch-22’s. Peckinpah seems to relish in that idea that if you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything. He’s not interested in a film, like Craven’s Last House on the Left that shows if you push someone into a corner then they will fight back. Peckinpah wants you to believe that David is a hypocrite, that he preaches pacifism but deep down he is a killer and that it only takes opportunity to turn him into a bloodthirsty monster. And that is what I see as the ultimate debate that rages in Straw Dogs. Is Peckinpah right or is he cynical and shoving his opinion of the left-wing Anti-war movement of the 60’s right in the flower children’s faces—waving a ‘don’t tread on me” flag in the middle of a field of daisies? I guess the debate will rage on but for all its ups and downs and violent resolve, Straw Dogs remains a masterful piece of storytelling that doesn’t provide easy answers—and that’s more than I can say for 99% of what passes through the multiplex on any given Friday night.
Straw Dogs gets a Blu-ray release courtesy of the folks at MGM with a 1080p/MPG 4 AVC transfer of the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and it looks extremely good for the most part, with only a few minor scenes exhibiting grain that is in excess of the standard for the rest of the film. The blacks are solid in the night scenes and the color is rendered faithfully in the day, with an expected softness in the early morning shots. The film has also been remastered with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 that might serve more high-octane films better, but does a good job here in affecting the sound design. The real problem is that MGM has ported none of the bonus features over from the epic 2-disc Criterion edition of a few years back and we are treated for our Blu-ray upgrade with nothing but TV Spots and Theatrical trailers. So, the upgrade is going to be nothing more than personal preference. If you need the HD then I suggest grabbing this one on sale and hanging onto your Criterion DVD for all the bonus material—which is rarely upgraded to HD for Blu-ray anyway. It’s too bad, because the release really just begs the question, why didn’t MGM just let Criterion upgrade it themselves?