"Straw Dogs": MUST Every Village Have An Idiot? SPOILERS!

Re-watched this the other night. I have to admit it is the ONLY Peckinpah film I have ever seen (and I have seen it twice now), but GOSH GOLLY GEE the symbolism/foreshadowing in this movie seemed awfully ham-handed, even for the '60’s. Don’t read further if you desperately WANT to see this movie and don’t want it spoiled for you!

Quaint little scenic English village where every male in town is a drunk or nearly all the time to be found in the local pub, even the “authority figure”. All the men have massive anger issues. All the women are “asking for it”, brazenly going braless, topless, or wearing skirts so brief as to be almost non-existent. There’s a “village idiot”, tho sometimes it’s deliberately a bit blurry as to whether he, or Dustin Hoffman’s character, is the REAL village idiot to the locals. BOTH “idiots” (or outcasts) end up together at the end, against virtually everyone else. American guys, especially of the “nerdy” variety, aren’t real men. When you have workmen mount a bear trap (which your wife collects, because she’s a repressed maneater of the WORST ilk) over your fireplace and the camera dwells lovingly & lingerlingly upon this act, SOMEONE (and usually one of the workmen hanging the thing) is going to get terribly hurt by this contraption before the end. Pets make excellent victims. And so on…

Maybe I am missing big old chunks of importance here, but can “Straw Dogs” be the best Peckinpah had to offer? Please enlighten, and don’t spare me, if I am just dead wrong. Perhaps I should watch some more of his work? Which would you recommend? I’m not squeamish about violence (or sex) in my movies at all, but I would like to be less bludgeoned by obvious allegory. Am I SOL, liking a touch more nuance to my characters, with regard to Sam Peckinpah?

–Beck

I agree with you about Straw Dogs. “Ham-handed” is a great way to describe this disappointing movie. But don’t discount Peckinpah on the basis of one film. IMHO, Straw Dogs is one of his worst.

My favorite Peckinpah movie is Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. I’m also fond of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. And, of course, there’s always The Wild Bunch, which pretty much guaranteed Peckinpah a place in movie history.

Straw Dogs is a tough sell and as great an example of YMMV as exists among Peckinpah’s work, although being familiar with his other films puts it in a more revealing (though not necessarily appealing) light.

Essentially, most of his films look at male ego, instinct, and responsibility through a prism of nobility and self-validation. Most of the characters are anti-heroes, but they’re still admirable for channelling traditional “male” impulses in a way that aspires to integrity. Straw Dogs takes those same impulses and positions them in opposing extremes. The townsmen may be crude and libidinous, but Hoffman’s character is really no different–he just hides behind a facade of non-confrontational rationality. The men may lust after his wife, but he ignores and patronizes her; in both senses, she’s reduced to a type (though we see a complex, if not altogether flattering, characterization). When worse comes to worse, Hoffman may use his brain to be creative in his defense of his home, but we still see him relish the opportunity for release of these baser impulses, and his “victory” at the end leaves him hollow and empty. He’s confronted with his own savagery and is left adrift by the experience.

Some might call it “ham-handed”; I certainly won’t deny it’s probably the closest Peckinpah came in laying out a transparent treatise. And some of the symbolism grates, but his evokation of dread in the Cornish pastoral countryside, the sophisticated use of editing, and his fearlessness in exposing raw nerves in relationships (be it marital or community) is to the film’s credit–though, again, in a sense that will vary from person to person. Jerry Fielding’s score is also remarkably good. I think it should also be viewed in a political context, since this was released in the middle of the Vietnam war, where America was confronted with notions of pacifism vs. savagery, and loftier ideals vs. more realistic truths about conflict & violence.

I think it’s one of his stronger films, but not exactly an enjoyable one. I certainly think it’s better than Pat Garrett (which, despite some lovely moments, is a larger failure in execution). The Wild Bunch remains my favorite western and in my Desert Island Top 10, but Ride the High Country is also quite brilliant and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is also one-of-a-kind (though that’s also a hard sell because of some of its more superficially outlandish elements). Cable Hogue is cute (with a very appealing lead performance), but it’s symbolism is no less clunky, and to more obvious ends. For non-westerns, The Getaway is well worth seeking out, but perhaps his most underrated is the excellent Junior Bonner (probably Steve McQueen’s best movie).

Yes, in my haste to note derivative plot points, I failed to mention that the score was superb and enjoyable. Thanks for the excellent analysis and advice.

MORE SPOILERS:

What did you make of the rape scene, which morphed into nearly enjoyable sex with her first attacker, before descending into hell again with Ravisher #2? I was in turns shocked, offended and disturbed, which I expect was the reaction being sought. That particular crime is supposed to be about power and not sex, but the power shifted back and forth amongst all the parties involved, and the act definitely became sex for a time…I’m still disturbed about all those implications, I guess. I found that to be the most moving thing about the movie.

–Beck

It’s not true that rape is always “about power.” I think it’s about lust just as often. I started a whole thread about this in Great Debates in reaction to a flyer I saw posted in a college dorm, and the general consensus reached in that thread was that rape is just as often about a man wishing to have sex with a woman out of lustful urges as it is about a desire to dominate and control.

I think the film goes to great pains to demonstrate that (a) Susan George’s wife is bored and frisky, desperate for attention from her uninterested husband, and (b) the first attacker was someone she’d known since childhood (IIRC) who she felt comfortable teasing and found mildly attractive.

The rape has usually been the #1 sore point for viewers. The film was banned in the UK for decades because the censors had a strict prohibition about showing sexual assault where the woman can be construed as “enjoying it”. That said, despite her initial protestations, it is a sign of her character’s loneliness and longing for physical connection (not to mention emotional fragility) that allows her to succumb to the moment; in this familiar “friend” she finally sees qualities that are sorely lacking in her husband (passion, assertiveness). She’s not even all that distraught afterwards; it’s only when that friend encourages his mate to follow suit is when what’s actually happened is clarified for her. What she construed (in her vulnerable state of mind) to be a personal act where she’s the object of (albeit violent) affection is quickly replaced by the reality that what happened was a highly impersonal power play by the townsmen who are using the rape to further undermine the stability of the household and particularly Hoffman’s male ego.

I don’t think it’s as simple as “she liked it” or “she was asking for it” (which critics of the film too hastily claim is the film’s presentation), but there are unquestionably some volatile (and disturbing) dynamics going on there that don’t make the assault, as malicious and damaging as it is, a black&white scenario.

Uttterly irrelevant to the points of this thread, but too good a story not to tell.
I saw straw Dogs at MIT. Dustin Hoffman’s character is a astrophysicist, working out theory on a blackboard set up on an easel in those pre-personal computer days. One equation takes up the whole blackboard. After his character has a fight with his wife, she stomps off angrily. As she passes the blackboard, she stops and erases a “plus” sign somewhere in the middle of this massive equation and replaces it with a “minus” sign, out of spite.

One guy stood up in the audience watching the filom, and spoke with passion:
“I’d kill her!”

It was a toucvh of realism that, when Hoffman’s character walked past the blackboard, he immediately notices the wrong sign and corrects it to a “plus” with a single slash of the chalk.

I guess Straw Dogs seemed about as heavy handed as any action/thriller. It was like Die Hard in a cottage. It never occured to me to read into it, or to decipher the film maker’s attitude toward women. Given the OP, I’d be a little worried that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia wouldn’t suffer the same faults. It was hardly subtle, IMO.

Regardless, by far, the best Sam Peckinpah movie is Salad Days

Add me to the ham-handed list but perhaps I need to watch it again.

Massive fan of Cross of Iron .