Sam Peckinpah hated violence, or so he always claimed. And still he made The Wild Bunch, one of the most outrageously violent movies yet made when it came out in 1969. Perhaps his loathing of violence explains the filmmaker’s blood-splattered career. Conflict fascinated him, and his doubts regarding the supposed taming powers of civilization were expressed again and again in his television and film work, although perhaps never so explicitly as in 1971’s Straw Dogs. This truly disturbing film never gained full access to the dark hall of fame that includes A Clockwork Orange (1971), Taxi Driver (1976), and Apocalypse Now (1979), despite its comparably grim reflection of its era. Viewers who skipped out on Criterion’s lavish 2003 DVD edition might now see why: the movie appears a quaint predecessor of many of today’s blockbusters, focused on a quiet man driven to righteous violence by local brutes.
It starts with teasing and menacing stares between mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and locals surrounding his adopted English home. The tension soon escalates to the rape of David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), and an outright siege of their home to drag out and kill Henry (David Warner), an injured man himself guilty of a violent crime, though an accidental one (he has killed a local girl, in a scene lifted from Of Mice and Men). At this point, David fights back, resorting to the same sort of violence he so loathed when enacted by the brutish townspeople, men whose only natural habitat seems to be a grimy pub. Though both this transformation and the graphic nature of the fighting shocked audiences three decades ago, it would raise few objections by today’s standards, a striking fact when considering that a man is killed with a bear trap snapping shut on his neck.
Today’s boys and girls will sigh and turn on their Playstations, but other, perhaps older, viewers may have sussed out that what makes Straw Dogs so discomfiting is not the violence per se but the film’s ambivalence towards it. Consider the infamous rape scene in which Amy, being brutalized by a former lover, begins to enjoy it. This shift is so repulsive that viewers tend to lose the capacity for rational thought.
The film links Amy’s reaction to David’s ineffectuality and contempt for her. He is insufficiently loving, of course, but the deeper point Straw Dogs digs at is that he is also insufficiently masculine. The horror that befalls them is his fault. As passing comments reveal, he is opposed to the war in Vietnam, but instead of protesting it, he has fled to England. David is not a principled pacifist as he would like to believe but, as Amy calls him, a “coward.” His inability to guard himself against the hooligans’ verbal jabs places him on an inevitable path to tragedy. Only by fighting off the assault on his home does he finally pass the moral test he fails at every previous opportunity.
Then again, perhaps it’s only the sensationalism of subsequent blockbusters that makes Straw Dogs appear this simple. David feels invigorated and virtuous after his counterattack, but too many details prick at the surface of this ostensible happy ending. Henry, essentially the village idiot, has for so long been kept in line with violence that he can’t help but inflict it onto an innocent bystander. He stands at the opposite pole of the intellectual spectrum from David, yet the two men are united in the end, a process that both saves and degrades David. And while Henry can’t prevent his own actions, David chooses his. By relinquishing Henry, David will be left alone, but as he faces only competing moral compromises as choices, the film suggests that neither can prevent the inexorable bloodshed.
Perhaps David’s decision is heroic, given the circumstances, but the accumulated images of his passivity remind the viewer that better choices, genuinely decent ones, would have been available to him had he not repeatedly shrunk from conflict. He is a not a new kind of Peckinpah hero, but a familiar villain, one whose weakness is abhorrent. The note on which we take our leave of David is quite different from A Clockwork Orange‘s irony, Taxi Driver‘s dark sympathy, or Apocalypse Now‘s psychedelic blitzkrieg. The close of Straw Dogs is quieter and more unsettling. If this new, lower-priced DVD doesn’t vault it into the company of these films, it is not because we are desensitized to its gore, but because it remains too discomforting.