Straw Dogs (1971, 2011)

Most remakes beg the question, “Why did they bother?”  But for lack of anything better to do, I watched the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs.  It wasn’t bad.  In fact, I started wondering if maybe it wasn’t actually an improvement over the original.  Now, on the one hand, the original was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who made The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Getaway (1972); on the other hand, the original was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who made The Killer Elite (1975) and The Osterman Weekend (1983).  It had been a long time since I had seen Straw Dogs, and while I knew it was better than some of those awful films Peckinpah directed later in his career, I couldn’t remember if it belonged up there with his best films.

I tried to refresh my memory by reading some reviews, and it was then I found out that there was an uncut version available, which included five minutes of additional footage.  That meant that I might have seen only the cut version.  Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, there was no such thing as a director’s cut.  Movies would often be cut over the director’s objections before they even made it to the theater.  There were no DVDs to save the day.  In fact, there was no cable TV and no video cassettes.  The first time I saw The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), they had each been reduced by about thirty minutes in length so that the theaters could fit two showings of these movies into one evening.  It was a long time before I got to see them in their entirety.

In some cases, the situation was further exacerbated when the movie was edited for television, in order to cut out the dirty words or to reduce the amount of sex and violence.  Once the cuts had been made by a major network, that edited version was all that was available from then on.  A case in point is Darker Than Amber (1970).  Even the DVD is nothing but the edited-for-television version from back in those dark days.

And so it was that I decided to watch the original Straw Dogs again, partly to see whether it was better than the remake, and partly to see scenes that might have been cut out originally.  It was better than the remake, much better.  When the violence begins near the end of the movie, we see the photography for which Peckinpah is famous, in comparison to which the remake is just fair.

The material that had been cut out of the original was the scene where Amy Sumner (Susan George) is raped by her old boyfriend, who then holds her down so his friend can rape her too.  It also exceeds the corresponding rape scene in the remake in its visceral force.  But there is another difference.  In the remake, Amy does not want to be raped, pure and simple.  In the original, when her old boyfriend starts raping her, she vacillates between struggling against him and giving in to her lust for him.  This stands in contrast to her relationship with her husband David (Dustin Hoffman), who is a somewhat indifferent lover, who tends to be easily distracted when they are kissing or having sex.

The idea of a woman actually enjoying being raped is disturbing.  And there are several other disturbing elements of this movie.  Earlier on, Amy deliberately stood in front of the open bathroom window with nothing on from the waist up, letting the men working on the roof of the garage look at her, and then she turns to take a shower with the window still open.  You can almost hear the men, two of whom eventually rape her, saying to themselves, “Why, she’s just begging us to watch,” and “She wants it bad.  We ought to give it to her the way she wants it.”

Another disturbing part of the movie involves a mentally retarded man, Henry Niles (David Warner), who apparently was caught fondling a young girl.  Some people think he should be institutionalized, but his brother says that he can take care of him.  Of course, the brother’s idea of taking care his child-molesting, retarded brother is by brutally slapping him when Janice, who appears to be about fifteen years old, starts talking to him in the middle of the street.

Janice, by the way, is sexually aggressive, and she keeps pursuing Henry, eventually getting him alone with her.  But when he hears people looking for them, because they fear the worst, he accidentally chokes her to death trying to keep her quiet.  We have been allowed up to that point to feel sorry for Henry, thinking he needed more understanding.  Suddenly, we realize he should have been locked up a long time ago.

David and Amy are driving home, having left a social event at the church early, mainly because Amy kept having flashbacks of being raped, when they hit Henry, who has run out into the street in the fog, fleeing the scene after having killed Janice.  They take Henry home, intending to call for medical help.  Failing that, they call the local pub, hoping to find the doctor there.  In so doing, Janice’s father, brother, and friends of theirs, who are at the pub, wondering where Janice is, find out that Henry is at the Sumner’s house.  They decide to drive out there to make Henry talk.  This leads to the siege and the subsequent scenes of violence in which David manages to kill all of them, with the help of Amy, who was reluctant at first.

Amy never tells David that she was raped.  In other words, Peckinpah deliberately kept the violation of David’s wife from being a motive for killing the men trying to break into the house to get Henry.  The concept of territoriality was very popular back then, having been made so by Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative, published in 1966.  We get the sense that David’s principal motivation is to defend his territory against those who would dare to invade it.

Aside from Amy’s seeming to partly enjoy being raped by her boyfriend, most of these disturbing elements are in the remake.  There is one thing about the remake that I did like:  it explains the significance of the title.  In the remake, which is set in Blackwater, Alabama, instead of some rural town in England, as in the original, the men who cause the Sumners so much trouble used to be football players in high school, and Blackwater is the kind of place where high school football is a big deal.  David refers to these men as straw dogs.  When Amy asks what he means, he explains:

… in ancient Chinese rituals, dogs made of straw were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual, they were treated with the utmost reverence. When they were no longer needed, they were tossed aside, trampled on. They became nothing. When their football careers are over with, that’s all these boys become.

That makes perfectly good sense.  But even knowing this, it is hard to apply this metaphor to the men in the original, where sports doesn’t figure into the story at all.  Of course, it would be rugby, not football, but there is no reference to that or anything like it.

Finally, there is one difference that might seem like a minor point, but actually is not.  In the remake, when the Sumners arrive at Amy’s old home, David notices that there is a bear trap in the house.  In the final scene of violence in the movie, David brings the bear trap down on the head of Amy’s old boyfriend, which clamps down on his neck.  We get to see him struggle to open it back up for about a minute, but to no avail.  All in all, it’s a satisfying form of revenge.  However, in the original, it is a mantrap, which was once used to catch poachers.  Amy bought it, because she collects antiques.  Let’s face it.  Even if you deplore the idea of using a trap like that to catch bears, it is even more horrifying to think that devices such as that were once used to trap men.  It just sets a much darker tone for the original than the bear trap did for the remake.

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