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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The Man I Married (1940) and Not Without My Daughter (1991)

Based on a true story, Not Without My Daughter is about a woman, Betty Mahmoody (Sally Field), who is married to an Iranian doctor, Moody (Alfred Molina).  He convinces her to go with him back to Iran to visit his family, taking their six-year-old daughter with them.  The year is 1984, and Betty is naturally hesitant, owing to the recent Iranian hostage crisis and the anti-Americanism that is aflame in that country, but she agrees.

Soon after they get there, the pressures of Iranian culture in general and that of his Iranian family begin to change Moody.  He becomes a different person than the one Betty thought she was married to in America.  She wants to go back to America, which she is free to do, but Moody will not let her take their daughter back with her.  She is told that girls in Iran are sometimes married off as young as eight years old, so leaving her behind is unthinkable.  Much of the movie is her struggle to sneak her daughter out of Iran, for which she requires the help of sympathetic Iranians.

There are two unnerving aspects to this movie.  The first is the way Moody becomes a different man when he returns to Iran.  Or perhaps I should say, he reverts to becoming the man he used to be before immigrating to the United States.  The second is the problem Betty has in trying to tell who will help her and who will not.  As a result of the differences in the American and Iranian cultures, the ordinary cues we take for granted here in America are not reliable in Iran.  The people she thinks might help her turn on her and betray her, while a man she thinks is going to betray her turns out to be acting in her interest and is instrumental in getting her and her daughter safely across the border to Turkey.

I saw Not Without My Daughter over twenty years ago.  But just the other night, I happened to watch The Man I Married, which was made in 1940 but set in 1938, just prior to the outbreak of World War II.  In that movie, Carol Hoffman (Joan Bennett) is married to a German immigrant, Eric, who wants her and their son Ricky to go on a vacation back to Germany with him to visit his father.  Shortly after they arrive, Eric begins to fall under the sway of German culture, and it is not long before he joins the Nazi party.  He even falls in love with Freda, who is also a Nazi, whom he wants to marry, and for which reason he wants a divorce from Carol.  Carol is disgusted with him and the whole Third Reich, and so she agrees.  But then she finds out that Eric will not allow her to take their son Ricky back with her to America, because he wants Ricky to become a Nazi too.

With the help of an American reporter, Kenneth Delane (Lloyd Nolan), she tries to sneak Ricky out, but Eric stops her.  Eric’s father is on Carol’s side, and he tells Eric that unless he lets her take Ricky back to America, he will reveal to the Nazis that his mother was a “Jewess.”  Freda is there when this is revealed, and she is repelled at the thought of having had an affair with someone who had Jewish blood.  Eric and crushed, and Carol takes Ricky and leaves without any resistance.

Carol does not have the same problem Betty did at reading the cultural cues of the people in Germany, probably because German culture is not as different from American culture as Iranian culture is.  But in both cases, a man who is one person in America becomes another person when he returns his country of origin.  Everyone has had the experience of being a different person around different people, but these movies take that ordinary experience to the next level.  Notwithstanding our belief in the integrity of our individual selves, both these movies reveal the disturbing fact that our individuality can be powerfully influenced by the cultural milieu we find ourselves in.  Of course, the women in both these movies, having been born in America and spent their whole lives there, are not similarly altered.  But the husbands in these movies, having spent a lot of time in both America and their respective countries of origin, are far more susceptible to such influences.

God’s Not Dead (2014)

Once I have decided to watch a movie, there is only one piece of information I want to know in advance, which is when the movie was made, because that provides the context that might be needed to appreciate the movie and understand it.  Of course, I already have other pieces of information in advance, such as the title, but basically, I like to watch the movie without having any more advance knowledge than necessary.

There is, additionally, my reason for selecting the movie for viewing.  In particular, I recently decided to watch movies that featured an atheist as a prominent character, in order to see how the treatment of atheism has evolved in a hundred years of American cinema.  The result of this endeavor resulted in my essay “Atheism in American Movies.”  Naturally enough, God’s Not Dead (2014) was on my list.

Normally, when I review a movie, it is neither necessary nor desirable to talk about myself.  But this calls for an exception.  I majored in philosophy in the late 1960s, and my favorite philosopher was Friedrich Nietzsche, who was the one who originally said, “God is dead.”  Needless to say, I was an atheist and have been ever since, although now my favorite philosopher is Arthur Schopenhauer.

The movie is set on a college campus.  Josh Wheaton is a freshman.  (I wonder how long it will be before we start designating first-year college students as “freshpersons.”)  He signs up for an introductory course in philosophy.  He is warned by another student not to take the course from Professor Radisson, but he is undeterred.  During the first class, Radisson says he doesn’t want to waste time debating the existence of God, so he demands that every student in the class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign it.  Josh refuses to sign it.  I must admit, Nietzschean atheist though I was, I wouldn’t have signed it either, but for very different reasons.

Radisson tells Josh that for twenty minutes in the next three classes, he will have to defend the proposition that God exists, with the implication that if he fails in this endeavor, he will flunk the course.  On the first day that he has to defend his belief that God is not dead, Josh essentially advances the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which is that an eternally existing God is needed to explain how a contingent world arose out of nothingness in a big bang.  On the second day, he advances the teleological argument for the existence of God, also known as the argument from design.  The thrust of this argument is that God is needed to explain life.  Evolution alone will not suffice.  On the third day, he addresses the problem of evil, in which the all the sin and suffering of this world seems to be inconsistent with the existence of an all-powerful, loving God.  His answer is that evil is the price we pay for having free will, which includes the freedom to accept Jesus as our savior, which will allow us to dwell in Heaven for eternity.  He also presents the moral argument for the existence of God, which is that God is needed as a foundation for morality.

Naïve me.  I thought that Radisson’s presentation on the first day was just a pose.  I thought what would happen was that in the end, Radisson would give Josh an A for having the courage of his convictions, for being able to defend his views in front of the classroom, knowing that he was being judged by a militant atheist.  Boy, was I wrong!  That became clear after the first presentation, when Radisson becomes physical and threatening, presumably because he feels threatened by Josh.  (Maybe I should have suspected something when I saw Radisson’s goatee, which is often seen in popular images of the Devil.)  After the third day, Josh gets the better of Radisson when he asks him why he hates God, and we find out that he hates God because God let his mother die when he was young.  Then Josh asks him how he can hate someone who doesn’t exist.  Golly!  Radisson never thought of that.

The rest of the movie shows how sweet and wonderful Christians are, and how mean and selfish atheists are, including Chinese communists.  Of course, not everyone who believes in God is sweet and wonderful.  You have to believe in the real God, because a Muslim kicks his daughter out of the house when he discovers she is an apostate who secretly listens to sermons on Christianity.

Radisson is hit by a car, receiving fatal injuries.  But that’s all right, because God kept Reverend Dave in town by not allowing any car he got into to start until he was needed at that intersection where Radisson was hit.  And so it is that in the long tradition of atheists in movies, Radisson repents and lets Jesus into his life just before he dies.

I learned something from watching this movie.  I learned that it was made by Pure Flix Productions, a company that specializes in the genre of Christian paranoia, and it does so with a simple-mindedness that makes Sunday school look like a Jesuit seminar.  At the beginning of this essay, I said that I try to keep my knowledge about a movie to a minimum before I watch it, except for such things as the title and the date in which the movie was made.  I now add one more item to that list.  From now on, before I watch a movie, I want to know if it was produced by Pure Flix, because if it was, there is no way I will subject myself to another movie like this one.

Blacula (1972)

Obviously, Blacula is a blaxploitation film.  It is about a vampire of African descent. The movie is all right at first, but then it goes stupid. The detective knows he is after a vampire, and he knows all the rules about killing vampires with sun exposure or a wooden stake through the heart, and he knows that a cross will make a vampire cringe. But when he goes to the place where he suspects that Blacula keeps his coffin, he goes with cops who are armed with nothing but pistols, which are ineffective. So cops get killed left and right. But the detective has a cross for himself, of course. Oh well, it could have been worse. Blacula could have been played by Christopher Lee in blackface.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

If you’ve seen one revisionist western, you’ve seen them all. It’s always the same old thing. The heroes are actually unheroic. That’s it. That’s the whole point, and we already knew that. To make matters worse, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson is directed by Robert Altman, who keeps running his MASH style of movie making into the ground: people talking over one another, lots of silliness, quirky characters. It worked great in MASH, but it won’t make silk out of a cow’s ear. This movie ranges from boring to irritating.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

In Only Angels Have Wings, a bunch of real men risk their lives on a nightly basis flying the mail over the Andes. The mail? I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if they were risking their lives to save the world from evil Nazis or something like that. But is it worth putting your life on the line for a paycheck? It is if you’re in a Howard Hawks movie, where the men are men and the women are glad of it. Whenever one of the pilots dies, if someone mentions his name, they ask, “Who?”  Real men aren’t sentimental.

In the midst of all that, a new pilot shows up who is known to be a coward, and so naturally he has to prove himself by being a hero. Jean Arthur falls in love with Cary Grant five minutes after she meets him, but it takes him a whole week to fall in love with her, right after she shoots him.  For a real man, that’s what is known as foreplay.

Duel at Diablo (1966)

Duel at Diablo is one of the last movies in which Indians still scalp men, rape women, and subject their prisoners to cruel tortures, although some of the white men are portrayed in a pretty bad light too. One raped woman, Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson), who ends up with a papoose, is married to Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver), who regards her as defiled. That’s fine with her, because she’d rather live with the Indian that raped her anyway.  She might as well, because now that she is regarded as an outcast, some white men try to rape her as well.

James Garner’s character, Jess Remsberg, is a squaw man whose wife was scalped by a white man, and he is out for revenge.  That man turns out to be Willard, who wanted to get even for what had happened to his wife.

Sydney Poitier is also in this movie.  Since race plays such a large role in this movie, we expect his race to also be a factor, but no one mentions it or reacts to it. Other than that, it’s the cavalry versus the Apaches, and what a slaughter! Not only do men die left and right, but many are wounded and crippled. Even the horses get killed.

Perhaps as a step toward the apologist Westerns of the seventies, there is reference to the way the Apaches are mistreated on the reservation at San Carlos. As the Apache prisoners are led away by the cavalry at the end of the movie, Jess makes a remark to the effect that the Apaches will probably go off the reservation again, because they have no reason not to.