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 Fury (1978)

The Fury is definitely a 1970s movie.  For one thing, this was at a time when anyone connected with the federal government was suspect, especially if it was the FBI or the CIA.  Exactly when government agencies were allowed to be populated by patriotic men and women of good moral character in the movies again, I cannot say with certainty.  However, the FBI was definitely rehabilitated by the time Manhunter was made in 1986, and the CIA was allowed to find its way back into the good graces of the audience in The Hunt for Red October in 1990.  But in the 1970s, government agents were mostly evil.  In The Fury, however, the government agency in question must really be bad, because it is so secret that no one has ever heard it.

Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas), who works for the agency when the movie opens, appears to be the exception.  I guess there is a good apple in every barrel.  But the agency, through his immediate superior, Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), tries to have him assassinated, their version of early retirement.  They do so in order to kidnap his psychic son, Robin (Andrew Stevens), presumably to weaponize his telekinetic powers.  In an effort to find Robin, Peter locates Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving), who has psychic powers of her own (capable of making people bleed through physical contact) hoping that she can lead him to Robin.  Amy is at the Paragon Institute, headed by Dr. McKeever (Charles Durning), whose purpose it is to study people with special psychic ability, but ultimately, McKeever works for Childress.

Because this is the 1970s, a time when alpha waves were all the rage, these brain waves are naturally worked into the movie.  More generally, there are continual references to some electromagnetic this or that associated with whatever parapsychological phenomena are taking place.  Figuratively, however, Robin’s powers are compared to an atomic reactor or an atomic bomb.  In other words, the government agents are fooling around with forces that may ultimately destroy them.

At a house where Robin is being tested, Dr. Susan Charles (Fiona Lewis), who has been acting as his lover to maintain control over him, suggests that he is becoming unstable and needs a break.  She takes him to a shopping mall where he becomes furious just because he finds her talking to a couple of other men.  Then we see some amusement rides, and immediately we know what is going to happen.  In his fury, he is going to use his telekinetic powers to cause one of the amusement rides to go wild.

But wait, we say to ourselves, that cannot be.  Robin is basically a good kid.  How can he cause the amusement ride to become destructive when we know that there are typically parents and their children on such rides?  Once again, it’s the zeitgeist of the 1970s to the rescue.  Just as we are wondering how he can do his thing with the amusement ride without harming mothers and their children, here come a bunch of Arab sheiks.  Americans hated Arabs at that time, thanks to the oil embargo of the early 1970s, which caused people to have to wait in long lines for gasoline.  Conveniently, then, innocent Americans get off the ride while the Arabs take their place.  As a result, when Robin unleashes his powers, we get the pleasure of watching Arab sheiks go flying everywhere.

Meanwhile, Peter arranges for Gillian to escape from Paragon.  It is early in the morning, and Gillian is still wearing her nightgown when she makes a break for it.  We see her running down the street in her bare feet, and we cannot help but notice that the bottoms of her feet are absolutely black.  “When was the last time she took a bath?” we ask ourselves.  But then we remember that this is the 1970s.  A lot of women had filthy feet back in those days.  Most did not, thank God!  But there was a sizable minority, usually young women or girls, who apparently thought having dirty feet was a sign of authenticity.  Maybe they even thought it was sexy.  Examples of other 1970s movies in which dirty feet are either displayed or referred to are Joe (1970) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977).  A friend of mine had a theory back then that girls kept a charcoal box under their bed, and before they went out on a date, they would rub their feet back and forth in the box and then lie on the bed holding their feet up to a mirror so they could see the bottoms in order to make sure they got the look they were hoping for.

The ending, at least, is what we would expect in any decade.  The evil government agents are destroyed by the two psychics, culminating in a final scene in which Gillian causes Childress’s body to explode, sending blood and guts everywhere, while his head flies into the air still wearing an astonished expression on its face.

No Escape (2015)

No Escape is principally a fantasy film for husbands who are failures.  A lot of men feel they have let their wives down, and in this movie, Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) has done so in a big way.  From the dialogue we learn that he used to be in business for himself, but he eventually had to give that up.  So, he takes a job with Cardiff, a water company, requiring that he relocate his family to some unnamed country, which would have to be either Laos or Cambodia, which means he and his family are strangers in a strange land, where they don’t speak the language and where the food being sold in the marketplace would cause you to lose your appetite.  They check into a hotel where the phone doesn’t work, some of the lights don’t come on, and there is nothing but snow on television.  And this looks like the best hotel in the whole city.  It all proves to be too much for Jack’s wife Annie (Lake Bell), and in the middle of the night he finds her sitting on the floor of the bathroom crying.  In other words, if things had proceeded normally from this point, this would have been a movie of misery, probably resulting in Annie’s taking their two children back to the United States before long and filing for divorce.

But then there is a coup, the prime minister is assassinated, everyone in the American embassy is killed, and the police are overrun by mobs of revolutionaries, whose ultimate goal is to slaughter every Caucasian foreigner in the country, especially employees of Cardiff.  As horrible as that sounds, it gives Jack a chance to redeem himself, as he leads his family this way and that through one melodramatic situation after another, even to the point of killing a man who was threatening them, in full view of his wife.  And she thought her husband was a failure.  Hah!

On the plane coming over, they met Hammond (Pierce Brosnan).  Given Brosnan’s James Bond persona, we are not surprised when he turns out to be a British spy.  But he is not just a spy who is getting along in years.  He is a corrupt version of James Bond.  Now that the Cold War is over, his services are put to ends more pecuniary than patriotic.  After coming to the rescue of Jack and his family, he confesses to being the ultimate cause of the revolution.  His job is to get countries to borrow money for projects, such as waterworks, knowing that they will never be able to pay back the loans. Being hopelessly in debt, the countries have no choice but to let corporations like Cardiff come in and make big profits at the expense of the impoverished citizens.  Normally, things work out well, and the citizens don’t even realize how it all happened.  But this time, things did not work out well, and so the people have risen up to take their country back.  In other words, Hammond continues, they are trying to protect their families just as Jack is trying to protect his.

That’s cute.  But Hammond’s explanation of what is going on comes across as a little bit forced and artificial.  Even if Hammond’s explanation were true of how things work in the third world, his flippant attitude is not realistic.  Most people try to justify what they are doing.  A real life Hammond would have tried to say that he was ultimately helping the people of the country, and that the profits made by Cardiff were just one more way in which the free-enterprise system works for the greater good.  But one gets the feeling that this more nuanced approach, which would have allowed us to gradually see through his self-deceiving justification, would have taken too much time.  So, the scriptwriters had Hammond just blurt it all out with no apologies.  We get a two-minute information dump, and that’s that.  Then it’s back to kill or be killed.

Speaking of which, the unrelenting obsession on the part of the revolutionaries to kill every Caucasian foreigner they can find seems to be a little much.  And when the leader of a squad of these killers tries to force one of Jack’s daughters to pull the trigger on a revolver and shoot Jack in the head, while holding a pistol to the head of that same daughter, he reminded me of some Snidely Whiplash character tying a girl to the railroad tracks.

And then along came Jones.  Or rather, along came Annie.  You see, in times past, it was all right for the man to save the helpless woman, but that is no longer acceptable.  And so, about halfway through the movie, Annie begins doing her share, even to the point of bashing the brains out of the guy trying to force her daughter to shoot Jack.

Finally, as the ultimate irony, Annie rows a boat containing her family across a river to Vietnam, where they find sanctuary.  From there, presumably, they will go back to the United States and stay there.  And so, thanks to the revolution, they live happily ever after.  Without that, Jack would have been a failure with a miserable wife on his way to a divorce.

Missing in Action (1984)

A long time ago, I saw an essay in a book of film criticism entitled, “How Hollywood Won the War in Vietnam.” I started to buy the book, but to my regret I did not, and so I never got to read the essay. However, I think I am safe in saying that Missing in Action was one of the movies the essay would have discussed, along with Rambo:  First Blood Part II (1985).

People who worry about words will quibble as to whether we “lost” the Vietnam War. Well, we did not lose it in the sense that we were not conquered by the Viet Cong, but we lost in the sense that we failed in our mission, that we gave up, pulled out, and let the Viet Cong take control of the entire country. And that made us feel bad.

But it is Hollywood’s job to create a better world than the one we actually have to live in. Now, Hollywood could not make a movie showing us conquering the Viet Cong and making the country safe for democracy, because the direct contradiction to reality would have been too stark. Instead, it made a movie in which an individual soldier, Colonel James Braddock (Chuck Norris), along with a few associates, goes back to Vietnam and succeeds in freeing some American soldiers still being held in a prisoner-of-war camp.

The Vietnamese government categorically denies having these prisoners, but to what end is a mystery. We simply have to assume that they just enjoy making these American prisoners of war miserable, or that they know that we know they have the prisoners, and that they just enjoy frustrating American efforts to get them back. In either event, they are mean and spiteful.

But what is important is that they give Braddock a mission that he can carry out. The first part of Braddock’s mission is to appear at a diplomatic function and display his contempt, as when he refuses to shake hands with a Vietnamese general. This ostensibly is directed toward the general, but it is really a put-down of American politicians who think that diplomacy is the way to get things done.

The second part of his mission is to personally kill the general and a high-ranking officer who is shown through a flashback to be cruel and evil. This allows him some personal revenge before he sets out to kill a bunch of generic bad guys.

The third part of his mission is to sneak into the jungle and free the American prisoners. Braddock and his few associates kill over ten times their number in doing so, proving that the American soldier is a vastly superior to his Vietnamese counterpart. You see, it was embarrassing that the world’s greatest superpower was unable to defeat such a puny country. This movie essentially declares that it must have been a bunch of spineless politicians back home that caused America to lose the war, probably the same sort that are busy being polite at diplomatic functions, because it is clear that men like Braddock would have won the war given the chance to do so.

This movie allows us some imaginary revenge against an enemy that humiliated us, and that makes us feel good. Of course, we would have felt a whole lot better if the movie had actually been entertaining instead of dull and plodding.