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STRAW DOGS (director/writer: Sam Peckinpah; screenwriters: David Zelag Goodman/based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams; cinematographer: John Coquillon; editors: Paul Davies/Tony Lawson/Roger Spottiswoode; music: Jerry Fielding; cast: Dustin Hoffman (David Sumner), Susan George (Amy Sumner), David Warner (Henry Niles), Peter Vaughan (Tom Hedden), TP McKenna (Major John Scott), Del Henney (Charlie Venner), Sally Thomsett (Janice Hedden), Colin Welland (Reverend Barney Hood), Peter Arne (John Niles), Jim Norton (Chris Cawsey), Len Jones (Bobby Hedden), Robert Keegan (Harry Ware), Ken Hutchison (Norman Scutt), Cherina Schaer (Louise Hood), Donald Webster (Riddaway); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Daniel Melnick; Criterion; 1971-UK)
“Gory and shocking.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A contemporary melodrama framed around an excessively violent story that has something nasty to say about civilization, liberals, intellectuals, effetes, low-life country folks, forward women and marriage. It’s set on the Cornish coast of England. Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”/”Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”/”Junior Bonner”) keeps it gory and shocking. The director bases it loosely on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams.

The nerdy, smug, cowardly and soft-spoken American mathematician, Professor David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), someone who can’t even commit to taking a stand on the Vietnam War, receives a grant and with his attractive trophy wife Amy (Susan George) escapes the American urban violence by moving to her birthplace–an isolated farmhouse in a small and quiet Cornish village.

David hires four locals to repair the roof and clear the house of rats. One of them is Amy’s ex-lover Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and the other is his chilling friend Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison). The four lads mock David behind his back for not being macho like them and ogle Amy, who says she hates their leers but nevertheless seems to encourage their attentions by walking around bra-less. While David goes on a hunting trip with them, thinking he could become one of the boys, they pull a fast one and desert him. In the meantime Charlie returns to David’s farmhouse and forces himself on Amy, who soon willingly submits and lets herself enjoy the rape. Then Norman enters the cottage and violently takes Amy from behind and humiliates her. The confused Amy has grown weary of her nebbish bullying hubby who treats her contemptuously as an inferior and is more interested in his math formulas than pleasing her sexually, and therefore the shamed woman not only doesn’t tell him about the rape but taunts him about his lack of balls.

The couple soon after attend a local church function at the meeting hall and drive home on a foggy night, and David on a dark back road bangs into the town retard Henry Niles (David Warner) and he takes the injured man home with them over her objections. They don’t know the slightly injured simpleton just accidentally strangled a miniskirted teen flirt, Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett), and the locals who were David’s tormentors and Janice’s brutish father (Peter Vaughan) are searching for him. For some inexplicable reason the smug David chooses now to make a stand to exert his manhood and not allow the 5 men to remove Henry from their house–under the guise of his home is his castle and that he will protect it against all intruders. He also refuses to listen to Amy’s pleas to let the angry men have the good-for-nothing half-wit and pulls her back by her hair when she tries to escape in the same way the rapist pulled her hair. The result is the professor causes one man’s foot to be shot off, beats off one with a lead pipe, pours scalding water over another, snares still another around the neck in a giant mantrap, and persuades the unfaithful Amy to shoot the fifth in the back with a shotgun.

Nice work for a pacifist, as David if not the most evil one in the story is certainly the most phony. David then drives Henry to the police station and despite all the mayhem has a self-congratulatory smile on his kisser. The film, a homage to misogyny and macho-ism, ends on this cynical note: that all humans have the potential for violence if they find themselves in certain circumstances needing to assert themselves, and to deny this is only a lie that civilized men try to flatter themselves with in thinking they are superior to the primitives. I don’t really buy into what Peckinpah is selling as his philosophy (seems fascist, as Pauline Kael so astutely noted), and also his ludicrous take on all women as being sluts and like Eve contributing to man’s fall from the spiritual world. But I bought into the raw power of the film, and it effectively hit a nerve against a certain type of repressed intellectual.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”