Straw Dogs on Blu-ray
by Jef Burnham
Available September 6, 2011 on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.
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Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is not an easy film. On the small handful of occasions that Straw Dogs and I have crossed paths, I find that the film takes an increasingly greater emotional toll on me on each subsequent viewing. On the other hand, I also find that my admiration for the picture increases at a corresponding rate. This film follows David and Amy Sumner (Dustin Hoffman and Susan George), who move to her hometown in the English countryside only to find themselves the target of the most violent group of locals. After much torment, including the raping of Amy, the locals stage an assault on the Sumner home (for a number of reasons) at the film’s climax, and it’s up to David to repel their attackers. What follows is an incredible display of justified ultra-violence.
In the overall scope of the film, the violence against the attackers in the denouement provide the audience with immense catharsis for the emotions stirred by the torment of the couple and the grisly rape of Amy earlier in the film. By this I mean that we, the audience, as a result of being so horrified and disgusted by the events preceding the attack, not only welcome, but revel with sadistic glee in David’s ultra-violent dispatching of the invaders. When you look at modern horror movies and you see little of this purging for the audience, and where it occurs, it is highly irresponsible in that any catharsis provided is purely coincidental and unmotivated by the film text or real world events from which the audience might need catharsis (think films in the torture porn vein (Hostel excluded)).
Historically, Straw Dogs was made at the tail-end of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and a series of similar films would be made by filmmakers in an attempt to purge their audiences of the anxiety, disgust, etc. they felt toward the atrocities reported every day on the news. Wes Craven, for example, has stated explicitly that this was his intention with Last House on the Left (1972), which similarly finds rapists/murderers on the receiving end of ultra-violence in the conclusion. As he states in 2000’s The American Nightmare, Craven made the film precisely to provide catharsis to audiences struggling to reconcile their own lives with the terrible things happening in Vietnam. Curiously, and perhaps counter-productively, such films also result in the audience feeling that there are those in the world who deserve to be murdered— feelings which are projected onto the rapists/murderers.
Was this Peckinpah’s intention, to provide the audience with catharsis for Vietnam? Well, I presume that the latter point (involving the justification of murder) was, but as for providing his audience with catharsis for the emotions stirred by the war, why not? He claimed that the film was an attempt to purge himself of his obsession with violence, so it only follows that it should do the same for the audience. And if ever there were a film that would purge both audience and filmmaker alike of their fascination with violence, this would certainly be it.
To this end, the film focuses on the connection between progress and death much as Peckinpah’s other films do. Take, for instance, The Wild Bunch. The Bunch themselves represent an outmoded code of honor that hinders the progress of such modern “businessmen” as General Mapache. Therefore, the Bunch must die in order for society to move forward unhindered. Similarly, Straw Dogs’ rape scene requires a counterpoint that will allow the couple to move forward unhindered by the interference of the locals. Peckinpah provides this in the form of the Englishmen’s violent destruction. Thus, Peckinpah’s cinematic world works out its kinks.
Of course, Peckinpah once claimed that all women wanted to be raped, and in that respect one might argue that the rape in Straw Dogs may not be something that needs avenging of any sort. In that case, the violence would be included here for the mere sake of itself. And I have two responses to that: 1) It would still be a husband’s duty to defend his wife’s honor (even if David didn’t know about the incident, he’d still need to act eventually). Or, if we are to believe Peckinpah was the misogynist he presented himself as, it would be the husband’s duty to defend his property (which, in a misogynistic view, would include his wife). 2) As a Peckinpah fan well aware of the character he put on in the press, I’d like to think that he didn’t honestly believe such drivel, and was merely putting people on. If I were to somehow discern that he did in fact believe the garbage he spouted, I could no longer defend the man’s work and it would make me very sad.
The quality of the HD picture transfer on the Blu-ray release is spectacular. The image is crystal clear throughout with very little debris to speak of and the rich grain of the film stock is respectfully maintained in the transfer. And the audio is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles. The special features on this disc are unfortunately quite limited, including but the original theatrical trailer and three television spots.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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