Brutal and Unreformed—Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ at 50
Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971)

Brutal and Unreformed—Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ at 50

Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen
32 min read

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following analysis discusses the film in its entirety and features spoilers throughout.

I.

December 22nd will be the 50th anniversary of the release of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, a film so marked by violent killings and violent sex that, according to Peckinpah’s biographer, David Weddle, a third of the audience walked out of its premiere before the end. But most of those who remained, Weddle reports, hooted and cheered as protagonist David Sumner, a hitherto-passive American academic played by Dustin Hoffman, ruthlessly repelled a passel of homicidal home-invaders besieging the English farmhouse where he lived with his wife. Set in the fictional village of Wakely amid the stark West Country moorlands of Cornwall, Straw Dogs was one of a clutch of films released during this period that examined the lethal conflict between savage rubes and clueless city sophistos—a counterpart to Ted Kotcheff's grim Australian psychodrama, Wake in Fright (also 1971), and John Boorman’s Southern backwater classic, Deliverance (1972).

Controversial from the day of its release, Peckinpah’s film has remained so for five decades, both for its presumed glorification of violence and for its unsympathetic treatment of Sumner’s young and beautiful Wakely-born wife, Amy (Susan George, then only 20). The day before the siege, Amy is raped by two members of the mob—her former boyfriend, Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and his malevolent companion, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison). Clad only in underclothes and a hip-length bathrobe, she admits Venner to the Sumners’ home in her husband’s absence with the offer of a drink. At first, she resists Venner’s violent assault (he slugs her, drags her across the stone floor by her hair, and shreds her clothing), but then hungrily reciprocates, desperate for the passion denied by her sterile marriage and feckless husband.

The second sexual assault occurs immediately after the first, when Scutt appears and forces Venner at gunpoint—at least, at first—to restrain Amy while he sodomizes her, a horrifying experience for Amy and audience alike. The first of these attacks produced more outrage than the second—the suggestion that a woman could enjoy being forcibly dominated by a man was (and still is) categorically verboten in the canons of contemporary feminism, and the scene immediately became a flashpoint of liberal film criticism. (Tellingly, Rod Lurie’s tepid 2011 remake, which moved the action from rural Cornwall to rural Mississippi, omits any erotic ambiguity in Venner’s rape, and presents it as a wholly distasteful experience.)

Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and Amy Sumner (Susan George)

Straw Dogs was released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, William Friedkin’s The French Connection, and Don Siegel’s landmark Clint Eastwood vehicle Dirty Harry, three even bigger crowd-pleasers whose graphic violence many film critics also deplored. But the lengthy and literalized rape scene in Straw Dogs was troubling even by the permissive standards of the 1970s, when many films handled sex far more explicitly than they do now. Only by strenuous lobbying and some cutting were Peckinpah and the film’s producer, Daniel Melnick, able to persuade the Motion Picture Association of America to give the film an R-rating instead of the X reserved for pornography. The British censors were less forgiving, and handed Straw Dogs an X certificate. They didn’t clear the uncut version for video and DVD release in Britain until 2002.

Among the harshest of the film’s early critics was the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. In an essay published on January 29th, 1972, Kael excoriated Peckinpah for patenting what she described as an “aesthetic of cruelty.” The first rape, she confessed, “is one of the few truly erotic sequences on film, and the punches that subdue the wife have the exquisite languor of slightly slowed-down motion. This same language is present in the later slaughters; the editing is superb in these sequences, with the slowing-down never prolonged but just long enough to fix the images of violence in your imagination.” However, she found the sexual politics of what she was watching repulsive:

The [first] rape has heat to it—there can be little doubt of that—but what goes into that heat is the old male barroom attitude: we can see that she’s asking for it, she’s begging for it, that her every no means yes. The rape scene says that women really want the rough stuff, that deep down they’re little beasts asking to be made submissive. […] It confirms the male insanity that there is no such thing as rape. … The movie taps a sexual fascism—that is what machismo is—that is so much a part of folklore that it’s on the underside of many an educated consciousness and is rampant among the uneducated.

Kael’s final judgment—“the first American film that is a fascist work of art”—remains in many ways the consensus last word on Straw Dogs.

In 2003, British film critic Mark Kermode wrote and presented a 50-minute documentary about the film entitled Mantrap: Straw Dogs—The Final Cut, in which his wife, Linda Ruth Williams, then a film-studies professor at the University of Exeter, offered this schoolmarm’s pronunciamento: “Any film that peddles the notion that women can enjoy rape is deeply problematic, and we need to talk about these problems.” In the same documentary, Mexican actress Isela Vega, who had starred in Peckinpah’s macabre revenge thriller Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in 1974, paraphrased Kael: “This is the old idea that women said no when they meant yes.” Melanie Williams (no relation to Linda Ruth, apparently), a film historian at the University of East Anglia, wrote in 2005: “[T]he enactment purposely catered to entrenched appetites for desired victim behavior and reinforces rape myths.”

The problem with these objections is that they fundamentally misunderstand (or ignore) what’s actually going on in the scene. Although I've used the term for the sake of convenience, it’s not at all clear that what happens between Charlie and Amy is a rape, as the term is commonly understood. It’s certainly not a seduction either—in fact, it’s difficult to know what to call it. The progressive lexicon we routinely employ in discussions about sexual violence doesn’t provide us with the language necessary to appreciate the dramatic and emotional complexity of an experience like this one. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that, 50 years on, the feminist take on Straw Dogs continues to dominate critical discussion. The novel on which Peckinpah‘s film was based, Mark Kermode gravely informs viewers of Mantrap, “is about the man. But the film is about the woman. And the film’s attitude to the woman is deeply problematic.”

The accusations of violence glorification and fascism were so intense that Peckinpah seemed to be cowed by them. In interviews defending his film, he occasionally suggested that the movie was a condemnation of violence and sometimes even went so far as to claim that Sumner’s forceful defense of his home was as reprehensible as its forceful invasion by the mob. In a 1972 interview with William Murray of Playboy, he maintained that the real theme of Straw Dogs was David Sumner’s recognition of the “enormous suppressed violence that he had been living with” and argued that Sumner was “maneuvering himself into a situation where he’d be forced to let the violence in himself out, as a lot of so-called pacifists and supposedly passive people do.” But he also told Murray: “True pacifism is manly. In fact, it's the finest form of manliness. But if a man comes up to you and cuts your hand off, you don't offer him the other one. Not if you want to go on playing the piano, you don't. … You have to recognize [violence’s] true nature in yourself as well as in others and stand up to it. If you run, you're dead, or you ought to be.”

However, Peckinpah’s ambivalence was contradicted, at least partially, by the blunt tagline emblazoned across some of his film’s promotional materials (“The knock at the door meant the birth of a man and the death of seven others”), and by the film itself. I saw Straw Dogs for the first time within weeks of its initial release, my interest piqued by the iconic poster art—a close-up of the shattered lens of Hoffman-as-Sumner’s professorial wire-rimmed spectacles. Enthralled by Peckinpah’s bleak vision and Hoffman’s riveting transformation, I was among those who stayed to cheer him on. At the time, I was still a placard-carrying Vietnam War opponent who believed that violence solved nothing. But it was perfectly clear to me that, in Straw Dogs, violence solved a lot.

I must admit that I also relished Sumner finally turning on his faithless wife, who emasculates and undermines him at every opportunity before the bloody denouement. Not only does she initially refuse to help him defend their home, but she continues to pine for Venner, even after he participates in her degradation at the hands of Scutt. As events slip out of control and the couple find themselves in mortal danger, Sumner takes charge of his marriage at last, literally slapping Amy out of her spiteful and obstructive denial, and then abandoning her once it is all over.

My reaction to the film was out of sync, I realized, with that of my liberal peers—politically incorrect even a half-century ago. But as Weddle’s book indicates, it was not out of sync with that of the 1970s audiences who turned a profit for the film despite its exceedingly mixed reviews. Even Peckinpah’s mother, Fern, a woman of delicate sensitivities who had spent much of her son’s childhood in Fresno, California, lying on a couch enfeebled by psychosomatic illnesses, loved Straw Dogs. The movie confronted me with an unsparing portrait of humanity that tore through the genteel liberalism and dutifully raised-consciousnesses of that era and our own. It revealed something compellingly true and terrible about human nature, male and female, that crushed into splinters fashionable ideologies, from pacifism to feminism to progressivism itself.

II.

Peckinpah was 46 in 1971, and Straw Dogs was his sixth feature film as director. The preceding five had all been Westerns—a genre in which Peckinpah had accrued considerable experience as a screenwriter and television director, and also as a man who cultivated a public persona as a son of the Wild West. His father was a prominent Fresno lawyer, not a cowboy, but both his great-grandfathers had been California pioneers. His maternal grandfather, Denver S. Church, although a judge and sometime US congressman, owned a vast cattle ranch near the Sierra Nevada where cowboy culture flourished and young Sam immersed himself in riding, branding, and shooting.

The best (and best-known) of those five early Westerns was The Wild Bunch (1969), which hurtled its director into international fame and notoriety. Peckinpah said that his aim in making that film was to “open up” the conventional Western, which he believed had glamorized murderous gunslingers—to “twist” the genre “so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut ... it's ugly, brutalizing, and bloody awful; it's not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It's a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there.”

The Wild Bunch, which Peckinpah also co-wrote, delivered on that promise. Its anti-heroes are a pack of aging train robbers (including Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates) led by Pike Bishop (William Holden). North of the border, Bishop’s gang flee a posse of bounty-hunters hired by the railroad and led by his former partner-in-crime, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), while across the Rio Grande, they fight vicious federales against the backdrop of the nascent Mexican Revolution in 1913. Sadistic torture and bloody shootouts climax in a machine-gun massacre of men, women, children, and animals in a corrupt Mexican general’s compound that sent cinemagoers reeling out of the exits before the credit crawl. There is no clear morality—no conventional white hats and black hats identifying right and wrong—beyond the honor-among-thieves that only really surfaces in the final reel’s suicidal last stand.

Pike Bishop (William Holden) in The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch’s moral ambivalence (which some critics misconstrued as nihilism) was startling, but the film was also a work of great artistic and technical virtuosity, distinguished by strong performances and Lucien Ballard’s gorgeous photography. In a quest for realistic recapitulation of the crackling sound of gunfire while on location in Mexico, Peckinpah emptied a revolver loaded with live rounds into a nearby wall. “That’s the kind of effect I want!” he shouted at his crew. But Peckinpah’s originality lay in his blend of the hyper-real and the phantasmagoric. His revolutionary battery of rapid cross-cutting, telephoto lenses, and slow-motion imbued the chaotic scenes of bloodletting with a haunting expressionistic quality, at once elegant and horrifying.

The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Screenplay (Peckinpah and his co-writer, Roy N. Sickner) and Best Original Score (Jerry Fielding, who also composed the score for Straw Dogs), and it garnered other nominations and awards for direction and cinematography. The American Film Institute now lists it as 80th among its 100 best American films and the sixth-best Western made in America. As a bracingly original talent, Peckinpah had proved that he could hold his own against such icons of the genre as John Ford and Howard Hawks.

But by the time he made Straw Dogs two years later, Peckinpah was in England in financial exile. He had followed The Wild Bunch in 1970 with a gently eccentric musical Western starring Jason Robards called The Ballad of Cable Hogue, but his dawn-to-midnight drinking and pugilistic temperament had caused the film to fall behind schedule and run over budget. Now considered a liability, the director was blackballed by Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, the studio that had distributed The Wild Bunch. He had been under consideration to direct Deliverance for Warners, but after the Cable Hogue debacle, his career was languishing in the doldrums, and he nearly squandered the opportunity to recover his reputation that Straw Dogs presented.

On a stormy night in Cornwall, Peckinpah rousted Ken Hutchison out of bed for an all-nighter under a dock with a bottle at Land’s End, and shooting went on hiatus for two weeks while he recuperated from pneumonia in a London hospital. The early rushes were a mess and Dustin Hoffman wanted Peckinpah replaced. At producer Daniel Melnick’s request, studio head Martin Baum flew to England from LA and told Peckinpah that if he didn’t get his act together, he would be fired and his career would be over. Faced with the prospect of professional oblivion, he recovered his self-discipline.

III.

The screenplay for Straw Dogs was co-written by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman, loosely adapted from a 1969 potboiler by Scottish writer Gordon M. Williams entitled The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. Little remains in Peckinpah’s film of Williams’s plot beyond the name of the Sumners’ Cornish homestead and the concluding assault on the house by West Country vigilantes. Informed by a journalist who visited the set that Williams had publicly declared himself unhappy with what Peckinpah was doing with his material, the director chuckled: “Well, I think Mr. Williams has a penchant for his own work. I don’t.”

In Williams’s novel, the protagonists are the middle-aged parents of an eight-year-old girl and nobody gets raped. In Peckinpah and Goodman’s script, they were replaced by a younger, childless couple in a poisonous marriage, the problems of which are signposted in the film’s opening scenes. Amy is blonde, alluring, and braless under a tight sweater, and as she strides through the village where she grew up, the camera, like the lascivious gaze of the locals, fastens on her chest. Amy’s diminutive American husband struggles behind clutching a box of groceries and squinting uncertainly without his glasses at the unfamiliar surroundings.

Trailing them are 14-year-old Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) and her brother Bobby (Len Jones) who are carrying a steel-toothed mantrap for poachers—an antique that Amy has purchased to hang on the wall over the farm’s mantlepiece. Janice is an apple-cheeked, miniskirted teenage flirt with a crush on David Sumner but also on village idiot Henry Niles (David Warner), whose imposing frame harbors a pitiably simple mind. Niles, we learn, is on parole following some unspecified sexual misadventure involving a child which has made him the object of village suspicion and opprobrium.

Upon reaching their car, David announces that he’s going to buy cigarettes in the village pub, and there we meet Janice’s father, Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan), the belligerent town drunk. The atmosphere in the pub is strained and vaguely threatening, as it might have been in one of the Old West’s frontier bars, and the scene offers a painfully uncomfortable snapshot of David’s outsiderdom. The locals treat him with a mixture of curiosity and contempt, and when a minor brawl erupts, he is knocked backwards into a chair like a doll.  

L–R: Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) and Henry Niles (David Warner)

Charlie Venner, meanwhile, takes advantage of David’s absence to make a pass at his former girlfriend. “There was a time, Mrs. Sumner,” he says mockingly, stroking her hair, “when you were ready to beg me for it.” He is rebuffed with a curt reminder that he mistreated her, but their brief exchange hints that a flame still smolders. We subsequently discover that David has employed two local men—Norman Scutt and a murine rat-catcher named Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton)—to tile the roof of the garage at Trencher’s Farm. Amy suggests that David employ Venner and his cousin Bertie Hedden (Michael Mundell) to help move things along, and David—unaware of Venner and Amy’s personal history—agrees.

Each day, the four men are driven up to Trencher’s Farm in a groaning, rusted-out truck by their friend Phil Riddaway (Donald Webster), who returns to collect them again at the end of the day. This is the house in which Amy grew up with her father, and which the Sumners now inhabit while David is on leave from his US university job working on the math of stellar radiation.

L–R: Phil Riddaway (Donald Webster), Charlie Venner (Del Henney), Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison), and rat-catcher Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton).

Peckinpah establishes this complex web of local relationships with extraordinary economy, and even the early expository scenes are fraught with dread. In the opening montage, which unfolds beneath the titles and Jerry Fielding’s eerie score, shrieking children taunt a panicked dog in the village cemetery as part of what looks like mimetic sacrifice. The mantrap is at once a metaphor for predatory female sexuality and a Chekhovian gun. The Sumners have a pet cat, doted on by Amy and disliked by David, and we await the moment when its carcass is discovered. In the hands of a more pedestrian director, these early hints of menace could be the hoariest of cinematic cliches, but instead we wait in agonizing anticipation for their inevitable release.

For the location of Wakely, the story’s fictional Cornish village, Peckinpah chose St. Buryan on Cornwall’s westerly, ocean-lapped tip. Tiny, remote, and featuring Neolithic stone circles and Celtic crosses on its windswept and fog-bound moors, St. Buryan looks primordial beneath the West Country’s gloomy skies. Peckinpah made it appear even more so by persuading its residents to remove road signs and television antennae during the shoot. It helped that the weather was so bleak and inhospitable throughout the early months of 1971 that cast and crew huddled in puffy parkas during breaks. The exterior set for Trencher’s Farm itself was a forbidding stone house isolated even from the village, and the interiors and costumes were entirely drained of vibrant color—a palette of drab grays and browns dominate and Ray Sims’s production design is spartan and uninviting.

The narrative does require some suspension of disbelief. It is hard to understand, for example, why David has chosen to work on his mathematical calculations in a remote British farmhouse instead of, say, Cambridge University, where he could discuss his ideas with colleagues and peers. Furthermore, the fictional town of Wakely seems oddly lacking in female inhabitants; until a church social late in the film, we see only Amy, Janice, and, briefly, the attractive wife of the local preacher. Amy refers on a number of occasions to her late father (resented by David, who views him as a kind of rival), but her mother is never mentioned. This peculiar absence of women helps to establish the seething sexual tension in the village that is aggravated by Amy’s arrival, but even within the film’s quasi-allegorical frame, it’s a somewhat clumsy contrivance.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is the Sumners’ marriage. The movie offers no clue as to how, where, or when this clearly mismatched couple first met. A number of critics have speculated that Amy was once David’s student (Hoffman was 13 years older than Susan George when the film was shot), but it is unlikely that a Cornish village girl would have enrolled in a US college during the late 1960s when intercontinental travel was daunting and expensive. And Amy shows no aptitude for nor interest in mathematics—to the contrary, Peckinpah repeatedly draws attention to their intellectual incompatibility. A better (though still unsatisfactory) surmise might be that they met at some social event in the UK.

Whatever the circumstances of their first encounter, Peckinpah invites us to infer that, following her unpleasant experience with Charlie Venner, Amy sought refuge in a relationship with someone who was everything Wakely and Venner were not. But if her homecoming with bourgeois husband in tow was intended to chasten those she left behind, it’s a catastrophic miscalculation. Her re-appearance elicits only scornful contempt, and Venner in particular immediately perceives the marriage’s fragility. Amy wants him to believe that she is better than he is, and the savagery of his sexual assault, when it finally occurs, is intended to remind her that she is not.

By the time the film opens, the Sumners’ marriage has already settled into mutual frustration and resentment. Their lovemaking is puerile and faintly antagonistic—a striking contrast to the feral concupiscence of Venner and Scutt, not to mention petty thief Cawsey, who steals a pair of Amy’s underpants from her bedroom and waves them in front of Scutt (“I want what was in ’em” is the surly response). Most of the time, though, David is patronizing Amy, and Amy is being perfectly horrible. With nothing to do to fill her days, she invades David’s study while he is trying to work, craving attention, and peevishly alters a massive series of equations on his blackboard when he isn’t looking (the equations look like gobbledygook, but they are actually authentic gravitational formulae). “I love you, Amy,” David complains at one point, “but I want you to leave me alone.” She responds with characteristic petulance, removing a wad of chewing gum from her mouth and pressing it onto his blackboard. After another petty quarrel, she saunters upstairs and peels off her sweater in front of an open window so that Venner and the other workmen can feast on her exposed breasts as they labor desultorily among the roof timbers of the adjacent garage.

David, meanwhile, flounders in a culture that prizes displays of strength, status, and virility. Even a cocktail-hour sparring session with Wakely’s erudite preacher, Rev. Barney Hood (Colin Welland), ends on a minor but telling note of humiliation. One of the village’s few educated residents, Hood turns out to be a master of intellectual one-upmanship just like David himself, but with an anti-American verbal venom that David doesn’t expect. When David explains that he is researching “radiation,” Hood makes an arch reference to the “bomb”: “You’re a scientist—can you deny the responsibility?” “Can you?” asks David, the clever atheist. “After all, there's never been a kingdom given to so much bloodshed as that of Christ.” To which Hood quips, “That’s Montesquieu, isn’t it?” (Touché for Hood.)

Then the dominoes begin to fall. The Sumners’ cat is discovered hanged from the clothes rack in the couple’s closet. Amy immediately suspects Scutt and Cawsey, and tries to goad David into confronting them: “They’re telling you that they can get into your bedroom!” But David is a conflict-averse middle-class intellectual, intimidated by the locals’ preening masculinity even as he yearns for acceptance. And so he prevaricates until Amy forces the issue: After Venner, Cawsey, and Scutt have helped David to mount the mantrap on the wall—a delicate operation during which the jaws snap violently shut as the men attempt to engage the safety catch—she places a bowl of milk on the tray of beers she brings in to celebrate completion of the job.

This move is intended to humiliate her husband in front of the workmen, but Amy fails to anticipate that they will also take it to be a sign of encouragement. In a mocking display of congeniality that David mistakes for sincerity, the men invite him to accompany them on a bird-shoot the next day, and David eagerly agrees, even though he has only the vaguest idea of how to handle a shotgun. The shoot is, as we suspect, a ruse intended to draw him away from the house, and David is abandoned in the brush while Venner, and later Scutt, return to Trencher’s Farm to rape his wife. David eventually figures out that he’s been duped (although not that he has been cuckolded) and returns home. When he complains that the men “really stuck it to me on the moors today,” Amy declines to tell him about the assaults. Instead, sullen and furious, she mutters bitterly, “They also serve who sit at home and wait”—a paraphrase of Milton’s sonnet on his blindness. Peckinpah did not make Amy stupid.

Until now, Peckinpah has orchestrated the pace at a slow burn, increasing the tension in increments. But as he draws the narrative’s threads together, a causal chain of events accelerates into a calamitous spiral with remorseless logic. At the church social the following evening, Amy starts to go to pieces amid the cacophony of excitable chatter, children’s shrieks, and party horns, and experiences harrowing flashbacks of the previous afternoon’s assaults when she sees Venner and Scutt among the assembled guests. David—still unaware of the cause of her distress—offers to take her home. As they leave the hall to the ominous metronomic tolling of the village church bell, Janice Hedden lures the simpleton Henry Niles into a nearby barn for a kiss. Janice’s brother raises the alarm, and when Niles hears the search party looking for her, he accidentally asphyxiates her as he tries to keep her quiet. Fleeing the scene on foot, he is struck on the foggy roadway by David’s car. Over Amy’s objections, David takes Niles back to their house, and when Tom Hedden learns of this, he heads up to Trencher’s Farm with Venner, Scutt, Cawsey, and Riddaway.

When they arrive, the men demand that David hand over Henry Niles. David refuses, and convinces them they should find Janice first. Tom Hedden becomes enraged, and outside the house, the hostility escalates, exacerbated by the copious consumption of whiskey. Demanding the surrender of Niles, the five men start to bombard the house with large stones, smashing its windows. Inside, a conversation ensues that has become the most quoted passage of dialogue in Straw Dogs:

AMY: David, give Niles to them. That's what they want! They just want him. Give them Niles, David!
DAVID: They'll beat him to death.
AMY: I don't care. Get him out!
DAVID: You really don't care, do you?
AMY: No I don’t!
DAVID: No. I care. This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house.

When the local magistrate, Major John Scott (T.P. McKenna), arrives he tries to diffuse the situation, but during a struggle over Hedden’s shotgun, the weapon discharges into his stomach. And with the village’s only representative of order and justice now dead, the situation dissolves into pandemonium. The telephone lines are cut and they’re isolated. “David, how are you going to keep them out?!” Amy screams at her husband. “There are five men out there! And they have a gun!” At first, Amy looks for salvation in surrender and tries to admit her ex-boyfriend to the house. When David prevents her, she demands to be allowed to leave. But that is no longer possible: “You know what happens if they get in here? They’ll kill us all,” he tells her as window panes shatter around them. “They’ve gone too far to back down now. We’re dead if they get in.”

And so, with her survival now at stake, Amy cooperates at last. Without weapons or even any rope with which to secure the windows, the couple is forced to rely on animal cunning and medieval resourcefulness to repel the attack. They lift the mantrap down off the wall, disengaging the safety catch, and David fires up pots of boiling oil on the stove. Then, as the intruders breach the castle walls, David picks them off one at a time. Tom Hedden’s foot is blown to bits by his own shotgun, and he is left to bleed out on the grass; Riddaway is knocked unconscious, and Cawsey is bludgeoned to death with the fireplace poker. Finally, Charlie Venner enters the room carrying Hedden’s gun, and the siege looks as if it will end in an execution. But Norman Scutt has entered the house through an upstairs window, and he attacks Amy in the bedroom. Terrified, she screams for David, and then for Venner, and both men run up the stairs.

By now, the ostensible causes of the bloodshed—first, the whereabouts of Janice Hedden, and later the desire to lynch Niles, whom David has sequestered in the attic—are unimportant; all that remains is a zero-sum struggle for domination. “Violence,” Peckinpah remarked in an interview, “usually begins with a reason, with some principle to be defended. The real motivation, however, is a primitive thirst for blood, and as the fighting continues reasons or principles are forgotten and men fight for the sake of fighting.”

The stand-off that ensues in the Sumners’ bedroom is electrifying. David enters the bedroom first and pulls Scutt off Amy, Venner pulls David off Scutt, and Scutt draws a knife, but he points it at Venner not at David. This all unfolds in a matter of seconds, and then—for the first time during the siege—sound and motion come to a complete stop. Venner’s gun moves uncertainly from David toward Scutt. “Take him downstairs, Charlie,” Scutt murmurs, gazing down at Amy. “You put him to sleep. I’ll call you when I’m ready.” For nearly 20 seconds, the room is held in suspended animation as everybody waits to see what Venner will do. Finally, it is Scutt who breaks the silence: “Do it Charlie”—and Venner fires into his chest. In a momentary but exceedingly bloody piece of slow motion, the shot passes through Scutt’s body, throwing him back onto the bed.

Punctuated by Amy’s ear-splitting scream, it’s the most shocking and exhilarating moment of violence in the film, at once releasing the tension, resolving Scutt and Venner’s intra-tribal struggle for dominance, and restarting the action. David launches himself at Venner and the two men grapple out onto the landing and then roll down the stairs. The scene unfolds in slow motion like a bad dream under Fielding’s swirling score until it ends with David forcing Venner’s neck into the jaws of the mantrap. “Jesus, I got ‘em all,” he says in astonishment as he surveys the wreckage of the farmhouse. When Riddaway regains consciousness and attacks David, David pleads with Amy to get the gun. Petrified, she hesitates, before retrieving it from the bedroom floor and shooting Riddaway dead.

The film ends with David fetching Henry Niles from the attic and leading him to the car. “I don’t know my way home,” Niles tells him as they drive away from the farmhouse and into the fog. “That’s okay,” David answers. “I don’t either.” For Amy and David, there is no hope of reconciliation. The marriage has been destroyed, and Amy is left alone in the wreckage of her father’s house surrounded by six corpses. The author of her own misfortune, she has drawn in full the wages of her betrayal.

IV.

One of the most interesting things about Kael’s review is how powerfully she resented what the movie had made her feel. Her objections to the film were all political, but she was honest enough to admit that she found it viscerally compelling and this made her furious:

Not surprisingly, the audience cheers David’s kills; it is after all a classic example of the worm turning. It’s mild-mannered Destry putting on his guns, it’s the triumph of a superior man who is fighting for basic civilized principles over men who are presented as human garbage. It’s David versus Goliath, so of course the audience roots for David. When the last of the louts has him pinned down, and his terrified wife, with her finger on the trigger, panics and delays, it’s unbearable; your whole primitive moviegoer’s soul cries out for her to fire—and then she does. You just about can’t help feeling that way. You know that the response has been pulled out of you, but you’re trapped in that besieged house and you want the terror to be over, and if you believe in civilization at all you want David to win. As the situation had been set up, every possibility for non-violent behavior has been eliminated.

Kael didn’t stop to wonder why she had found the film’s first rape erotic, and she refused to consider the possibility that Peckinpah was saying something uncomfortably plausible about human nature in extremis. So, instead, she accused him of manipulation and bad faith. Of course, all storytellers manipulate their audience—that’s what a narrative is for. But drama is most convincing when a story’s developments accord with our own experience and understanding of human behavior, even if we don’t like it.

But because Kael refused to grant this point, she made some mistakes. She finally resolved that Peckinpah’s message was anti-civilization. “It’s no news that men are capable of violence,” she wrote, “but while most of us want to find ways to control that violence, Sam Peckinpah wants us to know it’s all hypocrisy. He’s discovered the territorial imperative and wants to spread the Neanderthal word.” That she found the film politically unhelpful seems to be a confusion of “ought” and “is.” Besides which, just a few paragraphs earlier, she had acknowledged that the nobility of David’s stand—and the film’s full emotional force—rests on civilized principles incomprehensible to his enemies. When Venner, Cawsey, and Scutt first visit the house to demand that Henry Niles reveal the whereabouts of Janice Hedden, David tell them Niles is his responsibility. Scutt can scarcely contain his incredulity. “Your responsibility? Why?” The inviolability of private property and the rule of law are an important part of what separates David from his assailants who care about neither—which is why it is so important that Henry Niles is a helpless stranger.

Kael also accused Peckinpah of “anti-intellectualism” because he made David the college professor such a contemptible wimp. But that characterization doesn’t really capture how we relate to David in the early parts of the film. The casting of Hoffman is particularly important here because he brings a kind of integrity to David Sumner, even when Sumner is most craven. It’s also made fairly obvious that David’s intellect and ingenuity are among his most effective weapons during the siege, and they allow him to outsmart the five men who attack the house like wolves.

But Kael’s larger mistake was to assume that a view of our primitive nature requires primitive incuriosity. In fact, as David Weddle points out in his biography, Peckinpah had been devouring the works of Robert Ardrey (1908–1980), including African Genesis (1961) and The Territorial Imperative (1966), which explore the animal ancestry of human behavior. Ardrey is remembered as a pioneer of physical anthropology, tracing human traits back to the great apes of the Pleistocene era more than two million years ago. In fact, however, he had no real scientific training apart from his college courses at the University of Chicago, and his career in some ways resembled Peckinpah’s; he was a highly successful playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. His screenplay for the movie Khartoum (1966), starring Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier and based on the journals of the doomed British major-general Charles Gordon, won him an Oscar nomination.

In 1955, disillusioned with Hollywood at least for a while, Ardrey traveled to South Africa, where he made the acquaintance of the Australian-born anthropologist Raymond Dart (1893–1988), who in 1924 had discovered the first fossil remains of Australopithecus africanus, a large-brained hominid that Dart believed had been a human ancestor. Because the bones of Australopithecus africanus had been found amid numerous broken bones of other animals, Dart surmised that it had been a carnivorous “killer ape,” as he called it. It had achieved evolutionary success for itself and its human descendants by an instinct for violence and an ability to use animal bones as primitive tools for killing and eating other animals that lacked its brainpower. Dart was almost certainly wrong in this last regard; later scientists conducting more sophisticated studies of fossil teeth concluded that Australopithecus africanus actually subsisted on a diet of fruits, nuts, and insects like modern chimpanzees, and that the animal bones around its remains suggested it had been, like them, more prey (of lions, for example) than predator.

Nevertheless, Dart’s theories—translated by Ardrey for lay audiences into almost impossibly eloquent prose and illustrated by luminous drawings of natural creatures made by his second wife, Berdine—represented a key element in a transformation of thinking about human nature and human evolution. “Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon,” Ardrey declared in African Genesis. Before then (and actually to this day in most academic quarters), a “blank slate” theory of the developing human mind reigned supreme. Human beings became what they were because of either fortunate or unfortunate incidents in their childhoods and upbringings (Freud and most pop-psychologizing) or because of social forces, often malign and based upon hierarchies of political power, beyond their control and agency (Marx and the postmodernists). Darwin’s theory of evolution explained how human beings descended from other animal species, but it didn’t explain why, for example, the social life of human males is devoted to an endless round of competition and status jostling, sometimes erupting into outright warfare. Or why women are drawn to physically and socially powerful men and have a tendency to treat less powerful males with indifference and contempt. Those male and female traits were—and still are in most circles—thought to be entirely due to social conditioning that could (and should) be manipulated.

During the 1930s, the Austrian zoologist and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Konrad Lorenz more or less invented the field of ethology, the study of the social behavior of animals in the field rather than in laboratories. Lorenz posited that animals act out instinctive behaviors, including aggression, selected for over millions of years to help them survive and reproduce in their natural environments. In other words, the social traits of animals, including humans, have an evolutionary basis. Among humans, traits necessary for survival in, say, the hunt-or-be-hunted Pleistocene savannah, he argued, have lingered as destructive but persistent maladaptations in otherwise rational and sophisticated human civilizations that are, after all, only a few thousand years old. In his best-known book, On Aggression (1966), he wrote: “The ever-recurrent phenomena of history do not have reasonable causes. It is a mere commonplace to say that they are caused by what common parlance so aptly terms ‘human nature.’”

The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) was an offshoot of Lorenz’s theories, and argued that even such traits as altruism have a biological, and thus an evolutionary basis. So was the field of evolutionary psychology, typically focusing on human mating and child-rearing patterns—marriage choices, promiscuity, parental investment, perceptions of opposite-sex beauty—and popularized in such books as Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal and David Buss’s The Evolution of Desire, both published in 1994, as well as Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen (2003). The mating theories of Wright, Buss, Ridley, and others, emphasize a male instinct to seek out beautiful women, and a female instinct to seek out strong, assertive men—beauty signifies the good health men want for their offspring, and strength signifies the protection women and their children need during the vulnerable early stages of motherhood. All of this is quite controversial in postmodernism-dominated mainstream academia, which regards human nature as a malleable construct and sex—or rather, “gender”—differences as an infinitely fluid matter of social performance rather than biological reality. E.O. Wilson came under unstinting attack from his colleagues for supposedly subscribing to genetic determinism, disbelief in societal progress, and even eugenics.

In African Genesis, Ardrey, heavily influenced by Dart and Lorenz, set out what might be called a blueprint for Peckinpah’s screenplay for Straw Dogs. Ardrey wrote:

[F]orces of enormous power, all … derived from the animal world, play their instinctual roles in the drama of human conduct. We have investigated a few of them: the drive to acquire private property; social groupings based on the defense of a territory held in common; the commandment to gain and hold individual dominance within such a society; the contest between males for superior territory or superior status; sexual choice exercised by the female in terms of the male's acquisition of property or status; the hostility of territorial neighbors, whether individual or group; and the dual code of behavior, prevailing in the members of a group, demanding amity for the social partner and enmity for individuals outside the territorial bond.

In The Territorial Imperative, he specifically explored the parallels between human warfare and the conflict-generating animal territoriality well-documented by zoologists (World War II with its industrial-scale slaughter was Ardrey’s background constant, just as the Vietnam War was David Sumner’s in Peckinpah’s film). His conclusions were deterministic and pessimistic: “The territorial nature of man is genetic and ineradicable,” he wrote. “In a period in which technological advance was rapidly pressing natural hazard toward a historic minimum, and in which such supernatural hazards as witches and witch-doctors, spells and charms, and hellfire and damnation were rapidly losing ground to unencumbered intelligence, we pressed lethal animosities to the maximum.”

V.

Peckinpah was not the only movie director to fall under the spell of Ardrey’s popularization of Dart and Lorenz. The sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in which prehistoric apes discover that they can use bones as murderous weapons to drive rival primate gangs out of their watering hole is pure Dart/Ardrey theory dramatized. But Peckinpah wove Ardrey’s theories about violence as an innate human characteristic, in almost parable-like fashion, into Straw Dogs.

David Weddle recounts that Peckinpah labored incessantly over the Straw Dogs screenplay, rewriting it over and over throughout 1970, and he speculates that Peckinpah was working through personal anxieties. His mother, Fern, had used her real and imaginary ailments to manipulate his father, and Peckinpah himself had experienced two unhappy marriages marked by his resentment of his wives’ demands on his time. During the filming of Straw Dogs, he was conducting simultaneous uneasy affairs with his assistant, Katy Haber (interviewed in the Mantrap documentary), and Joie Gould, assistant to Ken Hyman, the Warner Brothers production head for The Wild Bunch. It is certainly interesting to note that of all the interviewees in Mantrap, Haber’s remarks—particularly about Amy—are the most perceptive. In addition, Weddle argues, Peckinpah, bookish and only 5’8” in stature, had found it daunting to try to measure up during his boyhood to the swaggering, hyper-masculine culture of his grandfather’s ranch hands.

Be that as it may, Peckinpah was also writing up the pessimism about human nature that he had drawn from Ardrey. He titled the movie after a passage he had read by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, believed to be a contemporary of Confucius, in which Lao compared human beings to the ceremonial straw dogs placed upon altars to the gods and then destroyed when the ritual was over. “Heaven and earth are ruthless and treat the myriad of creatures as straw dogs,” Lao wrote.

When Amy says she doesn’t “care” that Niles will almost certainly be beaten to death if they hand him over, she is expressing a bedrock female amorality—concern solely for her own safety because she is a bearer of children and not expendable in warfare. In a masterly cinematographic turn, Peckinpah pinpoints the exact moment that David finally realizes that he has been cuckolded. When Amy realizes that he will never release Niles, she rushes to open the door with the cry, “I’m coming, Charlie!” It is a dreadful moment of truth, and a display of men and women at their primal worst—bare instincts stripped of all morality and loyalty, the woman deserting her husband for the man whose own life consists of clutching his status in a miserable and destructive male hierarchy.

Venner is more masculine than David on the primitive level. Amy understands this perfectly because she, too, is a product of Wakely’s agrarian culture and its valorization of what men do with their hands. She shares the locals’ contempt for her husband, who struggles to drive their car—a white 1970 Triumph Stag—on the country roads. “What was so funny with them?” David asks Amy after he watches her laughing with Scutt and Cawsey through his study window. “They just think you're strange,” she tells him. When Amy complains of Venner and Scutt's lechery, David suggests she wear a bra. “Why should I?” she retorts. “If you could hammer a nail, Venner and Scutt wouldn’t even be up there.”

Venner removes his shirt before attacking Amy, and reveals himself to be quite the handsome brute. But the dominance he establishes over her, rewarded by her passionate embrace and convulsive orgasm, is fleeting. It is ultimately subject to the ruthless male hierarchy of the village, in which physical power rules. His clan’s drunken patriarch, Tom Hedden, lords it over his children and his under-employed hangers-on, including Venner himself. When Hedden is killed during the siege, Venner is left to struggle with Scutt as well as with David, the outsider, for the right to Amy—the spoils of the alpha male. Venner kills Scutt, but he is already a diminished figure. His feelings for Amy appear to be genuine—on a number of occasions, he moves to protect her, and the brief interlude between the end of their lovemaking and Scutt’s arrival is authentically tender. But Venner cannot summon the moral courage to prevent Amy’s violation at the hands of his tribal cohort. He may initially acquiesce at gunpoint, but his complicity is more fundamentally a product of his submission to brute clan allegiance.

Peckinpah was hard on women. He insisted that Susan George perform the rape scene in the nude, and to her credit, she refused. She even threatened to quit the film, a brave move for a young actress, especially at a time when full frontal nudity seemed to be expected of young female performers. “I don’t think you have to take your clothes off to do that kind of scene,” George says in an interview for the Mantrap documentary. “I think you have to be a good actress.” As the two argued back and forth, she told Peckinpah that she could do the scene entirely with her eyes. And she did—for two solid days of filming, her face reflected Amy’s lurches from terror to desire and back again.

It is a luminous performance, and while David might have been the hero-protagonist of Straw Dogs, Amy is its doomed center—a prisoner of the primitive society in which she was raised. One can imagine a different kind of movie that was kinder to Amy, who seems to understand, finally, that there is such a thing as civilization, with moral values extending beyond territoriality and social dominance. But it would not have been a Peckinpah movie, tersely and brilliantly displaying human nature, brutal and unreformed, red in tooth and claw.

Arts and CultureCinemaLong Read

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen has a PhD in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America. She has written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and First Things.