20 Things – Straw Dogs

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Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was always bound to cause a stir. Peckinpah is one of those directors whose work tends to inspire a certain brand of obsessive cult fandom, and Lurie knew from the beginning that, by daring to take on a film like Straw Dogs, he was painting a big red bull’s-eye on his back.

It comes at an interesting moment: long delayed, the film finally makes it to cinema screens almost exactly forty years after Peckinpah’s original. 1971 was a crucial year for controversial film, with Ken Russell’s extraordinary The Devils (still unavailable on home video in the UK and the US), A Clockwork Orange (withdrawn by its director Stanley Kubrick from UK distribution) and Straw Dogs (banned on home video in the UK for eighteen years) all sending shockwaves through audiences, critics and censors at the time.

Rod Lurie may have drawn some of the sting out of the critical response by re-imagining the film in a very different setting, and rethinking everything from the film’s characterisation to its philosophy and its gender politics. Nevertheless, the remake is acutely aware of the long shadow that the original casts. The interior of the farmhouse is a remarkably detailed replica of the original, despite the very different settings.

There are moments, snatches of dialogue, and shot sequences which are clearly intended as a kind of homage to Sam. However, forty years is a long time in the film industry. What are some of the most startling differences and parallels between the 1971 original and the 2011 remake?

The character David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) was originally an academic writing about an obscure eighteenth century poet, and then a lawyer, before being re-crafted as the “astro-mathematician” of the finished film.The 2011 version of David Sumner is a Hollywood scriptwriter working on a film about the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War.

Sam Peckinpah asked Harold Pinter to redraft the script; Pinter declined, rubbishing the screenplay’s ‘pathetic assumption that it is saying something “important” about human beings’.

Rod Lurie says he has ignored Gordon Williams’ original novel, The Siege at Trencher’s Farm, for his remake. The screenplay is credited to Lurie, Sam Peckinpah, and the screenwriter of the first version, David Zelag Goodman, who went on to collaborate with Peckinpah on subsequent drafts.

Gordon Williams believed that the movie, unlike his novel, contained a rape scene because Peckinpah ‘liked to abuse women in his films’. Peckinpah was less than complimentary about his source material: ‘Read the goddamn book’, he told one interviewer. ‘You’ll die gagging in your own vomit’. Long before shooting began, Rod Lurie told one journalist, ‘You can be certain that Amy’s not going to be smiling in the rape in MY film’.

Sam Peckinpah was heavily influenced by the writings of Robert Ardrey, who saw man as no different from other animals, driven by a territorial imperative. Rod Lurie has declared his film is about how violence is not innate or natural to humans, but learned. He sees it as the chief philosophical difference between his film and Peckinpah’s.

An early title for the film was The Square Root of Fear. Peckinpah shot it down as “bloody phucking awful”. Long before Rod Lurie began work on his remake, Edward Norton’s name was attached to the production, under the working title… The Square Root of Fear.

T.P. McKenna, playing the role of the local magistrate Major Scott, had his arm in a sling throughout the film, leading to speculation about the symbolism of the “broken arm of the law” in this village which preferred to police itself. In fact, the sling was required after McKenna broke his arm falling off a table he had been dancing on with two prostitutes at a pre-shoot party. The equivalent of the Major in Rod Lurie’s version is an African-American Iraq veteran played by Laz Alonso.

The Iraq connection is a reminder that Peckinpah’s original was made very much in the shadow of the Vietnam War, including the news of the massacre at My Lai of five hundred Vietnamese women, children and old men at the hands of US soldiers.

Many British critics were offended by Peckinpah’s take on their homeland, and his depiction of Cornish country folk. Gavin Millar remarked, ‘Peckinpah’s acquaintance with English life, let alone rural and regional life, is unsurpassedly faint’. Some critics have been uneasy about Rod Lurie’s depiction of rural Mississippi life, which is the setting for his remake. A critic for popmatters.com complains about ‘a number of uncomplimentary Southern stereotypes, substituting Mississippi rednecks for the British working class tormenters from the original film’.

Peckinpah famously declared of Amy, ‘There are two kinds of women. There are women, and then there’s pussy. … Amy is pussy, under the veneer of being a woman’. In an interview for www.ifc.com, Rod Lurie claims, “Our Amy is a fierce Amy … “She’s a feminist Amy. She’s an Amy of 2011.”

Peckinpah employed two body doubles for the film’s infamous rape scene. In the final cut, only a few frames featuring a double were used.According to www.opposingviews.com, Kate Bosworth was ‘left shaken’ after filming the rape scene in the remake: “The panic you see flooding me in that rape scene is real.”

The 1971 film fell under the wheels of the Video Recordings Act in the 1980s, and was unavailable on home video in the UK for eighteen years. BBFC Secretary James Ferman was convinced that the film eroticised and endorsed sexual violence, and refused to grant it a certificate. In September 1999, BBFC President Andreas Whittam Smith told The Guardian that Straw Dogs would never be passed by the Board in its uncut form. In September 2002, the BBFC, apparently following advice from a viewer panel and evidence from clinical psychologists, performed a quite spectacular U-turn, and Peckinpah’s film was once again made available for UK viewers to make up their own minds.

On 26 August 2011, Rod Lurie’s film was passed at ‘18’ uncut by the BBFC. However, sexual violence remains one of the most troublesome issues for the BBFC in terms of censorship and certification. Recent films that have fallen foul of their guidelines on sexual violence include Murder Set Pieces (2008), Grotesque (2009), A Serbian Film (2010) and Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) (2011).

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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