1971 was one of those years in cinema where everything seemed to hit at once. A handful of successful movies got released simultaneously, setting new cultural trends. In 1971, A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs all made their debut. All four featured protagonists who used impulsive violence. While movies with high body counts weren’t new to the 70s, these four turned streets and homes into battlegrounds. This wasn’t the beaches of Normandy or the Wild West. These were familiar environments – the streets of San Francisco, the subways of New York and quaint country homes – being spattered with blood.
The directors and stars of each of those films have since distanced themselves from the violence depicted. They’ve all claimed that their intent was to show the alienating effect that violence has on the social order. That claim holds some water, given the ambiguous endings of the movies above. Popeye Doyle’s heroism in The French Connection is questionable (consider the last person he kills) and Harry Callahan ends Dirty Harry by throwing away his badge. But, as is often the case, the imitators who followed abandoned that complexity. Dirty Harry was followed by Death Wish; A Clockwork Orange by I Spit On Your Grave. By depicting violence in such garish tones, filmmakers turned it from a shock into a spectacle.
And now Rod Lurie (The Last Castle, Resurrecting the Champ) is remaking Straw Dogs.
Here’s the 1971 trailer for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.
Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, though still controversial, is regarded as a classic. You can see both elements present here. The slow pace of the cinematography (note Hoffman slowly turning his back on an English countryside). The unconventional camera angles. And yet there are still exploitative elements as well: the nips-eye view that greets us early in the trailer. The encouragement of Hoffman’s character to violence.
Now here’s the 2011 trailer for Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs, starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Sarsgaard:
Largely similar in tone. There’s less evidence of Peckinpah’s camera eye here and more splash-cut action. Marsden nearly getting poleaxed by a log, Marsden nearly getting run over by a deer, etc. But there are plenty of exploitative elements as well, like the shots of Bosworth jogging. And if you didn’t know whether we were supposed to cheer for Marsden’s power-up into a canny berserker, the title cards tell us.
In both versions of Straw Dogs, we have two opponents. On one side there’s the homeowner, David Sumner. On the other, there’s the intruder, Charlie. Charlie uses violence against Sumner’s property: breaking into his home, teasing him for being less than a man, and raping his wife. So Sumner uses violence against the intruder in turn. Sumner is the last man standing, so Sumner wins.
(And yes, in Straw Dogs, the role of David Sumner’s wife is “property.” She is an elegant object with pride of place. She incites men to violence. Peckinpah’s views on women were never exactly progressive)
What makes Sumner the good guy and Charlie the bad guy?
Well, Charlie’s a rapist. And rapists are never good guys. So anyone who’s not Charlie has to be the good guy, right?
That’s one way to look at it. But here’s a short list of ways that Sumner dispatches Charlie – and his goons, who are lumps of flesh and beard with which we’re not meant to empathize – in the 1971 version:
* Boiling oil
* A giant beartrap
* Beating to death with a poker
* Mutilating one’s foot with a shotgun
To that we can add the following in the 2011 remake:
* Nailing one’s hand to the wall with a nailgun
If we look purely at body count, Sumner is the most monstrous of the characters. He maims, cripples and slays half a dozen people. Charlie is guilty of rape and (in the ’71 version) manslaughter. Which of these is the hero?
Please note: I’m not suggesting a moral equivalence between defending one’s home and rape. Self-defense is a recognized right in every society and legal code. But there are different types of self-defense. More importantly, from a cinematic viewpoint, there are different ways to depict self-defense. Turn Sumner’s traps from implements of torture to lighthearted slapstick, and Straw Dogs becomes Home Alone. Charlie and the rapists go to jail, instead of the grave, and the movie ends on an up note.
But Peckinpah went a different route. I’m not interested in why; Peckinpah and more sophisticated film critics have debated the depiction of violence on screen for forty years. Rather, I’m interested in how. When everyone in the movie is covered in blood, how can you tell the heroes from the villains?