When you think of Sam Peckinpah, Straw Dogs usually isn’t the film that comes to most people’s minds. For most of us it’s the 1967 classic The Wild Bunch. Straw Dogs did little business at the box office in 1971. In fact it was banned in many countries including England where it was shot. The movie was criticized for its unrestrained violence and the rather brutal depiction of a rape. Critics were unimpressed at the time, and the film faded away for a while. It received a bit of a resurrection in the mid-1980’s when the film showed up at second run houses and eventually on home video. Perhaps it can be appreciated now, in a time where these taboos have been broken consistently and the film no longer appears to be the controversial piece it was then. If you have any doubt on that score you need look no farther than the remake in theaters now. While you’ll find it often a word-for-word retelling, the level of violence has been amped up considerably. If you take the time to watch the original, you might find yourself asking what all the fuss was about.
David Sumner (Hoffman) is a mild math teacher who wants pretty much to be left alone to do his quiet research. He decides to return with his wife Amy (George) to the small rural English town where she grew up. It sounds like the perfect place for David to do his research in peace and quiet. To try and be a good guy he hires several local tradesmen to do work on the estate his wife recently inherited from her father. There’s a roof that needs fixing and a rat problem that needs to be controlled. The group of locals happens to be led by Charlie Venner (Henney) who was also an old love interest of Amy’s. The locals begin to leer a bit at Amy, and she is upset at her cowardly husband who doesn’t appear willing to stick up for her. The teasing by the group extends to both of the Sumners and escalates to the point where a cat ends up killed. Still David refuses to push the issue. When the guys take him out on a hunting trip, it’s really to keep him busy while two of the gang rape Amy. Still, she keeps quiet about the attack, while David is finally upset that the guys stranded him out on the moors.
You would think that this would be the action that might push one or both of the couple over the edge in an I Spit On Your Grave path of revenge. But there is a B story going on that will collide with the events surrounding the Sumners. Henry Niles, played by an uncredited and young David Warner, has some mental problems. He’s what we would call today mentally challenged but referred to as retarded in 1971. He likes to hang with the young girls, and while we have no evidence his interest isn’t an innocent one, it does tend to upset the townsfolk. One such man is constantly drunk Tom Hedden (Vaughan) who has a young teen daughter he worries about. He’s warned the Niles family to keep Henry away from his daughter. But when David Sumner appears immune to young Janice’s (Thomsett) flirtations she decides to seduce Henry into taking her into a private room during a church social. The encounter ends tragically and Henry runs out into the road in panic only to be hit by the Sumners in their car. David feels responsible for the accident, and they take Henry back to their house. Before long Tom and the guys are worked up and lay siege to the Sumner home to get at Henry Niles.
That final siege is really the movie. What occurs before is rather slow-paced. In fact, the rape story is almost a misdirection. It doesn’t play at all into the violence that finishes the film. I’m sure that the draw here has always been watching this unassuming man who can’t even gain his wife’s respect defend his home. It doesn’t even matter to him that these guys might have good reason to want Henry Niles. He’s determined to draw a line when it comes to his home, while it’s the wife who has been calling for action the entire film who becomes the coward in the end.
David Warner delivers one of the best performances of the film without ever getting any screen credit for the job. While he may have done a terrible thing, you won’t find yourself siding with the bloodlust of the mob. He comes across as a sympathetic character worthy of protecting, and that’s a hard thing to pull off under these circumstances. Dustin Hoffman doesn’t deliver anywhere near his best performance here, but he does hold his own when the violence starts. Susan George doesn’t end up as sympathetic as she should. I’m not sure if she was written that way or the performance undermines the attempted idea here. She doesn’t deliver a particularly strong or convincing performance. The cast of thugs do a pretty good job of supporting the action. It’s a troubling film that doesn’t play out quite the way you might expect.
Straw Dogs is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35-40 mbps. The print shows its age and budget here, and there’s little I can say to soften the blow. This isn’t a striking high-definition image at all. There are print defects throughout. Black levels are pretty good, but the film does tend toward the soft side.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also quite weak here. Of course, the original film was not 5.1, so I really don’t want to see aggressive surrounds here. The dialog is clear. The violence tends toward harsh highs that do distract from the experience.
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The film’s listed as one of those 1001 Movies To See Before You Die and with good reason. It was a statement movie that wasn’t really appreciated until years late. Still, it might still not have made it to Blu-ray if not for the remake. If you’ve missed it all of these years, it’s lucky that MGM has finally brought this one out. Consider that they’re trying to “give you one more chance“.