With the arrival of the 1970s came a nationwide re-evaluation of the ideal “viewing audience” in American cinema. Filmmakers undertook a collective effort to appeal to the interests of a variety of social groups as they attempted to transcend the singular notion of a traditional white middle-class family that was prevalent in the 1950s and ’60s.
As a result, the dawn of the new decade saw a new cinematic characterization of human nature and a penchant for its darker side. Films like “A Clockwork Orange” depicted psychological isolation in its most grotesque forms using pervasive visuals of sex and violence.
One of the most brutal of these films is British director Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” released in 1971. The depersonalization the movie foists upon the viewer can best be summed up in the verse by philosopher Lao-Tzu from which the movie borrows its name: “Heaven and earth are not humane, and regard the people as straw dogs.”
“Straw Dogs” tells the story of a young American professor named David (Dustin Hoffman) who leaves the United States with his English wife Amy (Susan George) amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War. David, a weak-willed and sullen pacifist, hopes to abandon the chaos of his former life in favor of the pastoral fields of Britain. Rather than finding peace, however, David is forced to bear the harassment of the raucous group of men he has employed to repair his cottage. When he attempts to befriend the troublemakers in the spirit of peaceful conflict resolution, a few of the men lead him away from his property under the guise of a hunting trip, only to creep back into his home and violate his wife in what may be one of the most intensely disturbing rape scenes of contemporary cinema.
The horrific nature of the scene does not lie solely in its demoralizing effect on Amy, but also in her reaction to the forcible sexual advances of her assailant. During the attack, Amy’s emotions seem to vacillate between revulsion and pleasure. Many of the feminist critics of the film considered this lack of clarity to be evidence of misogynistic undertones. Because of the controversial nature of the scene, Britain banned the film in 1984 after it passed new decency laws. The film was also not licensed for DVD release until 2002.
Though the movie’s controversial approach to sexuality contributes to its appeal, the most compelling scene of the movie is the culmination of violence at the end, when David is forced to rely on animal instinct to defend his property from a large group of men that includes his wife’s attackers. It is at this point that the true intention of the movie is revealed to be a character study of David.
As he prepares to face the men who intend to kill him, David is subjected to a spontaneous transfiguration that renders his demeanor unrecognizable: He methodically repairs the displaced right lens in his glasses and plays a vinyl album that espouses a cacophonous harmonization of bagpipes. David’s ability to casually adapt to the destructive onslaught of his oppressors suggests that the viewer has been deceived, and that this bumbling pacifist may actually kill for a living.
Sam Peckinpah’s stunning film is important in the context of the moral debate it poses with its infamous rape scene. But the film’s real value of the film is its use of provocative visuals to characterize human beings as inherently animal in nature.