Turning the Tables: Sexual Violence in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Rod Lurie’s 2011 Remake

by Stevie Simkin, University of Winchester, UK

There are few films that have proven more troublesome for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) than Sam Peckinpah’s Cornish-set modern western Straw Dogs (1971) with its notorious double rape scene.  For those unfamiliar, it tells the story of American professor David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) arriving in a remote Cornish village with his young wife Amy (Susan George). Given a sabbatical to pursue research, David has come hoping to find peace and quiet in Amy’s former home — a remote farmhouse — but his appearance stirs resentment and hostility in the tight-knit, patriarchal community. At the same time, Amy’s return to her roots sparks the predatory interest of several men in the village, notably her former lover Charlie (Del Henney). The pent-up hostility boils over in a sexual assault: Amy is the victim first of Charlie and then of his friend Scutt (Ken Hutchison). Soon after, a siege of the farmhouse results in the death of a local magistrate who has attempted to intervene. Finally, all five of the villagers besieging the building, including Charlie and Scutt, are killed. Amy and David survive.

The original film, I have previously contended, [1] has been used as a kind of yardstick ever since it was first submitted to the BBFC for certification, an index to be referred to whenever examiners have been faced with a film that features graphic sexual violence. It is difficult to summarise the complexities succinctly but, if the BBFC has asserted its right to censor scenes that endorse or eroticise sexual violence (or both), [2] then it is easy to understand why the Board chose Straw Dogs as some kind of Rosetta Stone. Straw Dogs itself was banned in the wake of the Video Nasties moral panic and the passing of the Video Recordings Act of 1984.

In November 2011, writer-director Rod Lurie’s remake of Peckinpah’s film was released in the UK, too late for me to give it the attention it deserved in my book about Straw Dogs. Critics were not especially kind to the film: it rates 45% on Metacritic and 41% on Rottentomatoes.com. I was also disappointed by the movie, but also fascinated by Lurie’s attempt to reinterpret Peckinpah’s 40-year-old film through a feminist lens. Over the past five years, when exploring the original film with classes of second year university students on a module called ‘Controversy and Censorship’, I have set aside time for a conversation about the remake. Despite the flaws in the film, the debates in the classroom have never been less than fascinating, as sexual politics of the 1970s clash with contemporary perspectives and are argued out by people born 20 and now almost 30 years after the original film was made. This short piece offers some thoughts about Peckinpah’s original and Lurie’s attempt to offer audiences — via his remake — a contemporary perspective on the gender politics of a film that Pauline Kael was provoked to describe as ‘the first American film that is a fascist work of art’. [3]

A number of (male) critics have attempted to defend Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in general and the notorious rape scene in particular against charges of misogyny, notably Stephen Prince, Garner Simmons and Bernard Dukore in their full-length studies of Peckinpah’s work. [4]  While I accept some of their apologia (I would agree that some sequences in the rape scene invite the audience to experience the ordeal from Amy’s point of view, chiefly by use of POV close-ups and flash cuts conveying Amy’s train of thought), I would argue that the use of lingering, medium and long shots, with cameras set up and angled in order to make the most of views of Amy/Susan George’s semi-nude and nude body, the emphasis on the cries and gasps Amy emits, and Amy’s modulating response to the attack (including, eventually, extended shots of her experiencing orgasm) are clearly designed to render the scene erotic. Astonishingly, the review in Newsweek referred to the scene as ‘a masterful piece of erotic cinema, a flawless acting out of the female fantasy of absolute violation’. [5] Furthermore, the fact that Amy moves from desperate resistance to her rapist Charlie’s assault, to acceptance and finally apparently enjoying intercourse, makes it hard to deny that the scene tends to endorse as well as eroticise sexual violence. We can only be grateful that Peckinpah’s production team dissuaded him from directing the second rape in the way his early redrafts of the script implied: in the finished film Scutt’s assault is horrifying, unambiguously violent and desperately resisted by Amy, but Peckinpah had originally intended to show Amy abandoning herself, ‘wanton’, to the second rape as well. [6]

Exactly why the BBFC decided to certificate Straw Dogs after 18 years of turning it down repeatedly for home video release is a complicated story that involves shifts in policy and a fraught, contested deliberation over the certification of another film on-going at the time: Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972). It was also in large part due to a change of management at the turn of the millennium; James Ferman, Secretary from 1975-1999, was always proud that Straw Dogs had remained in limbo ever since the implementation of the Video Recordings Act of 1984. For what it’s worth, my own position is that, given the BBFC’s criteria, I remain puzzled as to why they should have decided after years of resistance that Straw Dogs does not after all contravene their guidance on what is and is not acceptable in terms of sexual violence. 

Rod Lurie claimed his film was intended as an entirely different take on the bare bones of the original story in philosophical terms: he dismissed Peckinpah’s approach (heavily influenced by the writings of Robert Ardrey) that humans were, like other animals, naturally aggressive and territorial. For Lurie, David’s descent into violence is a learned, conditioned response; for Peckinpah, it is innate, waiting to be discovered, just as the conflict between the male characters, especially Amy’s husband David and her former partner Charlie, is a natural struggle to secure the prized female. However, Lurie invited much more controversy for his remarks about the rape scene in the original film. As he told one journalist, referring to the point at which Amy stops resisting the sexual assault, ‘You can be certain that she’s not going to be smiling in the rape in my film’. He told another, ‘Our Amy is a fierce Amy. She’s a feminist Amy. She’s an Amy of 2011’. In a number of instances, Lurie asked the rhetorical question of his interviewer, would any woman act so ambivalent, and even, as he put it, ‘cuddle’ with her rapist afterwards?  It was this that ‘appalled’ him and made him determined to shoot the scene very differently.

My book about Straw Dogs provides an in-depth analysis of the rape scene, how it was developed, how it was censored and what it might signify in the context of the film as a whole. To summarise 15 pages in a few sentences: Amy seems ambivalent when Charlie attempts a first kiss; however, she then says, ‘Please leave me’, resists his attempt to embrace her a second time, and slaps him when he refuses to stop. Charlie’s reaction is to slap her back and, from this point until halfway through the first rape, Amy is the unwilling victim of a terrifying assault. However, at a certain point in this very long scene, she first stops struggling and then begins to comply. From this point until the moment she realises Scutt has arrived and is intent on assaulting her too, what has started as a violent scene becomes far more ambivalent in Peckinpah’s hands, shifting from rape to something apparently consensual.

In the remake, there is no sign of ambivalence in Kate Bosworth’s Amy. Charlie is played by the actor Alexander Skarsgård, whose star persona is built in part on his physical appearance: unusual height, conventional good looks and very muscular build. When he moves towards Amy, she is already panicking. With the 6’4” Skarsgård confronting the slightly-built 5’5” Kate Bosworth, the sexual menace of the confrontation is unnerving from the very beginning.  When he throws her down onto the couch, she pleads with him repeatedly (‘No, no, no, Charlie’).  He threatens her (‘Don’t you fucking move, Amy’) and the implication is that he will strike her if she resists. Throughout the scene, unlike Peckinpah, Lurie studiously avoids any shots of Bosworth’s breasts. Her semi-nakedness (stomach, legs) is fleeting. What is most striking in terms of bodies on display is that it is Skarsgård’s that it is eroticised, much more so than Bosworth’s, with several lingering shots of his naked torso. Of course, the issues that arise when the male body is objectified are different.

Alexander Skarsgård as Charlie in Straw Dogs (Rod Lurie 2011)

Nevertheless, there are several fascinating ways in which Charlie’s masculinity is scrutinised. As the rape proceeds, Charlie asks Amy, ‘Did you miss me, baby? Tell me you missed me’. Amy does not reply. By this time, Amy is prone on the couch and Charlie is on top of her; she turns away from his attempts to kiss her and seems to have decided that the safest strategy is to stop resisting, but the direction and Bosworth’s performance make it very clear that she only wants it over as quickly as possible. Charlie continues by asking her if, when David was inside her, did she imagine it was him (betraying a lack of confidence, a need for affirmation?); once again, Amy does not reply.  

Unusually — and again in contradistinction to Peckinpah’s scene — the sound and image focus on Charlie climaxing. The moment is potentially discomfiting because it is so protracted. The explicit (facial) depiction of male orgasm is another way in which Lurie destabilises audience expectations. There is no corresponding response when the camera cuts back to Amy’s face. Charlie is unnerved when Amy refuses to open her eyes to look at him — it is one way in which she can resist — and repeatedly begs her to, asking her what’s wrong.  At the beginning of the scene, it was Amy who was pleading; now she is silent and it is only Charlie we hear begging. Amy’s gaze passes over three framed pictures of herself as a girl and the camera cuts back to Charlie as he realises, finally, that there is nothing in Amy that has responded to his advance. And perhaps it begins to dawn on him for the first time what he has done. The violent rape at the hands of Scutt follows, mercifully brief and almost entirely out of shot; after a short sequence depicting Amy’s struggle to resist, we only hear what is happening. The camera rests instead on Charlie (again, unnervingly, bare-chested and almost entirely framed in mid-shot).  

Close up on Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) in Straw Dogs (Rod Lurie 2011)

What Lurie offers his audience, then, is a rape scene that neither eroticises its victim nor endorses the sexual violence being perpetrated. It coldly exposes the fact that Charlie works under the assumption that while a woman might say no, she really means yes, and in doing so, the scene ruthlessly exposes the myth. In Bosworth/Lurie’s Amy, unlike George/Peckinpah’s, there is no ambiguity. Charlie has failed to give Amy what he had, in his confusion and ignorance, assumed she really wanted. Spurned and humiliated, his feeble revenge is to allow Scutt to do his worst.  

As far as the BBFC was concerned, the Straw Dogs remake warranted more attention in terms of its representation of ‘strong bloody violence’ than for its depiction of sexual violence. However, both categories of violence were deemed too strong in the film for it to be certificated ‘15’; although it was noted that the rape scene ‘contains no clear nudity and no eroticisation of sexual violence, the protracted nature of the scene renders it less than discreet, as does the level of brutality shown’.

I would suggest that the scene as depicted in Lurie’s film provokes a more straightforward reaction than Peckinpah’s, hence the BBFC’s relatively serene response. Peckinpah’s version gestated in a vastly different environment in terms of sexual politics, which had a profound effect on the way it was conceptualised, scripted and shot. [7] Moreover, that different environment had disturbing implications for the way Susan George was treated on set, [8] an issue that reverberates anew in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. For this reason, my own perspective on the value of Peckinpah’s film is a profoundly conflicted one. I find its tendency to eroticise and endorse rape repellent and, pace many of Peckinpah’s apologists, I believe it does have that tendency. However, the debates I have watched it ignite in the classroom, year in, year out, have been remarkable. Nothing in Lurie’s film is able to provoke such urgent discussion of contemporary gender politics and issues of abuse and consent or illuminate so starkly how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.    

[Notes]

  1. Stevie Simkin. 2011. Controversies: Straw Dogs. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  2. As the BBFC website clarifies, endorsing refers to ‘a scene of rape or assault in which the attack is portrayed as, or appears to be pleasurable, desired or desirable and in some cases inconsequential’; eroticising refers to ‘a scene of violence or sexual violence in which sex or sexualized nudity is used in an arousing or titillating way’. 
  3. Pauline Kael. 1972. Straw Dogs. The New Yorker. 47. 29 January, 80.
  4. Stephen Prince. 1998. Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies.Austin: University of Texas Press; Garner Simmons. 1976. Reprinted 1998. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. New York: Limelight Editions; Bernard F. Dukore. 1999. Sam Peckinpah’s Feature Films. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  5. Paul D. Zimmerman. 1971. Rites of Manhood. Newsweek. 20 December, 87.
  6. See Simkin 110.
  7. See Simkin, 101-15.
  8. See Simkin, 7-15.

Contributor

Dr. Stevie Simkin is Reader in Drama and Film at the University of Winchester. His research covers early modern drama and popular music as well as screen violence and censorship. Books include Early Modern Tragedy and the Cinema of Violence (2005), Controversies: Straw Dogs (2011), Controversies: Basic Instinct (2013) and Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale: from Pandora’s Box to Amanda Knox (2014).

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