You'd never know from the way this past September's 'Straw Dogs' opened and closed with so little fanfare that it was a remake of a movie whose unflinching depiction of graphic violence created a controversy that has never fully abated. Nor would you know that the original 'Straw Dogs' (released exactly 40 years ago, on December 29, 1971) was a landmark film that gave Dustin Hoffman one of his meatiest roles, made a star of Susan George, solidified Sam Peckinpah's reputation (fairly or not) as Hollywood's most macho and bloodthirsty director, and influenced countless filmmakers who followed (most notably, Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, who wear their 'Straw Dogs' fandom on their sleeves). As notorious as 'Straw Dogs' was in its day, you may not know the story behind the making of the film -- a tale of mismatched lovers, alcohol, rage, and bloodshed that seemed to echo what ended up on the screen.
1. The movie's title comes from a passage in the Tao Te Ching. It refers to the Chinese ceremonial objects used in sacrifices and then casually discarded. In the 2011 remake, the protagonist makes clear the analogy between the disposable canines and the men in the town.
2. The movie was based on novel 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm' (1969) by Gordon Williams. Aside from different character names, there are a number of key plot differences. In the book, the couple have a daughter, there's no rape, and the attackers are not killed but seriously injured and left alive to face charges.
3. 'Straw Dogs' was Peckinpah's first movie that wasn't a Western. The director had scored in 1969 with 'The Wild Bunch,' a revisionist Western whose extravagantly bloody finale had revolutionized the way violence was portrayed on screen. But he'd become a pariah in Hollywood with his follow-up, the gentler 'Ballad of Cable Hogue,' on which he'd run 19 days over schedule and $3 million over budget, only to see the film flop at the box office. The director felt forced to make a change and work in England. "I'm like a good whore," Peckinpah said at the time. "I go where I'm kicked."
4. Peckinpah adapted the novel along with screenwriter David Zelag Goodman, a recent Oscar nominee for his script for 'Lovers and Other Strangers' (1970). Peckinpah's rewrite of Goodman's script was informed by his reading of Robert Ardrey's books 'African Genesis,' 'The Social Contract,' and The Territorial Imperative,' drawing from them the idea that man is instinctively a carnivore who is prone to turf wars. It was also informed by the real-world violence of the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings. Early in the film, young wife Amy criticizes mathematician David for fleeing campus life (and, it's implied, faculty and students engaged in anti-war protests) and for refusing to take a stand, but by the end of the film, he'll be forced to take a stand and defend his home.
5. For the role of David, the filmmakers considered Beau Bridges, Stacy Keach, Jack Nicholson, Donald Sutherland, and (most interestingly) Sidney Poitier, before 'Midnight Cowboy' star Dustin Hoffman agreed to take the part.
6. Up for Amy were such young British actresses as Judy Geeson, Jacqueline Bisset, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling, and Hayley Mills, before 20-year-old Susan George, a former child actress, landed the role.
7. Peckinpah wanted Richard Harris to play Charlie Venner, Amy's ex-boyfriend-turned-rapist. The role eventually went to Irish TV actor Del Henney.
8. Cast as village idiot Henry Niles, whom the couple first injures and then protects, David Warner had already established himself as a character actor. He'd co-starred as the villain in 'Tom Jones' (1963) and had played a preacher in Peckinpah's previous movie, 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue.'
9. The movie was filmed in the ancient Cornish village of St. Buryan, whose most famous resident (then and now) is spy novelist John Le Carré.
10. Shooting the scene where Hoffman's newcomer first visits the pub, Peckinpah wasn't getting the hostile, suspicious reaction he wanted from the actors playing the locals. So he did another take in which he had Hoffman enter with no pants on. That did the trick.
11. Peckinpah used alcohol to bond with the actors playing the violent villagers. The actors would frequently get into brawls; during one rehearsal, T.P. McKenna (who played the Major) broke his arm in a fight and had to wear a sling throughout the shoot. Ken Hutchison (who played Scutt, the second rapist) cut his arm while smashing some bar glasses; George had to take him to the hospital. Another time, Peckinpah and Hutchison spent the pre-dawn hours drinking tequila at the shore in a winter rainstorm.
12. As a result of that incident, the director came down with pneumonia, and producer Daniel Melnick (who had resisted warnings from others in Hollywood that Peckinpah's drinking made him an unreliable hire) was forced to close down the movie for a few days until Peckinpah agreed to dry out. Peckinpah didn't go on the wagon, but he cut back on his drinking and was able to finish the movie with speed and clarity. The shoot ran five days over schedule -- hardly any time at all, compared to some of Peckinpah's other overruns.
13. The film's most controversial sequence comes when Venner rapes ex-girlfriend Amy, then holds her down while Scutt does the same. Critics thought Amy seemed to enjoy the assault (though it's clear later in flashbacks how traumatized she is) and that the film seemed to celebrate, or at least exploit, violence against women. In fact, the sequence as Peckinpah wanted to shoot it would have been even more graphic, but George talked him out of it, persuading him that the complicated play of emotions on her face was all he needed to show.
14. Part of the controversy over the rape had to do with the editing necessary to earn the film an R rating. By trimming some of the most horrific moments from the scene, the resulting sequence seemed to eroticize the rape and make it look like Amy was taking pleasure in the attack. So argued the British Board of Film Classification, which initially banned the film's home video release in the U.K. when it was first made available on VHS in 1984. The BBFC's remarks accompanied the release of the uncut version on DVD in 2002.
15. Defending the rape sequence, Peckinpah suggested that the film was a way to work out personal demons over his own violent temper and four failed marriages (three of them to the same woman). "In a film, you lay yourself out, whoever you are. The one nice thing is that my own problems seem to involve other people as well," he said. "'Straw Dogs' is about a guy who finds out a few nasty secrets about himself, about his marriage, about where he is, about the world around him ... It's about the violence within all of us. The violence which is reflecting on the political condition of the world today." He did not deny the cathartic effect of the scene but added that it doesn't let the viewer off the hook for his own voyeurism. "Someone may feel a strange sick exultation at the violence," Peckinpah said, "but he should then ask himself, 'What is going on in my heart?'"
16. In fact, some critics thought the film too fond of violence overall, calling it sadistic, as if it endorsed David's descent into savagery. (Pauline Kael called it "the first American film that is a fascist work of art.") Peckinpah insisted he wasn't endorsing violence, merely exploring it. Indeed, he thought, you could consider David the villain, not just for his violent behavior, but for indirectly provoking (through his refusal to act) all the terror directed at the couple in the first place. He explained,
I am not saying that violence is what makes a man a man. I'm saying that when violence comes, you can't run from it. You have to recognize its true nature, in yourself as well as in others, and stand up to it. If you run, you're dead or you might as well be.17. The film came out at a time, just three years after the end of the Production Code, when movies seemed to be pushing new boundaries in the portrayal of violence. Released around the same time were 'The French Connection,' 'Dirty Harry,' and 'A Clockwork Orange' (whose director, Stanley Kubrick, was also a fan of Robert Ardrey's books). Still, 'Straw Dogs' seemed to stand out; at a test preview screening, a third of the audience walked out in revulsion.
18. Peckinpah followed the movie with an about-face, going to work on rodeo tale 'Junior Bonner' within weeks of wrapping 'Straw Dogs.' The low-key Steve McQueen picture didn't deliver on the action that the star's fans expected, and the film flopped. Peckinpah complained, "I made a film where nobody got shot, and nobody went to see it." Thereafter, he returned to the violent movies that had made his reputation, making films like 'The Getaway,' 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,' and 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.' He continued making thoughtful, idiosyncratic action films for another decade, until his death in 1984 at age 59.
19. Peckinpah met crew member Joie Gould on the set of 'Straw Dogs.' They married in April 1972, during the shoot of 'The Getaway,' but his alcoholism and abusive behavior proved too much for her, and the marriage ended after just four months.
20. After 'Straw Dogs,' Monty Python memorably parodied Peckinpah's fondness for extreme bloodletting and slow-motion death scenes in a sketch called 'Sam Peckinpah's Salad Days.' The extremely gory sketch earned the BBC some complaints from disgusted 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' viewers, but Peckinpah himself reportedly found it hilarious.
21. Today, it's hard to imagine the usually cerebral, nerdy Dustin Hoffman as a man of action, but there was a period in the '70s where he played several such roles -- not just 'Straw Dogs' but also 'Little Big Man,' 'Papillon,' and 'Marathon Man.' He'd go on to win Oscars for his regular-guy role in 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and his autistic genius in 'Rain Man,' but he did have one more action role (sort of) in 1995's 'Outbreak,' made when he was 58, in which he played a military epidemiologist who does a lot of running and jumping out of aircraft.
22. George went on to play similarly provocative roles in such 1970s features as 'Dirty Mary Crazy Larry' and 'Mandingo.' She remains active as a producer and a character actress.
23. Warner played a sympathetic character for Peckinpah again in 1977's 'Cross of Iron.' Otherwise, he has continued to specialize in villainous roles, including memorable turns in 'Time After Time' (1978), 'Time Bandits' (1981), 'Tron' (1982), and 'Titanic' (1997).
24. Colin Weiland, who played the vicar, went on to win an Oscar as the screenwriter of 1981's 'Chariots of Fire.'
25. David Goodman went on to write such memorable films as 'Logan's Run' and 'The Eyes of Laura Mars.' He was a script doctor on another movie involving a murdered housepet and a couple in a country home who are besieged by a crazed attacker, 'Fatal Attraction.' In fact, he claimed it was his idea that Glenn Close's character ought to be killed at the end. He died at 81 on September 26, 2011, less than two weeks after the release of the remake of 'Straw Dogs.'
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