When Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner announces at the end of the 1971 version of “Straw Dogs” that he “got ’em all,” he says it with a sense of triumph.
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We know he has changed from a man who fled America because he was too spineless to take a stand on the Vietnam War into someone who takes a stand against some British thugs who have antagonized him and his wife. When they begin to attack his home, Sumner takes a stand to defend it. He begins to understand machismo and responsibility.
In the new version of “Straw Dogs,” lead actor James Marsden utters the same line, but with a very different feeling. We don’t get a slightly sick sense of accomplishment in his voice. Instead we get a voice that is beat after what could only be described as a Pyrrhic victory for the hero. We get the sense that he he has beaten the monsters at their own game and is now spent and ready to move on, not completely changed.
Both the 1971 and 2011 versions of “Straw Dogs” have their merits, but both are very different films. This is probably due to the men behind them. The original was directed by former Marine and heavy drinker Sam Peckinpah of “Wild Bunch” fame. Peckinpah made his name in Hollywood by depicting violence as a gut-wrenching, real thing that took innocent lives and sometimes showed up at your doorstep uninvited.
Look up any biography of the man and you’ll come across legendary stories of his famous drinking habits and his hard-headed filmmaking style where he tested the patience of producers. The newer version of “Straw Dogs” was directed by West Point graduate and former Army officer Rod Lurie. Once a film critic, Lurie makes films where his heroes are journalists and politicians. Look up a biography of him and you’ll likely come across a rumor that Gary Oldman became displeased with Lurie’s “The Contender” because it became far too liberal in its politics. Clearly, these two filmmakers are different in almost every possible way, which explains their very different versions of essentially the same story.
The original “Straw Dogs” is a far superior film. Hoffman plays the part of David Sumner perfectly. He can barely look his wife’s ex-boyfriend Charlie Venner in the eye when they speak. He is an intellectual, a thinker. He is certainly not a doer. He prefers the certainty of the math problems scribbled on his blackboard to the uncertain and dangerous world that surrounds him.
We sense that he is ashamed of almost every step he takes. He cowers at danger. He witnesses acts of violence in the British town he and his wife have moved to but never steps in. He simply watches in a strange, almost disgusted curiosity. Charlie Venner, on the other hand, is sure of his own identity, even if it is that of a monster. He sees the world as something he owns. He sees David’s wife Amy as his own and David as little more than a bug to be squashed and tortured.
The biggest accomplishment of Peckinpah’s original is that the film is about David’s journey and David’s journey only. We understand after the “rape” scene that Amy is not quite innocent and that she still feels for Charlie, that David was perhaps little more than a rebound. She is attracted to the bulky man who takes charge, even if he lets his friend rape her as well. David is the only person at the end of the film who will have one hundred percent redemption. By the end of the film we know he has become a man. He has grown into his shoes. He understands his animal, instinctual side and no longer cowers with fear at the sight of his own shadow. He has taken a stand and answered violence with violence and won. If you don’t understand what I’m saying by now, you never will.
The newer version of “Straw Dogs” is not terrible. It’s not a partisan film at all. But it is a liberal film and that is because it comes from a more liberal and idealistic mind like Lurie’s. The film is set in the South. This is because a mind like Lurie’s fears what he sees as the South, which is full of bigots and men who enjoy little more than God and guns. He doesn’t understand the South; therefore the film takes place there.
Meanwhile, the original is set in England because a more realist and conservative mind like Peckinpah’s wouldn’t trust Europe. They talk with funny accents, are stuck up, and look at Americans with disgust. The new film also feels much more obligated to set Charlie and David against each other as budding rivals. The original film only did this to an extent. David was up against more than just Charlie. He was up against his own cowardice. But Lurie sees things differently. He tweaks the film just enough so that David is never faced with the issue of manhood vs. non-manhood, violence against non-violence. His character is simply up against a bunch of drunk Southern racists, so we know he simply has no choice. The original shows David slowly becoming the man he needs to be to protect his home, his family and himself. We slowly see him change as he begins barking orders at his wife and answering the intruders’ threats of violence with actual violence.
Hoffman played this change brilliantly. Marsden is also a talented actor, but his change is completely different. He simply accepts that you can’t negotiate with evil men, so he needs to play them at their own game for the time being. Both actors do well with their parts, but Hoffman is the one with more of a challenge. The endings to both films, however, show a skill and technical finesse in the violence. They both understand that they must exploit violence to sell their points. Both Lurie and Peckinpah do a masterful job with these final acts (though Peckinpah’s hits a more unsettling feeling that is needed).
The other big difference in each film is the sense of realism. Lurie almost paints a fantasy. We sense that he and the camera are entering a world they know little about and telling a hypothetical scenario for our entertainment. The older version is from the mind of Peckinpah so we know the world has had a mirror shoved in its face. Good guys don’t exist. His film is far more realistic and cutthroat. Even the town’s priest blatantly checks out David’s wife and is in England attempting to skip the draft. David’s wife prances around town without a bra and still hold feelings for Charlie. Many people took the “rape” scene completely wrong.
Peckinpah is more realistic about matters. To have her simply not enjoy the touch of a man she once loved for many years would be simple minded. Clearly, the logical part of her brain is telling her to say no, and the scene becomes very uncomforyable when she fights the fact that parts of her are enjoying what is happening. Later she is traumatized and confused by the event. She didn’t want it to happen, but her animalistic side enjoyed it, and she hates that.
Many saw this as condoning rape and Peckinpah being a misogynist. These accusations are so simple-minded they are not even worth a response. The new film presents a truly simple-minded rape scene. It takes away Amy’s “enjoyment” of the event (most of it anyway) which later handicaps the story because she doesn’t tell her husband, and why wouldn’t she if she felt no enjoyment and was not confused by her feelings about the event?
In the original version, we also see later when David tells her to leave that she chooses to and he stops her. It was a test. When he grabs her wrist we know their relationship will not survive. Even after being raped by Charlie and Charlie’s goon, she still wants to be with him (she even calls out his name later). Now that David has grown into a man who sees the world for how it really is, he understands Amy is no good. The new film presents no such thing. Instead Amy is a more typical character.
By the end of this, you should know which film you would prefer to waste two hours on. It just depends on who you are as a person. Are you a more idealistic liberal-minded person like Lurie, or are you a more hard-nosed, reality-stricken conservative-minded individual like Peckinpah? Clearly, I enjoyed the first film more because my mind falls into the latter category. But the new one is not bad. It’s an underrated film, and though I agree with little of it, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it for what it is.
The embrace of old-school machismo in Peckinpah’s original “Straw Dogs” may be controversial, but it hits a note deep inside of you. David’s journey will both frighten and challenge you to hate characters you don’t want to hate and root for a character you may not want to root for. So, for all you cavemen out there who enjoy machismo as opposed to new-age beta and want a real bang for your buck, rent the original “Straw Dogs” and watch a real piece of renegade, macho art by a real master.