The Burning of Straw Dogs

Welcome to Wild Card Wednesday.

Several months ago, I watched the preview for the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs. It looked interesting because Erik from True Blood was one of the stars.  At that time, the movie had yet to be released in theaters, so I began researching it online.

Straw Dogs 2011 is a remake of a 1971 movie by the same name.  The original Straw Dogs was directed by Sam Peckinpah and starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.  Even today, the movie is associated with quite a bit of controversy over a particularly nasty rape scene.  The 1971 movie was based on a book titled The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams.

Though I enjoyed both I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left, I wasn’t in any big hurry to watch Straw Dogs–the remake or the original.  Unpleasantness is unpleasantness—and what I’d read made my skin crawl.  But I did want to watch the movie eventually.

A couple of weeks ago, Tiffany A. White got in touch with me and said she’d watched the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs.  She suggested I blog about the original Straw Dogs and she would blog about the remake.  Because I was still interested in both movies, I decided to take her up on it.

[Note: I couldn’t find the original Straw Dogs available to rent anywhere.  For those who are interested, it is available free on You Tube.  Click here to watch it. ]

Before I talk about the movie, I’ll talk about the title—Straw Dogs.

Straw dogs were ceremonial objects used in ancient China.  They are mentioned in Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching.

“Heaven and Earth are heartless / treating creatures like straw dogs“.

In Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Su Ch’e comments

“Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them.”

This is my first exposure to the term “straw dog” and to anything regarding the Tao Te Ching.  However, I gather that a straw dog’s sole purpose is to evoke an emotion—reverence, fear, awe.  Once it has served its purpose, though, it is worthless.

That brings us to Straw Dogs’ tagline:

“In the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog.”

Dustin Hoffman in the 1971 Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs is about a mild-mannered man (Dustin Hoffman) who—in Pulp Fiction terminology—goes medieval when his life is threatened.

Let’s look at that tagline again, and look back up at the expression on Dustin Hoffman’s face.

“In the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog.”

After the watching the movie, I interpreted tagline to mean that every coward is faced with something he fears—in this movie, Hoffman’s character is faced with bullies.

The Straw Dogs (or bullies) in the film

A coward treats a bully with a certain amount of reverence because he doesn’t want conflict with the bully. In this case, a band of bullies is a powerful enough catalyst to bring about change in the coward.

Once the coward has reached his limit, he destroys and discards the straw dogs with a shocking amount of zeal, passion, and single-minded intensity.

The coward pushed to his limit

A trite saying comes to mind: every dog has its day.

With all this in mind, the original 1971 Straw Dogs is not quite what it seems.

The movie is slow—mind-numbingly so.

The conflict is foreshadowed from the opening minutes.  Watching it unfold is not unlike watching a car crash from a distance.  The impact is inevitable, yet there’s nothing to stop it happening.  The tension is like a character in the film.

The plot is deceptively simple.

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered mathmetician.  He and his wife Amy (Susan George) have moved to Amy’s hometown in the Cornish countryside so David can finish a book…on mathematics.  He hires some workmen—one of whom seems to have dated Amy in the past—to do some repairs on their house.

Amy likes attracting attention.  She wears no bra and goes as far as to flash her naked breasts at the workmen.  The workmen make fun of David to his face and delight in his embarrassment and inability to make them stop.

Sexy Amy Sumner played by Susan George

“In the eyes of every coward burns a straw dog.”

The workmen are the straw dogs.  David is the coward.  The workmen eventually strip away David’s timid nature.  In its place is left a man who will burn a straw dog without blinking an eye.

When the movie hits the home stretch, the final confrontation has nothing to do with horrors visited on the Sumner couple–and there are many.  The confrontation, which becomes a battle to the death, has to do with the treatment of an unrelated character.

That seems almost beside the point.  The point seems to be that David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) reached his limit.  When that happened, a straw dog burned in his eyes.  From that point forward, there was no turning back, no matter what.

Many of my readers write fiction.  We fiction writers are told that our main character must make a change.  David Sumner (Hoffman) makes a big change in Straw Dogs.  He transforms from a mild-mannered coward into a ruthless killer.

As the credits rolled, I felt as though I’d eavesdropped on something I wasn’t supposed to see.  Absent were the feelings of vindication I experienced while watching films like I Spit on your Grave, Last House on the Left, and Kill Bill.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, but this didn’t feel like a revenge film.  It was something else all together, and it will stick with me for a while.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan George in the 1971 Straw Dogs

Though I haven’t seen the remake, I can see where a remake might be a good thing.  It might alleviate some of the ambiguity of the original–most of which I attributed to the era in which the film was made.  I’ll look forward to watching the 2011 Straw Dogs sometime soon.