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The working titles of this film were Siege at Trencher's Farm, The Siege of Trencher's Farm and The Square Root of Fear. Some contemporary news items referred to the picture as The Straw Dogs or The Strawdogs. According to Filmfacts and other contemporary sources, the title was taken from a quote from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: "Heaven and Earth are ruthless and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless and treats the people as straw dogs." A model of a dog made out of straw was used as an offering in ancient Chinese ceremonies, and then was discarded; the phrase can also refer to other types of offerings that are discarded after a ceremony. Although the onscreen credits contain a 1972 copyright statement for ABC Pictures Corp., the film was not registered for copyright protection. Cherina Schaer (Louise Hood) is credited as Cherina Mann in Filmfacts and some contemporary reviews.
Straw Dogs differs significantly from The Siege of Trencher's Farm, the Gordon M. Williams novel on which it was based. In Williams' novel, the American husband, named George Macgruder, is an English professor on sabbatical to write a literary biography, and he and his wife Louise have a young daughter. Although Louise is English, she is not from the village near Trencher's Farm, where the Macgruders are staying, nor is the character of "Charlie Venner" her old boyfriend. Venner and his friends do not work on the Macgruders' barn, and Louise is not raped at any point, although Venner and several other men do attack Trencher's Farm in the book in order to extract "Henry Niles." In the film, the character of "Janice Hedden" is a provocative teenager who entices Niles to engage in a romantic tryst, while in the novel, Janice is an eight-year-old, emotionally disturbed child who wanders off alone during the church social. In the novel, Niles, a small, sickly, convicted pedophile and murderer who has escaped from prison, never comes near Janice, although the villagers, having heard of his escape, are frightened that he has abducted her. The young girl is eventually rescued by the local doctor, a character who does not appear in the film. According to Filmfacts, Williams was so upset by the adaptation of his novel that he vowed never to sell another of his works to an American. In 1972, to coincide with the general release of the film, a paperback version of the book, retitled Straw Dogs and with the key art from the film on the cover, was published in the U.S.
The rights to Williams' novel were first acquired by Talent Associates in early September 1969, according a Hollywood Reporter news item. On October 13, 1969, Daily Variety reported that David Susskind, the head of Talent Associates, would be producing the property for ABC Pictures Corp., with the picture being shot on location in New York City and Quebec. New York Times reported on October 19, 1969 that the picture would be directed by Charles Jarrott with a screenplay by John Hale, but by March 1970, Hollywood Reporter and other contemporary sources were announcing that Sam Peckinpah would direct and write the film, which marked his first non-Western in many years and his first production not shot in North America. A Hollywood Reporter article noted on October 23, 1970 that Daniel Melnick, Susskind's partner in Talent Associates, would personally produce Straw Dogs, thereby marking his debut as a feature film producer. Modern sources add that Melnick, Peckinpah, David Zelag Goodman, ABC Pictures Corp. head Martin Baum and star Dustin Hoffman all collaborated on the screenplay at various points, and that Peckinpah attempted to interest playwright Harold Pinter in working on it before production began, but Pinter, loathing the subject matter, refused.
A October 14, 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Judy Geeson would co-star in the picture, and modern sources add that she had been offered the role of Amy. Modern sources state that actors considered for the role of David included Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Beau Bridges, Stacy Keach, Jack Nicholson and Sidney Poitier. Diana Rigg, Charlotte Rampling, Carol White, Jacqueline Bisset, Hayley Mills, Helen Mirren and Joie Gould, Peckinpah's then girl friend, were considered to play Amy, and Trevor Howard was offered the role of "Major Scott." Although the onscreen credits "introduce" actor Ken Hutchison, he had previously appeared in bit roles in two British productions.
As noted by contemporary sources, the picture was shot on location in and around the villages of St. Ives and St. Buryan in Cornwall, England, with interiors filmed at Twickenham Studios in Middlesex, England. According to an October 1971 New York Times article on the picture's production, shooting was halted for ten days when Peckinpah was hospitalized with "something between exhaustion and pneumonia." Modern sources add that Peckinpah's illness was related to his habitual heavy drinking, and both Melnick and Baum threatened to fire him if he did not substantially reduce his alcohol consumption for the duration of filming. The New York Times article also reported that the trouble-plagued production had three cameramen, the first of whom "was fired" and the second of whom "quit on religious grounds after he had read the entire script." According to a modern biography of Peckinpah, the first cinematographer was Brian Probyn and the second was Arthur Ibbetson. Probyn is listed as the director of photography in all of the picture's entries on Hollywood Reporter production charts.
Modern source interviews relate that the picture's first editor, an unnamed Englishman, was fired by Melnick for protesting to studio executives that Peckinpah's footage was too erratic to be edited together coherently. Peckinpah then tried to hire Louis Lombardi, with whom he had worked previously, but Lombardi was busy editing McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Because British guild regulations prevented Peckinpah from employing more than one American, Roger Spottiswoode, Tony Lawson and Paul Davies were hired to work jointly on the project, with American Robert Wolfe brought on as the "editorial consultant" who oversaw their work. Hollywood Reporter production charts credit Norman Savage as the film's editor, but he did not work on the project.
Contemporary and modern sources conflict as to the reason for David Warner's uncredited participation in the film, with some asserting that Warner, who played Henry Niles, appeared in the picture as a personal favor to Peckinpah. [Warner had previously worked with Peckinpah on the director's 1970 film The Ballad of Cable Hogue, .] Other sources maintain that Warner had been seriously injured prior to production and had difficulty getting insured, therefore his participation in the project was not credited. Warner does walk with a limp in the picture, which reputedly was due to his healing leg injuries. Another real-life injury that was shown onscreen was the fractured shoulder of actor T. P. McKenna, who was hurt during a cast party shortly before filming began. Although McKenna's arm was confined to a sling, there was no attempt made to hide the injury onscreen, nor to explain it.
According to modern sources, the rape sequence proved very problematic during production, as it was described only vaguely in the screenplay, and Peckinpah was reluctant to tell George the exact details of what was going to happen to her character during filming. When George threatened to quit if the scene was shot too explicitly, Peckinpah agreed to place more emphasis on her face, eyes and upper body, according to an August 2003 The Observer (London) article and other modern sources. In a December 20, 1971 Time article on the production, however, it was stated that when George "balked at playing the rape scene all the way to the end, the director simply brought in a double and kept going." No interviews with George mention the use of a body double, however.
Shooting the ending of the film also proved difficult, according to modern sources, which report that in the original shooting script, the children of the dead villagers menaced David and Amy, threatening to continue the siege. According to interviews contained on the 2003 U.S. DVD release, Hoffman ad-libbed the ambiguous ending line in which he tells Niles that he, too, does not know his way home, and Peckinpah decided to use that as the end. During post-production, Peckinpah began pre-production and location shooting on his next film, Junior Bonner, which required the editors to move from England to Hollywood to complete Straw Dogs.
According to Filmfacts, Straw Dogs's original running time at its London premiere was 118 minutes, but it was trimmed to 113 minutes before its release in the United States in order to receive an R rating from the MPAA instead of its original X rating. According to modern sources, much of the footage cut was from the rape sequence, especially the second attack, when Amy is raped by "Norman Scutt." Despite the cuts, the R rating was controversial, with numerous groups and critics asserting that the film still deserved an X, although some writers asserted that the eliminations made the scene even more objectionable by deleting details that emphasized how traumatized Amy was. Although Peckinpah issued contradictory statements about his reactions to the MPAA-enforced cuts, in a May 7, 1972 letter to the editor in response to a April 9, 1972 New York Times article about the eliminations, Peckinpah asserted: "I felt the so-called rape scene in Straw Dogs kept the integrity while losing very little of the dressing." Peckinpah also claimed that he used several unspecified suggestions made by Dr. Aaron Stern, the head of the MPAA, "for the European version [of the film], because it made a better picture." According to a circa 1972 Cinema article, contained in the film's file at the AMPAS Library, "Peckinpah's original version" containing the entire rape sequence was then currently in distribution in Europe.
Straw Dogs was extremely controversial at the time of its release, with many reviewers lambasting Peckinpah's depiction of violence, claiming that it was gratuitous and glorified, with the rape sequence being singled out frequently for criticism. In an October 1971 New York Times article, Peckinpah defended the film by stating: "We're violent by nature. We're going to survive by being violent. If we don't recognize that we're violent people, we're dead." In one of the most famous analyses of the film, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called Straw Dogs "the first American film that is a fascist work of art." Although Kael grudgingly admired Peckinpah's skill at manipulating the viewers' emotions and considered him "an artist," she intensely disliked what she considered to be his "statement," that only through extreme violence does David become truly masculine and that "pacifism is unmanly."
According to modern sources, Peckinpah was deeply offended and hurt by Kael's words, and in a draft of a letter to her, contained as added content on the film's 2003, 117-minute, Criterion Collection DVD release, he warned that unless she publicly printed an explanation, he would take the matter up with his lawyer. Another critique taken personally by Peckinpah was that of Life reviewer Richard Schickel, who, while praising Peckinpah's artistry, despised the film itself as "unredeemed, unrelenting evil."
Although the violence contained in the "siege" sequence-and the implications of it-were also debated by contemporary reviewers, many of them commented on how well it was edited and photographed. In an editorial about the picture, New York Times writer Peter Schjeldahl called it "a long, beautifully paced, alternately dreamy and jolting sequence," and even Kael termed the editing "superb." Many contemporary critics compared Straw Dogs to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, which also was the focus of much discussion about the depiction of violence and sexuality in movies. Numerous film historians have considered Straw Dogs, as well as other Peckinpah pictures such as 1969's The Wild Bunch (see below), to be forerunners of a trend toward depicting increasingly graphic violence in motion pictures.
The film did attract much critical praise at the time of its release, with Newsweek's Paul D. Zimmerman proclaiming: "It is hard to imagine that Sam Peckinpah will ever make a better movie than Straw Dogs." Jay Cocks, writing for Time, also hailed the picture, calling it "a brilliant feat of moviemaking."
The picture played in Los Angeles in December 1971 to qualify for Academy Award consideration, but did not play most areas of the country until 1972. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music Score. In addition to becoming Peckinpah's most successful picture at the box office to that point, Straw Dogs remained the most controversial of his career.
Following its London premiere, Straw Dogs was a box-office hit in Great Britain, despite the condemnation of many English critics. In an article in The Times (London) on November 28, 1971, Steven Murphy, the head of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), defended passing the film for exhibition in Great Britain, stating: "We think this film is a serious attempt to do something about violence." The theatrical version shown in England was the 118-minute version, given an X certificate, meaning that no one under the age of 18 could attend. Although Straw Dogs was available in its uncensored form with an X certificate on VHS until 1984, after then it "disappeared from circulation" due to new classification regulations enacted by Parliament, according to a July 2002 Hollywood Reporter article, and was banned from being released on VHS again. Straw Dogs was not released again on VHS or DVD in Great Britain until 2002, at which time the 118-minute, uncensored version also had a limited theatrical release. According to a July 2002 article in The Independent (London), the BBFC approved the 118-minute version upon the advice of three clinical psychologists who deemed "the present version of Straw Dogs...not harmful and...not likely to encourage an interest in rape or abusive behaviour to women."
Two remakes of Straw Dogs have been announced. The first, to be directed by John Polson and star Edward Norton, was announced in 2002, but appeared to be inactive as of June 2007. The other project, to be directed by Rod Lurie, was reported by a March 30, 2007 Hollywood Reporter news item to be set in the United States rather than in England. The stars and ultimate release date for Lurie's project had not been announced as of June 2007.