and Hating Straw Dogs: The Meanings of Audience Responses to
a Controversial Film - Part 2: Rethinking Straw Dogs as a
What was it, indeed
what is it, about Straw Dogs that aroused and still arouses
such a mix of reactions: from thrill to perplexedness to disgust.
In an important essay published shortly after the film’s original
release, Charles Barr explored the strange opposition that emerged
between reactions to Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange.
Many critics who hurried to the defence of Kubrick’s film rushed
equally to public condemnation of Peckinpah’s. My conclusion from
studying both the film and the reactions of those who receive
it most positively is that the problem arises from a series of
things that the film isn’t. In a series of steps, the film
appears to posit the possibility of particular reactions, which are
in some sense ‘generic’ or typological. But then the film disables
them – not simply by containing elements which won’t readily fit
within the generic expectations, but by confronting those
expectations with something which challenges and undoes the comforts
of those expectations.
First, and most
relevant to the contrast with A Clockwork Orange, Straw
Dogs is not consistently art-y. There are few if any stylistic
gestures – whether of Peckinpah’s supposed trade-marks (slow-motion
balletic violence, for instance) or of any other kind. The film
does begin, as do a number of his other films (most famously, the
children torturing the scorpions at the start of The Wild Bunch),
with a scene of children strangely playing, in a graveyard. But
these children never recur. So, unless a viewer takes on the
position of interpreting some other characters as particularly
child-related – Janice, the young, sexually-provocative girl who
dies accidentally at the hands of Henry; or Amy herself – the symbol
is offered only to be ditched. Not readily an art film, then, in
the way that A Clockwork Orange allowed and invited that form
of response. And the 13 critics who wrote to the Times to
revile Straw Dogs did so just on the basis of that
Then, the film keeps
hinting at, but then backing away from, various larger generic, or
even mythic, forms. Is it a transposed Western, in which frontier
myths of masculinity are now played out in a different kind of
testing environment? But if so, then although it does indeed show
David ‘discovering’ in himself the resources to stand up to the
black-hatted villains – but to what end? No ‘civilisation’ emerges,
indeed he takes his stand in defence of Henry, whom we at least know
to have paedophile tendencies, and to be a killer, perhaps the more
dangerous since he doesn’t know what he is doing as he kills. And
the very ending neither reinstates him as hero of the new civilised
order, nor returns him to a mythic ‘lone traveller’ role.
Is it a thriller,
whose dynamics would then be more to do with the discovery of the
sources of danger and threat, and then the fight-back?
Is this in some other
way a film about myths of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, as a
number of feminist critics have declared? Centrally, it’s been said
– and used as the basis for the BBFC’s judgements on the film – that
Straw Dogs enacts the basic male myth of rape – that a woman
who says no means yes, probably likes her sex rough, and will gain
sexual pleasure of being forced. Carol Clover, as we have seen,
exemplifies this position. The ways in which Straw Dogs
contradicts this account are more subtle, but no less certain. And
again, we will see that it isn’t simply that the film contains
elements that don’t fit, it is more that the deviant elements
deny the possibility of the myth. It isn’t that the film is
inconsistent, but it consistently refuses to be read mythically.
Take David, first: a
nerd before the word. A coward who has fled the hinted-at conflicts
in America over Vietnam, to hide in his abstruse, possibly pointless
mathematical work. Who squabbles with his wife. Who tries to be
‘in’ with the villagers. Who as a result is lured out on the
shooting trip and is seen, absurdly, sitting among the gorse while
his wife is being raped at home. And when he finally shoots a
pheasant, he looks at it, and with a mixture of sadness and disgust
puts down the pointlessly-dead body. Who returns home so
self-engrossed that he doesn’t hear his wife try to tell him that
she has been raped – and when he finally notices her unhappiness, is
sexually aroused by it. So his final turn to violence is less a
discovery of courage, even less a will to revenge, than a pointless
yell at the world that has made him feel so stupid.
Consider Amy: the
child/woman. Who used to live in the village, and (though we have
to do a little filling in, to be sure) probably had sexual relations
with Charlie before she left, met and married David. Who knows she
is being sexually provocative in walking bra-less through the
village. Who consciously walks half-naked past the window when the
local workmen will see. Who does these things though she must know,
coming from there, the kind of enclosed world this sort of village
was. Who, after she has been raped, still tries to make David
integrate into the village by reminding him to get ready for the
show – where her flashbacks of the assault will become more and more
insidious until even David realises how disturbed she is (though he
still never asks her why …).
Take Charlie, the
first rapist: a slow character about whom we never quite know
enough. Did he or didn’t he strangle Amy’s cat? We know that Scutt,
the vicious one, got into the couple’s bedroom – he is the one to
pull out the trophy knickers he stole, but Charlie? So what’s
Charlie’s position? When he leaves David adrift on the moor, and
calls on Amy, does he know he is going to rape her? That Scutt will
follow? If he does, then an act that is appalling either way
becomes that much worse – a scheme to lure the husband away so two
men can abuse the wife, versus a situation read wrongly by a former
lover who loses control of himself, and then finds himself
half-forced to admit the second man. The clues are so
contradictory. When Amy calls out ‘Who’s there?’ to his first
knock, he doesn’t answer, forcing her to open the door to him. Yet
he immediately offers to go, if she prefers. When she coolly
invites him in, he appears to lock the door – an odd act, in itself,
and hinting that Amy won’t be able to escape him, but even odder if
he expects Scutt to follow him in. When he first kisses her, she
seems to half-respond before she asks him to go. He removes her
glasses and she allows him to, so he can kiss her again. Now the
violence intrudes. After her slap and retreat, he knocks her down
brutally, drags her to the sofa and tears her clothes open. This is
rape, without question or excuse. Yet in the middle of it,
unmistakeably, he says to her: ‘I don’t want to leave you, Amy – but
His ‘sorry’ to her after the rape is easily gathered up into the
male myth, the conqueror who can seem just to have lost control of
himself. But faced with Scutt’s gun in his face, and his
acquiescence that Scutt too should rape Amy, the long lingering look
at his face betrays guilt, and knowledge that he has betrayed her.
He is a bad man, his act is appalling. And yet it is
to him, and to his strength, that Amy calls when she is again
attacked by Scutt during the climactic siege.
In each case it seems
to me that the film confronts us with the messiness of
people’s motives. Yet it is never just confusing. Because its
overall narrative thrust is so easy to tell – young, hesitant couple
move to enclosed, suspicious community where she used to belong;
they encounter hostility from the locals who seek to wreck their
lives and ‘reclaim their own’ in the woman; finally the man finds
the inner resources to fight back and, improbably and through great
violence, wins. It is through the characters’ perceptions of the
situation, and through our reading of the clues as to their motives,
that the film attains its complexity.
We can refuse. We
can back away and denounce. And that will usually be linked to
claims about the dangers of the film.
Since we can’t be audiences for this film, we worry greatly about
those who do – they must be getting ‘messages’ of considerable moral
danger from Straw Dogs. This will likely be composed around
an opposition: that some bits of the film work to make palatable
those parts which contain its unacceptable morals. We can slim the
film down and ‘lose’ the resistive elements, and make the film just
a generic one. The price is limited involvement, a feeling that the
film is either patchy, or confused/confusing.
Some years ago, John
O Thompson published an unusual essay in which, discussing the
contribution that stars make to the meaning manifold of a film, he
proposed the use of ‘commutation tests’.
What if other stars had played the part? By looking at real cases
of remakes with different stars (the three versions of A Star Is
Born, for instance), or by thought-experiments exploring what
might have happened (for instance, if one of the other actors
offered the part had accepted the lead in The Shootist ahead
of John Wayne), the contribution of a particular star should become
more visible. Although frequently referenced, Thompson’s ideas have
not been much used. I want to use them here, to contribute to my
evaluation of Straw Dogs. I want to ask how we might better
understand how it is constructed and what meaning-potentials
emerge from that construction, by considering how it might have
been if certain script and screenplay decisions had not been
Three biographies in
particular enable this investigation, because their account of
Peckinpah’s life has been enriched by, among other things, a
scrutiny of the production files on the film. Garner Simmons,
and Steven Prince
each give splendidly detailed consideration to the film, and point
up some detailed changes made in the course of the development,
principal shooting, and final edit of the film. I want to discuss
four in particular:
the decision to cast Susan
George as Amy – a decision which worried Dustin Hoffman, who made a
strong case to Peckinpah for another kind of actress;
the decision to film the
rape scene as a whole through Amy’s reactions, following pressure
from actress Susan George;
the subsequent decision,
made during the final editing of the film, to reduce the attention
given to Charlie’s sexual interest in Amy;
the decision, made very
close to the end of principal photography, to scrap the ending as
written in the screenplay, and substitute one altogether different.
How may these four
‘commutations’ help us understand the nature of the film as it
1. Garner Simmons
recounts Dustin Hoffman’s considerable doubts over the casting of
Susan George as Amy. Hoffman had seen screen tests of George, and
liked and admired her as an actress. But in terms of his reading of
the nature of the story, he doubted the wisdom of choosing her: ‘“I
said to Sam, ‘I just feel she is the wrong type for a guy who’s a
teacher in college. You’re opening up a whole big can of worms as
to why he married this kind of Lolita-ish girl.” I could see a
woman in her late twenties. Also the whole rape thing. I thought a
woman who was a little older and starting to feel a little out of it
in terms of being attractive – had a sensuality but was losing it –
might be more ambivalent about being raped. Sam said he agreed and
that I shouldn’t worry because he could get that out of her. He
even went so far as to say that he couldn’t do the picture without
her.’ (p.126) George, though, was not the only actress
screen-tested for the part.
insistence on using Susan George is interesting. Among the other
contenders were Carol White (considered, but not screen-tested) and
Judy Geeson (screen-tested), and a secretary and current lover of
Peckinpah’s. White had made her name in Poor Cow (1967), in
which she starred as a woman who lives a life filled with bad
choices. She marries and has a child with an abusive thief who ends
up in prison. Left alone she takes up with his mate (another thief)
who seems to give her some happiness but who also ends up inside.
She then takes up with a series of seedy types who offer nothing but
momentary pleasure. Geeson became known through a Sidney Poitier
film To Sir, With Love (also 1967), about a black engineer
who becomes a teacher in a tough London school, and has to learn to
cope with angry/violent boys and sexually provocative girls. Geeson
played his main female nemesis, Pamela Dare, who develops a crush
for him. George, meanwhile, seems to have been an actress in
transition. Having first come to notice for a small role in a
sweetness-and-light stage adaptation of The Sound of Music,
in the mid-1960s George emerged as a ‘sexy young actress’, in
particular playing roles as ‘threatened blonde’ in some horror
films, and then as ‘blonde temptress’.
All three had strong
credentials as serious actresses, not simply as good faces/bodies.
And they surely share some screen qualities. By the time of
Straw Dogs, all three were post-adolescent, attractive,
open-faced, and slightly wide-eyed. But there are subtle
differences in both their ‘look’, and in the persona established
through their defining role. The most repeatedly available photos
of each hint at these differences.
White had come to embody was a woman knocked about by life – already
a victim. Geeson, meanwhile, portrayed a flirty, working class
image. What George seems to have had, more than the other two, was
a certain age-confusion in her look. Whilst clearly a maturing
woman in age, body, and speech, her face still held a slight
puppy-fat. And she could play a certain petulance, the petulance of
someone who didn’t yet see that the world might react to her
behaviours in hurtful ways. When hurt, her face had the capacity to
display her upset physically – as a child might, more than an
adult. As a screen-presence, then, what she appears to offer is the
potential for walking herself into situations in which a tendency to
cruelty might be provoked in others. George-as-Amy is not a child;
she is a woman with some of the characteristics of an irritating
2. Holding this
possibility in mind, consider the decision that emerged over the
filming of the rape scene. We do not know in detail what Peckinpah
intended for this – George, the main source of our understanding,
has only ever said that she was horrified by what he proposed, and
threatened to walk out on the film. It is clear that Peckinpah
proposed to display her completely naked. What we may guess, mainly
from the way George insisted on her alternative, is that his
preferred way would involve a far greater emphasis on her physical
and sexual brutalisation. David Weddle’s biography of Peckinpah
draws on extensive interviews with Susan George to tell the story of
her battles over how the rape scene should be filmed. Peckinpah
wouldn’t reveal to George how he planned to film the scene, and
George not surprisingly was very nervous. Finally she forced him to
reveal his plans, by threatening to walk out on the film. George
has only ever revealed tangentially what Peckinpah’s ideas were, but
it clearly involved complete nudity, and an emphasis on showing what
was being done to her body. She rebelled. Eventually a compromise
was reached. Peckinpah said that he ‘wanted to film the best rape
scene ever’. She persuaded Peckinpah to film the scene with an
emphasis on her eyes, showing the horror of what was happening to
her through her reactions. Forced to compromise, Peckinpah agreed
to try this, with the threat of reverting to his preferred approach
if it did not work. When he saw the rushes, he acknowledged to her
that he had what he wanted – the materials for the ‘best rape scene
The question, though,
has to be: what exactly is meant by this strange and provocative
expression? Malgré all those who attacked this as an embodiment of
the woman who says ‘no’, but ends up meaning ‘yes’, it is in fact
much more complex than this could ever grasp. There is a terrible
but quite specific ambivalence in their relationship, which is not
only there if you mishear Charlie’s ‘leave/reave’. It is also there
in the changes between screenplay and film. The screenplay –
presumably representing Peckinpah’s plans before Susan George’s
refusal – has the rape scene driven by three forces: sheer physical
attraction – the screenplay has Charlie fondling Amy’s breasts, and
enjoying her discomfiture at this; a back-history of a previous
relationship between Amy and Charlie; and a split of ‘loyalties’,
between a genuine affection he keeps feeling for Amy, and a sense
that she has become an outsider, a city girl, someone to be used.
The film alters the presence and balance of these.
The important thing
is that in the course of watching Amy during the attack on her, we
learn a number of things about her. The focus on her face,
along with the reverse shots which not only show Charlie, but
simultaneously – by the manner of the filming – display how she is
seeing him, make the scene into an examination not simply of her
shock and distress, but also her momentary realisation of something
3. This focus on her
self-realisation was increased by the changes made in the third of
my ‘commutations’, the final editing of the scene which produced the
variations between an early ‘European’ and a subsequent, preferred
‘American’ version. Stephen Prince helps us take this part of the
story further. Drawing on the film’s production files, and the
existence for a time of two released versions, he explores some
specific decisions Peckinpah made at the editing stage. A European
cut of the film gave more extended attention to the rape, including
in particular showing Charlie fondling Amy’s breasts, and then
dwelling on the sheer brutality of Scutt’s anal rape. Partly under
pressure from the distributors, who worried about responses in
America, partly because of his own thinking about it, Peckinpah told
his editors to recut the scene, to de-emphasise just these aspects.
Had the former become
the standard version, the significance of the rape scene would have
been subtly but significantly different. An overt focus on
Charlie’s pleasure in Amy’s body would have sexualised the scene in
a particular way. As it is, although her body is exposed to him, it
is the character of the interactions between them – and thus, of
course, the potentially reawakened past histories – that are
4. The commutation
of the ending is decisive. Garner Simmons recounts how the film’s
finale was dramatically altered: ‘Throughout the project, there had
been much discussion over exactly how the film would end,
considering the amount of violence that takes place in the final
twenty minutes. The scripted ending called for David and Amy, their
attackers dead and dying, to suddenly be confronted by the children
of the town led by Tom Hedden’s son, Bobby. The children, all
carrying sticks and clubs, survey the bodies and then close in on
the Sumners who stand on the stairs. The last line of the
DAVID SLIPS CATLIKE down the stairs
towards them as AMY is suddenly at his side, their weapons ready –
Just like the rest of us –
Sooner or later.
FREEZE FRAME.’ (p.
Peckinpah’s awareness that his producer Marty Baum wanted a happy
ending, but kept delaying a decision on it – until the solution
emerged almost accidentally from a discussion between David Warner
(Henry), Dustin Hoffman, and himself. Warner commented ‘I don’t
know my way home’ to which Hoffman riposted with his own line – and
that sedimented into the scene as we now have it.
Had Straw Dogs
closed as the screenplay indicates, then it would have had a certain
closure. The film opens with the children playing their strange
game in the local cemetery. To those familiar with Peckinpah films,
this would have to recall the children torturing scorpions in the
opening of The Wild Bunch – who then look up to watch the
Bunch ride into town. In that film, the children return at the
end. Their innocent/wicked eyes observe the failures and follies of
adults. Straw Dogs would have taken this one stage further,
making children the inheritors of their parents’ violence. The
circle would thus have been closed, and although the outcome
of this final confrontation would not have been given in the film,
its necessity would have been implied. By changing from this
ending, the children remain ambiguous, and their role incomplete.
And the film as a whole tumbles into uncertainty.
Gordon Williams, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley
Kubrick, Robert Ardrey
I want to close this
discussion by returning to the film itself. The broader
argumentative framework within which this investigation of audience
responses is set, is one which seeks to question the ways in which
‘textual analysis’ has predominantly been used. In a great many
cases, it is claimed that ‘meanings’ have been found, and that these
‘meanings’ have implications for ‘figured audiences’. I am
absolutely not trying to dissolve film ‘texts’ into audience
responses – not least because audiences are always acutely aware of
the substance of the film itself, as they respond. What I have been
arguing for, rather, is a need to attend to the film-as-constructed
by different kinds of audience, and the work required to produce
each kind of ‘film text’. Rather than, then, going back to the film
to do my own textual analysis of it, I want to approach it from two
comparative angles, which I believe can throw light on what in its
nature makes possible the kinds of response I have discovered. The
two angles are comparisons, then, of the film: first, with its
source-book, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm; second, with its
virtual contemporary and equally-debated A Clockwork Orange.
pointers to the nature of Peckinpah’s film can be gained by
examining the novel on which it was based. Gordon Williams, who
wrote The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, was the author of more
than twenty novels – including a number ghost-written for football
figures. Siege was written, according to Williams, in under
three weeks, following a trip to Dartmoor at a time when a violent
convict had escaped from prison there. Published in 1969, it was a
pot-boiler, sold on by an astute publisher who smelt that it might
be ‘of its time’ of Hollywood.
Within a broad sweep
of similarity (an outsider couple move from America into a Cornish
village, are met with distrust; a young girl disappears, and a
convicted paedophile is suspected who accidentally finds refuge in
the outsiders’ house; the couple are violently besieged, but
ultimately – and bloodily – victorious), the film varies from the
book in important ways. Some of these have to do with the
differences in modes of story-telling between novel and cinema;
others are different. Most notably, the rape scene which made the
film so notorious is not present in the book. But while obviously
significant, it may not be the most revealing alteration. For
simplicity’s sake, I have risked presenting some key differences in
Siege of Trencher’s Farm
Who are the core
scholar), Louise (his wife), Karen (their daughter).
(mathematician) and Amy (his wife) – there are no children.
Why have they
come to Cornwall?
She is from England
(but not Cornwall), imagines a place of retreat. He wants a
quiet place to work. A hint that he is running away from
She is from this
village, has memories and old (boy)friends. He wants a quiet
place to work. A hint that he is running away from the
‘Vietnam war on the campus’.
How are the
As in-bred, possibly
incestuous, jealous and secret-guarding.
As in-bred, jealous
and rural backwards.
Janice is the
girl who disappears. How is she represented? What is her
intelligence. A hint that her backwardness might be the
product of too close in-breeding. She is rescued from
the blizzard, unharmed.
provocative, out of control. A hint that this community
doesn’t know how to handle girls’ sexuality. She dies,
semi-accidentally, at the hands of Henry Niles.
The couple’s cat
is killed – what does this trigger?
withdrawal in George. Reminder in Louise of the pleasures
of seeing game brought in from hunting.
Not much interest in
David. Childlike upset in Amy.
not known about, but narratively
“Soldier’s Field” (a
story which reveals the locals’ willingness to kill
outsiders). George learns its meaning, late on.
Amy’s rape, which is
‘hidden’ from David. David remains ignorant of this, to
What is ‘at
stake’ in the defence of their home?
For both, their
daughter. For George, the defence of reason and law.
For David, the
defence of reason and law – but partly he doesn’t know why.
What is achieved
by their defence?
rediscovery of his manhood. For Louise, the same. Strong
suggestions that he overcomes his impotence.
destruction of his sense of who he is. For Amy, total,
unhappy confusion. No hints at all as to gains.
Who does the wife
turn to at the height of the crisis?
To George, but only
once he has asserted dominance over her.
To Charlie, who
raped her, when she is again threatened by the second
How does the
Louise finds a
remasculinised George attractive again, and they make love –
in the light.
David leaves Amy in
the devastated house, to return Henry to town. They are
‘external’ themes are explicitly raised
The morality of
capital punishment. ‘Civilisation’, over-civilisation.
America and anti-Americanism.
The Vietnam war, and
the campus battles over it.
This table alone
suggests some thematic alterations between book and film. The film
increases the couple’s links with the village, and introduces female
sexuality as a motive-force in its own right. It reduces the sense
of damaged masculinity as something which has to rediscover itself.
There is also in the book a theme about hunting, and blood, and
men’s and women’s responses to them, which is completely absent from
the film. But to understand the differences fully, they need some
further glossing. Williams’ book is replete with a kind of
philosophising through the eyes of the different characters. The
villagers give voice to all kinds of dislike, and envy of outsiders,
rich people, those that they can never be. Other occasional
characters give us ‘opinions’ on the locals – their in-bred
narrowness, their almost incestuous way of life. To George and
Louise goes the task of giving a ‘civilised’ perspective. Their
rows are never just about each other as individuals, but about what
a man and a woman ought to be like. They are about ‘America’ which,
curiously, is presented as a decadent too-civilised place which has
lost touch with the body, with the physical, the natural. What
emerges is a sense of self-disgust, which is overcome only through
violence, and with that the reassertion of traditional gender
roles. George realises that he wants, indeed needs to be a ‘man’:
“What good did it do to a man to know he had brains? How could
academic knowledge make up for a lack of maleness?”
(p.32). And that means that his flinching over their dead cat was
a mark of unmanly sickness. Meanwhile, what Louise needs is to be
told, directed, dominated; she discovers her need to be a ‘woman’
again: “For the first time in years she’d felt the way she’d always
wanted to feel, like a woman. Protected. Given a man to lean on.
No longer leaning on herself.” (p.144)
certainly does not proffer a coherent ideology. Novels don’t
generally deal in such things, because if they are to work at all,
they generally do so by presenting characters’ conflicting
perspectives. This aside, there anyway appear to be competing
discourses driving it: the urban vs the rural, the modern vs the
primitive; the civilised vs the instinctual (but which of these
pairs is ‘good’ in the book, is somewhat arguable). But it is not
fanciful to see within its story signs and elements of the set of
ideas that became very popular in the late Sixties: the pop ethology,
and instinctivism that associated with the work of writers such as
Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey and others which for a time also won
adherents in Hollywood. These ideas set up the terms of a debate in
which violence, crowd behaviour, and gender characteristics could be
given essentialist, pseudo-evolutionary explanations. But while
Peckinpah and his producers may have been attracted to Williams’
book by its address to those themes, I would want to stress that
they are markedly altered and some new elements (including that
reference to the Vietnam war), and also the film reveals itself to
be much less confident about their outcomes than the
With this in mind, I
want to recall again Charles Barr’s fascinating essay comparing
first critical responses to Straw Dogs, and to Kubrick’s A
Clockwork Orange. Critics, Barr shows, generally delighted in
Kubrick’s film because they believed it invited them to stand back
and survey the issues it dealt in; while they felt ‘contaminated’ by
Peckinpah’s. Barr did a very useful job of showing the nature of
this contrast. But I wish to take it a step further.
between the responses to the two films may partly derive, I will
argue, from something they share, but which they use differently.
This is a relation to the work of Robert Ardrey. Ardrey worked for
a while as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, most famously working on
Khartoum. But he is best remembered for a series of popular,
indeed populist, books presenting an ‘instinctivist’ account of
human behaviour: most notably The Territorial Imperative
(1966), African Genesis (1969), and The Social Contract
(1970). At the time of making of both films, Ardrey’s work was
widely read, held in some regard, and was certainly known to both
Peckinpah and Kubrick. But although both were clearly influenced
by his account, I believe their relations to him were rather
Ardrey sought to
explain human aggression by reference to pent-up instinctual
forces. Living unnaturally in cities, living in societies where the
boundaries between cultures were no longer clear, living out of
close contact with ‘nature’ (which meant such things as hunting, to
Ardrey) led to unmanageable stresses in society. Out of this could
come an explanation of human violence and savagery. All this was
well received in an American political culture rather desperately
seeking non-political explanations for black urban revolts, the
student movements, the failure of its Vietnam war (and the emerging
evidence of American soldiers’ brutality). But Ardrey was not
alone. While on his own side were a number of other popularising
crude social Darwinists such as Konrad Lorenz, and Desmond Morris,
on the other side was the equally crude behaviourist work of B F
Skinner, a popularising psychologist who sought to explain all human
behaviour in terms of cumulative environmental stimuli. The debates
between these two bald positions were hot, and echoed into public
Kubrick himself made
overt reference to Ardrey’s work. In a famous controversy, he
responded to a diatribe against his film in the New York
Times. Fred Hechinger had accused Kubrick of having produced a
‘fascist’ film because of its bleak pessimistic view that either we
give way to our dark inner impulses, or we have to have a
totalitarian state. Kubrick, not one for engaging in public
controversy, was angered enough to reply. Here is part of his
letter: ‘without citing anything from the film itself, Mr.
Hechinger seems to rest his entire case against me on a quote
appearing in The New York Times of January 30, in which I
said: “Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is
irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about
anything where his own interests are involved...and any attempt to
create social institutions based on a false view of the nature of
man is probably doomed to failure.” From this, apparently, Mr.
Hechinger concluded, “the thesis that man is irretrievably bad and
corrupt is the essence of fascism,” and summarily condemned the
film.’ Kubrick then proceeds to draw upon a complex combination of
quotes from Ardrey, Arthur Koestler, and the Times’ own
reviewer Vincent Canby, to argue that humans are ‘risen apes’,
capable both of music and massacres, of both art and savagery; his
film is an argument about the need for humans to choose.
It is clear that Kubrick himself sees A Clockwork Orange as
engaged in a debate about humans’ capacity for violence and
savagery, and the possibility and the appropriateness of scientific
interventions to ‘control’ these. What becomes clear, through these
debates, is the extent to which the film’s philosophical themes were
grounded in terms of debate set by Ardrey and his opponents (Kubrick
himself references Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the ‘noble
savage’ as the alternative to Ardrey). The strength of Kubrick’s
film lies in not polemicising, but in pushing us to consider
sides; and in leaving at the end no clear outcome – Malcolm
McDowell’s final mocking ‘Oh, I was cured alright’, as he couples
wildly with a naked girl in front of the delighted politicians, does
not offer easy comfort. The meaning of ‘cured’ looks highly
Sam Peckinpah also knew Ardrey’s work,
although he may not have encountered the ideas directly until after
he had completed The Wild Bunch (1969).
But by 1971 a new factor had entered Peckinpah’s view of the world.
A rising disgust with the US role in Vietnam had crystallized after
his outrage at learning about the massacre at My Lai. Peckinpah was
one of those who pressed angrily for the prosecution of Lt. Calley
for his role in the massacre. ‘Violence’ was no longer something to
be understood as something about generalized ‘human savagery’. It
had now a political meaning, but one that was not entirely clear to
Peckinpah. Straw Dogs’ inquiry into our human capacity for
violence is no doubt inflected by that background instinctivist
account, but is very unhappy at its uses and implications.
If Peckinpah shifts the film away from
the book’s instinctivist tendencies by introducing both political
elements, which tend to locate the characters in time and place, and
a strain of narrative uncertainty which qualifies the force of the
theme of ‘savagery’, Kubrick took his source in the opposite
direction. Vincent LoBrutto (1997) among others tells the story
that Kubrick worked from the American edition of Anthony Burgess’
book – in which the final chapter where Alex reforms himself
by simply growing up was deleted. On top of this, Kubrick made
specific decisions to downplay explicit political references. At one
point he considered making the marauding gangs’ masks into the
likenesses of Winston Churchill, Vladimir Lenin and Mahatma Gandhi.
Instead, he chose to use masks with phallic noses, thereby
emphasizing the primal nature of their violent tendencies.
I am arguing that the previously
‘comfortable’ position directed stated and imaginatively embodied in
The Wild Bunch – that humans just ‘naturally’ tend to defend
their homes – took on in Straw Dogs a much less secure
position. Still to some extent caught within the same terms of
debate (‘native savagery’ vs ‘environmental conditioning’), the
later film makes ‘home’, its meaning, and its defence now much more
disturbing. ‘I can’t find my way home’, says Henry the lost
child-molester. ‘Nor can I’, says David, in the closing line of the
film, with a smile torn between recognition, pain and acceptance.
Audiences who loved the film, lived its ambiguities, its loss of
moral or motivational certainties. Audiences who hated it, sought
for a clear meaning in it, and became distressed when they couldn’t
locate one. Because they were watching it nearly 30 years on, their
sense of the terms of debate was no doubt different than those in
Peckinpah’s own time. But the film’s own form thus comes into
different view, through seeing it with the eyes of these audiences.
Ang, Ien, Watching Dallas: Soap Operas and the
Melodramatic Imagination, London: Methuen 1984.
Ardrey, Robert, The Territorial Imperative: A
Personal Inquiry into Animal Origins of Property and Nations, NY:
Ardrey, Robert, African Genesis, NY: Fontana
Ardrey, Robert, The Social Contract: A Personal
Inquiry into the Evolutionary Origins of Order and Disorder, NY:
Barker, Martin, The New Racism: Conservatives and
the Ideology of the Tribe, London: Junction Books 1981.
Barker, Martin & Kate Brooks, Knowing Audiences:
Judge Dredd, its friends, fans and foes, Luton:
University of Luton Press 1998.
Barker, Martin with Thomas Austin, From Antz To
Titanic: Reinventing Film Analysis, London: Pluto Press 2000.
Barker, Martin, Jane Arthurs & Ramaswami Harindranath,
The Crash Controversy: Censorship Campaigns and Film Reception,
London: Wallflower Press 2001.
Barker, Martin & Ernest Mathijs, ‘Understanding
vernacular experiences of film in an academic environment’,
Barr, Charles, ‘Straw Dogs, A Clockwork
Orange and the critics’, Screen, Summer 1972, pp. 17-31.
Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will: Men, Women
and Rape, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1975.
Clover, Carol J, Men, Women and Chainsaws,
Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992.
Cumberbatch, Guy, ‘Where do you draw the line?
Attitudes and reactions of video renters to sexual violence in
film’, Report prepared for the British Board of Film Classification,
Birmingham: Communications Research Group 2002.
Deacon, David et al., Researching Communications: a Practical
Guide to Methods in Media and Cultural Analysis, London: Arnold
Tanya, Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film,
London: Routledge 2004.
LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick, London: Faber & Faber
Morgan, Robin, ‘Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape’, in Laura
Lederer (ed.), Take Back the Night, NY: Morrow, 1980, pp.
Neale, Steve, ‘Sam Peckinpah, Robert
Ardrey and the Notion of Ideology’,
Film Form, Vol.1, No.1, 1976, pp. 107-11.
Prince, Stephen, Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and
the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies, London: The Athlone Press 1998.
Read, Jacinda, The New Avengers: Feminism,
Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle, Manchester: Manchester
University Press 2000.
Sergi, Gianluca & Alan Lovell, Making Films in
Contemporary Hollywood, London: Arnold 2005.
Simmons, Garner, Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage,
NY: Limelight 1998 [originally published 1972].
Thompson, John O,
‘Screen acting and the commutation test’, Screen,
Vol.19, No.2, 1978, pp.55-69.
Weddle, David, Sam
Peckinpah: If They Move … Kill ‘em!,
London: Faber & Faber 1996.
Trap: Straw Dogs, the Final Cut’, Channel 4 UK, 9
August 2003, 11.20pm-12.25am.
Charles Barr, ‘Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange
and the critics’, Screen, Summer 1972, pp. 17-31.
Barr makes a still-compelling case that those who hated
Peckinpah’s film so much were expressing a fear of
‘contamination’ – because the film did not permit an easy
distancing from the ambiguities of feeling which the actions
and events of the film portrayed.
Ah, the power of a mishearing. I have discussed this
part with a number of colleagues who know the film quite
well. Noone has queried my perception of this. Then, when
late on I was revising this essay, I finally managed to
obtain my copy of the screenplay for Straw Dogs
(marked: revised 11 January 1971). Reading it carefully, I
discovered that I had always misheard this sentence. In fact
what Charlie says is this: “I don’t want to reave you, Amy –
but I will”. ‘Reave’ is a very old word for ‘force’, or
’pillage’. Heard aright, this would have been a
straightforward threat of violent rape if she does not
submit. But it is strange, nonetheless, that at this point
– and only at this point (I can find no other example in the
entire screenplay) – there should be this turn to an
archaism: almost suggesting that here Charlie is reverting
to his most ‘primitive’ and ‘local’. My suspicion is that
most audiences, not knowing the word, would have shared my
mishearing. Those who do know the word, will know it as a
marked archaism. I have left my mishearing in the main
text, not to deceive, but because it emphasises how details
can indeed lead to problems in constructing working
I found one exception to this. Derek Malcolm,
reviewing Straw Dogs in the Guardian, does
unusually combine seeing the film as very clever, and very
Thompson, ‘Screen acting and the commutation test’,
No.2, 1978, pp.55-69.
Garner Simmons, Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage,
NY: Limelight 1998.
Sam Peckinpah: If They
Move ... Kill ‘em!,
London: Faber & Faber 1996.
Savage Cinema: Sam
Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies,
London: Athlone Press 1998.
In fact while with both White and Geeson there were a
small number of recurrent images, which seem to typify their
screen meaning, an Internet search for Susan George did not
disclose a single image functioning to define her
‘presence’. I acknowledge that I have chosen the image that
to me most closely associates with how she appears in
Mark Kermode, long a defender of the film, wrote and
broadcast about it upon its release. He tells the story of
the shooting of the scene thus: ‘Susan George had to
prepare for the rape scene which has since made Straw
Dogs notorious, but which was described only in the
vaguest terms in the script, and remained shrouded in
ominous silence throughout the shoot. When Peckinpah finally
and reluctantly agreed to discuss the scene, he announced
bluntly: “I don’t intend to tell you how I’m going to shoot
it, but I will tell you that you are going to be naked; two
men are going to attack you; one is going have sex with you;
and the other man is going to bugger you.” “At 20 years of
age,” remembers George, “I have to say I sat back in my
chair and said ‘What does that mean?’ So he told me. And I
was terrified. The way he was talking, it seemed to me that
he was intending on this being an actual thing, that was
really going to take place on the set. So I got up out of my
chair, looked him in the eye, and said ‘I’m not prepared to
do that Sam.’ And he said ‘You will do it.’ I said ‘No, you
didn’t hear me - I am not prepared to do it, and you must
find yourself another Amy.’” Recriminations followed,
during which George boldly held her ground even when
threatened with legal action for breaking her contract.
Finally (and impressively) the usually implacable Peckinpah
caved in and agreed to let George try to depict Amy’s trauma
by concentrating on her eyes and face, rather than her body.
The resulting scene [was] a strange mix of the explicit and
the oblique …’ (Mark Kermode, ‘A wild bunch in Cornwall’,
Observer, 3 August 2003). Here we see the absurdity
of Clover’s critique, with its assumption of Peckinpah’s
determining authorial role. For a wider and fruitful
discussion of the complexities of actual film-making
processes, see Gianluca Sergi & Alan Lovell, Making Films
in Contemporary Hollywood, London: Arnold 2005.
The screenplay contains ‘instructions’ for both Amy’s
and Charlie’s reactions. For instance, after penetration:
‘HE HOLDS HER GENTLY. BARELY KISSING HER … almost in slow
motion, slowly touching her face with his hands … looking at
her eyes … not only making love, but loving her. AMY is
responding to his touch, now more than willing, totally
possessed and possessing’ (p.77). Then, after a sudden
violent end to his love-making, she challenges him ‘What
happened to you? We were so close’. VENNER LOOKS DOWN AT
HER - REVERTING TO THE COUNTRY STUD WHICH IS REALLY ALL HE
UNDERSTANDS – all he really is – (although he was very close
to breaking through to something – something that terrified
him – ‘commitment’ someone once called it …) (p.78).
There is an early brief essay by Steve Neale on the
relations between Ardrey and Peckinpah (see his 1976). In
it, he draws in particular on Peckinpah’s Playboy
interview to argue that Ardrey clearly ‘influenced’
Peckinpah, and to point to certain parallelisms between
claims in Ardrey’s work, and particular scenes in
Peckinpah’s films. The rest of the essay, written very much
under the star of the then-dominant academicist Marxism (in
which Althusserian ideas of ‘dominant ideology’ passed as
theorising), does honestly explore tensions in a too easy
equation of the two sets of ideas. But although it gestures
at the end towards the need to consider ‘textual mediation,
signification and reading’, it does not in fact give a hint
as to what that might mean in relation to a film like
On this group of writers generally, see my The New
Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe,
London: Junction Books 1981.
In 1968 a US Government report, the National
Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, sought
refuge in some of the terms of the ‘innate savagery’
argument when trying to make sense of the campus
rebellions. For more on this, see my ‘Violence redux’, in
Steven Jay Schneider (ed), New Hollywood Violence,
Manchester: Manchester University Press 2004, pp. 57-79.
These exchanges have been reproduced on a number of
websites devoted to Kubrick’s work. See for instance
(accessed 24 August 2005). See also
which discusses Ardrey’s relations with the south African
anthropologist Raymond Dart. I must be clear that I am not
in any sense supporting Hechinger’s ‘fascism’ charge – this
is an absurd ‘position-taking’. I am interested in the way
Ardrey constituted a resource for Kubrick’s vision – and
even his sense that Ardrey’s account could constitute an
optimistic view of the world.
Garner Simmons wrote: “It had been Strother Martin
who, following the completion of The Wild Bunch, had
given Peckinpah a copy of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis
because he had felt Ardrey and Peckinpah shared a common
attitude toward violence in man. Peckinpah had read the
book and had been impressed enough to also read Ardrey’s
other works, The Territorial Imperative and The
Social Contract. Based on the findings of a number of
anthropologists, Ardrey’s writings attempt to explain the
violent side of man’s nature through his evolutionary
descent from killer apes. As a consequence of his ancestry,
man also shared a number of characteristics with the rest of
the animal kingdom, especially a strong instinct for the
protection of his territory or home from invasion.
Peckinpah stated: ‘Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire
tremendously. I read him after Wild Bunch and have
reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where
it’s at, Baby. Man is violent by nature, and we have to
learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive’.
Straw Dogs would reflect much of Ardrey’s thesis.”
(p. 128) Many problems are concealed inside that word
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