To coincide with the 40th anniversary of Straw Dogs, Santosh Sandhu explores the troubled history of Sam Peckinpah’s notorious thriller here in the UK…
Many of the decisions the BBFC had made up to the early 1970s revolved around politics, religion and sex. Whilst then censor John Trevelyan had made the BBFC more accepting of sexual frankness, by 1971 sexual violence had become the problem. His concerns about the trend for violent movies coming from America which took increasing advantage of their newly relaxed censorship laws resulted in his retirement from the board. His successor Stephen Murphy had a difficult job on his hands as some of Britain’s most contentious movies would be released at this time.
An early example towards the worrying trend for films featuring sexual violence was Straw Dogs (1971). This film is about David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), an American mathematician who moves with his young English wife Amy (Susan George) to a remote Cornish village which is also her birthplace. The film was made by director Sam Peckinpah – famous for his bloody westerns and often Neanderthal attitude towards women. This film is also essentially a western in which the couple’s farm is besieged by angry locals who are then violently dispatched by the Sumners.
Whilst the graphic violence was passed without cuts, censor Murphy’s handling of the rape of Amy by two men, one a former boyfriend, would inadvertently brutalize the rape further. Whilst Amy was originally taken from behind and her rape was vaginal, Murphy’s cutting of this scene now suggested she was sodomized.
However, in the years to come the most contentious issue raised about the rape scene would be that Amy appears to enjoy being raped by her former boyfriend. For the BBFC this worryingly played into rapists’ fantasies. By 1977 there had been an increasing number of mainstream and exploitation films featuring the rape and degradation of women sometimes even rejoicing in it. The most extreme examples were banned outright by the BBFC.
With pressure from the growing feminist movement, Murphy’s successor James Ferman had strengthened the board’s policy on sexual violence by successfully bringing film under the Obscene Publications Act, which up to that time had only been applied to literature and theatre. In 1978, Ferman removed an entire gang rape scene from the film Emmanuelle (1974) under the deprave and corrupt test, which he felt promoted violence against women.
Straw Dogs had been released with an X certificate in 1971 and then without further cuts onto video in 1980. With the advent of the Video Recordings Act in 1984 whose criteria stipulated that the board would not allow material which endorsed sexual violence, Straw Dogs was withdrawn.
In subsequent years, a pre-cut US version of Straw Dogs which greatly reduced the second rape would be rejected again in 1999 when its video distributor failed to make further cuts demanded by the BBFC. The film would eventually be released onto DVD and video in 2002 in the original US release version after consultations with psychologists and members of the public on the potentially damaging effects of the rape scene.
Straw Dogs is a well made film which appears to suggest that even the most harmless of people are capable of brutal acts if pushed hard enough. The film builds tension very well with the killing of the couple’s cat a very effective moment. However, Amy is a very weak character. She squabbles with her husband as she feels neglected by him and taunts his inability to stand up to the locals. She is frequently argumentative and flirtatious presenting herself as eye candy to the lecherous locals even walking past them half naked at one point. Whilst the locals rape her for being a tease, the audience finds it difficult to sympathize with her as any redeeming qualities she may possess are never presented.
Moreover the rape scene is still problematic. After struggling with her former boyfriend Amy appears to succumb and allow him to violate her. He then holds her down so his friend can sodomize her which turns her feelings to shock once more. Essentially this second rape which was reinstated in 2002 convinced the board that the film did not endorse sexual violence as laid out by the criteria of the Video Recordings Act and the film was released uncut with an 18 certificate.
Now released onto Blu-ray and with an obligatory remake [from director Rod Lurie and starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård and James Woods] about to hit cinemas, it will be interesting to see how the new version deals with the sequence which has caused the original such a troubled censorship history.
Straw Dogs: Ultimate 40th Anniversary Edition was released on Blu-ray this past Monday… be sure to enter our competition to be in with a chance of winning 1 of 3 copies (closing date is November 6th).
Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.