By Tony Williams.
In 2003 Criterion issued a two-disk DVD version of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial Straw Dogs (1971) when the issue of the director’s supposed virulent misogyny and sexism still raised critical debate and strong emotions. Fourteen years later a second edition has now appeared with most of the same features of the original version on the feature section in this new restored 4K digital transfer. Since the original version quickly went out of print and was often difficult and expensive to acquire, this re-release is extremely welcome. It’s especially valuable for the excellent audio-commentary by Stephen Prince whose important 1998 study Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rose of Ultraviolent Movies still remains a work of indispensable scholarship based as it is on extensive archive research in the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Following my usual practice, I will refrain from analyzing the visual quality of this restoration that looks great to my amateurish eyes and (Leave it to) DVD Beaver for more expert technical commentary to concentrate on educational aspects of this particular DVD. From my last (2014) visit to England, I know that a UK DVD version exists with audio commentary by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle that also duplicates some of the special features on the Criterion Edition, but I have not acquired it so far for purposes of comparison.
Re-accessibility alone would justify the purchase of this new version if only because of Prince’s exemplary and informed contribution, much of which originates from his archive research that appeared in Savage Cinema. Yet, then and now, Straw Dogs remains a crucial text for its treatment of screen violence, its notorious rape scene, and debates about the film’s still relevant significance forty six years following its original release. As a Manchester University graduate student then, I had to “travel across the border” to see it in Salford since the Manchester Film Brigade committee (that had censorship powers originating from the days of inflammable nitrate film stock), chaired by Alderman Birtles, banned it from the fragile sensibilities of vulnerable citizenship. Even in the supposedly safe ivory tower of a university system, once regarded by F.R. Leavis as “the creative center of civilization”, one had to think twice over showing it in class in case an offended student would provide higher administrative excuse for dismissing the offending faculty member and denying any argument involving debate and exposure to anything violating the emerging demands of any “safe place” on campus – including the classroom. In my last Peckinpah 400-level class at SIU, a mainly female audience had no problem with the film. The female graduate teacher in the preceding class had never heard of it, only the remake, and a visiting female graduate student from Germany asked if she could bring her (female) friend in to see it for her last night in Carbondale. Apparently both enjoyed it, and a female Saudi-Arabian graduate student informed me that a Turkish remake exists, set on the island of Cyprus. I’ve not traced this film, so perhaps others may wish to do so?
Times may change, but the debate on Straw Dogs continues. Prince emphasizes the director’s intention to make a film depicting violence as ugly as possible, while this new version retains the 82-minute documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron; extracts from a UK TSW documentary about the making of the film containing interviews with Peckinpah, Dustin Hoffman, and Susan George (the first one revealing glimpses of the director’s bemusement and restraint at the usual stupid questions of mainstream reviewers as his later interview with “Bazza” Norman at the time of Cross of Iron shows), and the 2002 interviews with the resilient George and producer Daniel Melnick. Gone is Peckinpah’s response to reactions in select correspondence to critics and viewers, most of which can be found in Prince’s book and other sources. New material includes a 2002 interview with Garner Simmons that probably duplicates the one on the UK DVD version, and a conversation between co-editor Roger Spottiswoode and Peckinpah scholar Michael Sragow concerning the director’s non-traditional perspectives on editing that often relied on collaborators who could explore and learn from Peckinpah the important elements of the huge footage shot during production and how it could be significantly abbreviated and included in the final cut. The entire process was a challenge that few could live up to and those who coped with Peckinpah’s eccentric and often mystifying behavior passed the test and worked with him again. Spottiswoode acclaimed this first association with Peckinpah as a key aspect of his future role as a director.
The next new addition is an interview with University of California scholar Linda Williams concerning the misogyny that she finds in the film as well as an analysis of the rape scene from her own feminist perspective. This feature judiciously edits extracts from the film with the comments Williams makes in the interview segments in the best manner of a classroom presentation and informed debate with a general audience who watch this presentation to learn – like the ideal target audience of a DVD production, whether by Criterion or any other company. She naturally has a different perspective to that of Prince who sees the rape from the victimized perspective of Amy (George) and cites both objective master shots of the incident as well as a close-up from her perspective of her assailant who appears to be shot in a much warmer light that the edited insert of her husband. While nearly twenty years have passed since the appearance of Prince’s book, debate has continued over the significance of this very challenging, complex, and sophisticatedly filmed sequence, so it is very important to have the perspective of an acclaimed feminist film scholar on this DVD. Personally, I would take a different approach, according to the “Yes, but…” manner of F.R. Leavis. Yet, this extra is a valuable addition and extremely welcome.
The accompanying booklet contains Joshua Clover’s essay “Home Like No Place” and Andre Leroux’s October 12, 1974 interview “The Cinema of Sam Peckinpah” “translated from the French for this release by Nicholas Elliot”. They also appear in the 2003 DVD booklet, the one difference being that no translator is mentioned in the earlier edition. Both form good supplements, but an extended essay by Linda Williams or another feminist critic who have provided another perspective to issues arising from this still controversial film. Whatever the case, debate will continue over the merits, or otherwise, of this still challenging film.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International., author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).