When I attended an early screening of Rod Lurie’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s controversial thriller from 1971, Straw Dogs, last week, I was most curious to see how the director handled the infamous rape scene.
Yes, the original’s ultra-violence (to borrow a phrase from another controversial film of that year) sparked its own arguments—among critics and audiences—and seems to be what many now remember it for. But the violence debate had been going on for years, partly sparked by Peckinpah’s earlier Wild Bunch. The rape scene, with the film’s release coming at a high tide for the feminist movement, was what really sparked anger and dismay.
So how would Lurie handle it today? Yes, he is known for films with strong female characters, from The Contender to Nothing But the Truth—and then there was his TV series with Geena Davis as the first female president. But one had to wonder why, from among countless possible films to re-shoot, Lurie (of all people) would pick this one.
To briefly recap: Straw Dogs tells the story of a mild-mannered academic (Dustin Hoffman in the original) married to a hot younger wife (Susan George) who end up in a home out in the English countryside that badly needs repairs. In Peckinpah’s version, George flirts with the local handymen, seemingly asking for trouble, then turns on Hoffman for not defending her honor when they start to leer. They trick him into going hunting—to prove his manhood—and while he’s gone first one, then a buddy, rapes her. The second attack is barbaric but during the first assault we see a somewhat ambivalent George, who sheds a tear but in the end also acts rather tenderly toward the rapist.
Then her husband returns and all hell breaks loose.
Naturally, women of all types (not just feminists), and some men, raised angry alarms about the rape scene, charging that it debased women and rationalized rape. Many critics hailed or at least defended the film for its allegedly “complicated” treatment of rape, which I could never understand, and it has mystified me ever since why some writers have called the film a classic. Pauline Kael had a mixed opinion, calling it “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.”
So: What would Lurie (as both writer and director) do with it? And why remake it at all?