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Straw Dogs

2,654 words

German translation here

I have suggested in previous articles, as well as in my dystopian novel, Mister, that the longer we allow our enemies to carry on as they are, the harsher the measures that will be required to extricate ourselves from the present mess.

This is not a profound insight; it is something every schoolboy learns in the playground. When a challenge is allowed to pass without a forceful response, the challenger is immediately emboldened into starting a program of escalating depredations. The greater the depredations, the greater the retaliation needed to end them. After a while, the level of retaliation needed to regain peace becomes so destructive that victory over the predator ultimately becomes a pyrrhic victory. It is, therefore, always preferable to take the first challenge very seriously, and to respond forcefully, even disproportionately, rather than ignore it or let it pass in an attempt to keep the peace.

Perhaps no film serves as a better metaphor for this than the controversial 1971 psychological thriller, Straw Dogs. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, and starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, this is the story of a young couple – David Sumner, a timid, American mathematician and, Amy, his rather puerile Cornish wife – who move to a farm in a small village in Cornwall, and quickly run into trouble with the locals.

Having hired four workmen to finish his garage roof, David becomes absorbed in his work and Amy, bored and craving attention, begins flirting with the men – one of these is Charlie, who has a previous history with Amy. David had encountered a status challenge early on in the film (see below), but he had chosen to ignore it, thus triggering idle talk and a progressive loss of authority before the workmen.

One evening, David finds their cat dead, hung by the neck in their closet. Amy claims the workmen have done it as a provocation, to prove that they could get into his bedroom. David, however, is a coward, and lacks the nerve to confront the workmen. Instead, he attempts to win their friendship, and invites them in for a beer. Amy is horrified, but David argues that he wants to ‘catch them off-guard’. She is not fooled, however, and, when David fails to mention the cat, as expected, she visibly loses respect for her husband.

The workmen suggest that he come duck hunting with them, and David agrees; but on the appointed day the workmen leave him stranded on a lonely moor, after promising to drive ducks in his direction. Charlie then goes back to the Sumners’ house and rapes Amy, who, after some resistance, soon appears to enjoy the violation. Upon finishing, however, another workman shows up, and forces Charlie at gunpoint to hold Amy down while he takes a turn at raping her.

After several hours of standing around looking like an idiot on the moor, David finally realizes that he has been had and decides to walk back to the farm. By the time he arrives back home it is dark, and he finds his wife in bed, disheveled and withdrawn; she does not tell him about the rape. David tells his wife how the workmen stuck it to him, but is patronizing — as he always is towards her — and makes himself look even more of a fool in the process; Amy rebukes him for his cowardice and failure to confront the workmen about the cat. True to form, however, David blames Amy for ‘pushing’ him.

The following day David fires the workers, but even at this point he does it nervously and with diffidence. Later, David and Amy attend a church social. Amy is haunted by the trauma of the rape, and David, noticing her discomfort (yet still unaware of its source) suggests that they leave early.

They do, but it is a foggy night and, on the drive home, they hit the village idiot, Henry Niles. David takes him back to the farm. Unable to reach anyone as he telephones for help, however, he eventually telephones the village pub, with whose landlord he leaves a message.

This proves a mistake, though, for Niles had earlier in the evening disappeared with Janice Hedden, a village girl, who was later found dead: the girl’s father, Bobbie, an unemployed drunk and Charlie’s uncle, was by the time of David’s telephone call out for blood. Upon learning that Niles is at the Sumners’ farm, he and the workmen, including the two who raped Amy, decide to go there.

All drunk, they pound the door of the Sumners’ house and begin breaking windows. David refuses to give them Niles, despite his wife’s remonstrations, deciding it is a matter of principle. The violence escalates until the local magistrate arrives; the latter, however, is shot dead by Janice’s father. At this point, seeing that there was no turning back, the workmen decide to pull all the stops, and begin a violent siege. David attempts to defend his home, but, eventually, defenses are breached and some of the workmen gain access to the house. One by one, however, David kills them all. The last scene is David driving Niles back to town, smiling.

The film was meant to be an exploration of violence, and Dustin Hoffman is said to have agreed to play David Sumner because he was intrigued by the idea of a pacifist who was unaware of his capacity for violence.

I, however, see the film as an exploration of pacifism, and I believe David Sumner illustrates rather well how stupid we must look to our racial competitors when we remain silent in the face of their depredations and rationalize tolerating endless forced concessions and humiliations. To them, we are David Sumner; to us, they are the drunken villagers.

The villagers are rough, uncouth, virile, hard, clannish, and menacing; they wear Wellington boots and coarse garments; they represent low cunning, brute force, excess, base instinct, and manual labor. David Sumner is polished, polite, feminine, soft, individualistic, and physically insignificant; he wears cloth shoes, cotton, and wool; he represents intelligence, pacifism, moderation, high principle, and mental work.

The sad moral of the film is that low cunning and brute force tends to be an effective strategy for resource acquisition. It is certainly also a universal one, which is favored by the bulk of humanity. And even if David emerges victorious in the end, we are forced to think of what he has lost: his cat has been killed, his wife has been raped, his home has been trashed, his peace has been stolen, and any goodwill he might still have enjoyed among the villagers has been fully expended. It is reasonable to speculate that he will have to move out and be tried for the deaths of the men he has killed — he might even be convicted for some or all of those deaths, and his wife might even leave him in the end.

Despite his intelligence, his high principles, and good will, the evil, lazy, drunken, and dumb workmen are unimpressed and they manage to take everything away from him — everything, including his sense of self, for through his final resort to slaughter, he abdicates the intellectualism, pacifism, and high principles with which he sought to define himself. All right, the workmen lose their lives, but what do they care? Their lives seemed rather useless anyway and they are dead, so they do not suffer their loss.

There are a number of key points in the film worth noting.

As Charlie rapes Amy, she is seen to become enthralled by his obvious masculinity, and she, accordingly, allows herself to be dominated. This scene was controversial at the time and instigated bans and cuts. Yet, it is probably one of the most educational scenes. There is no doubt here that she re-discovers in Charlie what her husband is lacking; even if only momentarily, her brewing contempt for, and anger at, her husband for his spinelessness is what causes her only to mount a weak resistance and to finally melt and embrace Charlie’s usurpation.

And despite the second rape by one of Charlie’s friends, of which Charlie is an accomplice, the two men subsequently show neither remorse nor worry at the prospect of David finding out. It does not seem to even cross their minds for the remainder of the film. Throughout it, both before and after the rape, the workmen remain tight and maintain a united front; the Sumners, by contrast, are divided: they undermine each other; she taunts him he ignores her; she is petty, he is patronizing; she rebukes him, he dismisses her; and, in short, they fail to act as a unit — to synchronize, complement, and synergize — which is one of the keys to a solid marriage.

Although Amy’s anger was triggered by the cat incident, David’s weakness and the fissures in their marriage, not apparent to her until that point, are revealed much earlier, during the initial scenes of the film. The latter begins in Amy’s native village in Cornwall. She has obviously been away with David in America, and has only just returned; David has obtained a research grant and the nearby farm is to serve as a retreat.

Amy encounters Charlie as David is loading the Sumner’s car with groceries, and Amy and Charlie engage in conversation. She attempts to show off her husband, telling Charlie about his research. But she does not explain it accurately, and David makes a patronizing and dismissive remark.

This is mistake number one: a married man ought never to undermine his wife in front of third parties; only a coward would do so to a loving wife, and only a man not interested in keeping his wife would thus invite others to steal her from him.

Then, David, upon learning that Charlie is unemployed, decides to hire him, as the workman he had previously hired to build the roof of his garage was taking too long. David asks for a cost estimate, but Charlie says simply ‘Reasonable,’ an unspecific answer that David accepts.

Mistake number two: if your money is on the line, you always demand precise answers; you always establish who is boss.

David then goes to the pub nearby to purchase a packet of cigarettes. Bobbie Hedden, hunched over at the bar and drunk, notices David walking in and facially registers his scornful disgust at the sight of David’s unmanly shoes; David, oblivious, looks immediately weak in the hard, working man’s pub, standing wide-eyed as he blows his nose. By the time he approaches the bar and orders his cigarettes — apparently the wrong kind, as far as the locals are concerned — he has already marked himself, not only as an outsider, but as prey: he speaks quietly and unassertively and is, accordingly, ignored by the barman.

Mistake number three: in a hard setting, hard presentational tactics apply; the moment the newcomer enters the scene he is under observation, and male observers begin determining his position in the power hierarchy; it is essential to confidently and unambiguously establish an assertive position, and to scare off challengers before they dare surface.

David then walks to the window and witnesses Charlie putting his hand around his wife’s neck, in a possessive gesture of masculine assertion. Charlie is trying it on, attempting to revive an old romantic flame. David watches the scene, says nothing, and does nothing; therefore, it falls upon Amy to rebuff him, which she does. Charlie backs down as David returns. Despite what he has just witnessed, however, his behaviour remains agreeable.

Mistake number four: self-explanatory.

Thus we see that the mock politeness of Charlie and his workers and, subsequently, their escalating transgressions have very subtle and fleeting points of origin. David, a classic introverted, intellectual type, attaches little importance to what I would like to call here ‘primate politics.’ He probably has never even thought about it.

Perhaps this is because David grew up in, and inhabited, a rarefied environment, where other people were very much like him, and where, therefore, he lived a sheltered existence. As a result, with offensive and defensive instincts very weak, power moments and status challenges pass either unnoticed or unacknowledged, with power and status gains invariably defaulting to the challenger.

This is very much analogical to the position of European-descended peoples in relation to the ever-growing presence of, and ever-escalating challenges from, immigrants from the Third World in Europe and across the Anglophone world.

European man is said to be the product of environmental evolutionary pressures that occurred in relative geographical isolation and, therefore, occurred away from intensive ethnic and racial competition. With the environment, rather than competing human collectivities, presenting the main source of challenges, group strategies designed for dealing with competition from the latter appear not to have been as important as those designed for dealing with the former: it could be that for European man intelligent cooperation, rather than cunning competition, proved more adaptive, and that, consequently, any inborn ethnocentrism became weakened or recessive.

Be that as it may, it is clear that modern European man unwittingly marked himself as prey long ago, and that he continues to do so now because, like David in the film, he encounters a psychological — and perhaps even a physiological — barrier when faced with the need to overcome evolved temperamental proclivities that were once adaptive but have become maladaptive in the changed human ecology of traditional White homelands.

Besides what I outlined at the beginning of this review, a key lesson of this film is the importance of being alert, of remaining vigilant, and even of being on the lookout for those subtle power moments that fly by in an instant, well before a visible, tangible challenge occurs. Before present negative trends became established, there were plenty of opportunities to pre-empt even their origin — yet we failed to notice them, and, when we did, we failed to act upon them, each time in the belief that it was only a minor incident, not worth the hassle and the unpleasantness of kicking up a fuss. Even the most minor of transgressions needs to be taken very seriously, and retaliation has to come fast and overwhelmingly.

Straw Dogs is a splendidly shot film, and both the interiors and exteriors are highly evocative, sometimes because of their bucolic charm, sometimes because of their natural beauty, sometimes because of their chilling grimness. It is also a film that perpetuates the tired old stereotype of rural and small-town Whites: the village’s tightly-knit community is portrayed here in a blatantly negative way, to the point where the villagers are quasi-animalistic, nearly deformed, and positively sinister.

This is likely to resonate with a Jewish audience, not only because the village is what one would imagine is every Jew’s worst nightmare, but also because Dustin Hoffman is so obviously Semitic in his physiognomy and — being cerebral, bespectacled, puny, urban, and high minded — a fairly common type of hero in Jewish American cinema. (Sumner’s swipe at Christianity at one point in the film contributes to this perception.)

Yet, for those who know and appreciate European village folk and the charms of living in a close, friendly rural community, the villagers in this film resemble not real life ones in Cornwall, but our new non-European fellow citizens and arrivals — although many of the latter are far uglier, far ruder, far more lustful, far more primitive, far more rapacious, and far quicker to engage in evil violence.

It works in this case, but such negative portrayal of Cornish villagers ought to be admonished all the same. The Duchy of Cornwall should have slammed the filmmakers with an immediate suit for defamation, if only to teach them a lesson.

This is certainly a strong and excellent film, even though made decades ago – and a must for its educational value.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted July 18, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    This is one of the most intelligent movie reviews I have ever read. I’ll soon comment on it elsewhere.

  2. Vlad Katonic
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    A very thorough analysis…your review says it all, not only about the film itself, but in its symbolism of a Western crisis.

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