That Straw Dog Won’t Hunt

  • videoarchives
  • February 14, 2023

The Video Archives Podcast will not allow violence against this house! Today’s can’t-miss episode is devoted entirely to Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 masterpiece of brutality Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Quentin, Roger and Gala take us through the origins of IB Technicolor, discuss whether this film can be considered a Revengeamatic, and ask who killed the cat. Meanwhile, I’m downstairs with a pot of boiling oil (plus some VHS box art and alternate movie posters), ready to spring today’s Counter Talk on any uninvited guests…

Let’s start by taking a look at the Video Archives box – our first Magnetic Video on the show! Listen to the episode for a short history of Magnetic Video, and the unique transitional role it played in the early days of home video. The front cover features a section of the film’s iconic poster, and a tagline that many viewers have found ‘baffling’:

To understand that tagline, we’ll need to first unpack the title Straw Dogs. As Gala mentions, in ancient China (as in many early cultures), animal sacrifice was common, including the ritual sacrifice of dogs. By the fifth century BC, however, Chinese religious rituals replaced living dogs with dogs made of straw. These objects were created for a single religious use, dressed in elegant embroidered cloth before the ritual, then thrown into the street and trampled by passerby afterwards, used up and drained of meaning. As Taoist scholar Su Zhe explains, “Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them.”

A Chinese straw dog

“Straw dog” has come to mean ‘something inherently disposable’ in Chinese culture, something made to be used once and discarded. So when the poster declares “In the face of every coward burns a straw dog,” perhaps it means a coward sees other human lives as disposable, or unreal. Or that the coward himself is disposable. Or even that the impartial forces of nature see no difference between a coward and a brave person. Like the film, the evocative tagline resists unambiguous interpretation.

The back of the box has stills from the film and a short summary - but I’m most struck by the Newsweek quote that positions Straw Dogs as a film about “manhood”:

Sam Peckinpah is usually discussed as a director preoccupied with manhood and masculinity – but that’s not the only way to view a film like Straw Dogs. A few years ago, critic Elena Lazic convincingly argued that Straw Dogs is a feminist film in disguise, a movie with far more empathy and agency for Susan George’s Amy than it’s often given credit for. BJ Colangelo similarly wrote last year in SlashFilm about how George worked with Peckinpah to foreground Amy’s complex reaction to her assault in the film, and stood by her controversial portrayal. Through this lens, the final explosive scenes with Dustin Hoffman’s David look less like a concession from the mild-mannered mathematician that violence is inevitable, and more like an illustration of how the social expectations of masculinity bring his worst instincts to the surface. Far from becoming Amy’s protector, his story becomes entirely about his wounded pride.

There’s so much to chew over in Straw Dogs, but with all this in mind…how well do the film’s posters convey its message? Sometimes very well, and sometimes hilariously badly, it turns out!

Here’s a full view of the original poster, featured in Premiere Magazine’s 25 Greatest Movie Posters Ever – they wrote “The shattering violence of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs is disturbingly foreshadowed in this cleverly layered image.” It really is a perfect poster – Hoffman’s implacable, unreadable expression is as unforgettable as the broken glass on his face.

Now, this alternate poster, released around the same time, decides to bury Hoffman in fake looking fire…and in a truly head-scratching choice, literalizes the titular Straw Dog, with a twine canine lunging out of the image. Did they think audiences needed to see a straw dog to understand the title? Is it supposed to be frightening? I hate it.

This German poster with a gun-toting Hoffman makes Straw Dogs look like a straightforward revenge story (which it is decidedly not). His most memorable violence in the picture was accomplished without a gun in any case.

Only the Japanese poster actually shows George’s face - but as much as I appreciate them holding space for George, the heart of the film, it doesn’t hold a candle to the simplicity of the shattered glasses.

The poster for the poorly received 2011 remake, meanwhile, manages to completely miss the point, making David’s expression (here played by James Marsden) scared instead of steely, and placing the focus on the angry guy he’s looking at.

When Tyler Perry’s Madea tried the same look, however…I’ll admit it cracked me up:

Today’s Merch Spotlight comes from Christian Webb. posing here with a handsome Video Archives mug. He writes “Just a shot of me in my ‘studio,’ shooting the episode where I discuss how super freakin’ dope ‘Cinema Speculation’ is as well as the  ‘Video Archives’ podcast. Can’t get enough. Truly appreciate what you all do and I love the discussions.” Check out his YouTube channel where he says very nice things about us!

And that does it for today! Next week, we’re cracking open the Video Vault for a look at a very different film…until then, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, check out our website, and we’ll see you next week.