In one of her most famous reviews, Pauline Kael described Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” as “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.” Released in 1971, the movie follows an American mathematician, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), and his wife, Amy (Susan George), who become the subject of an escalating series of attacks by a gang of locals; its graphic depiction of rape and murder crystallized the filmmaker’s worldview that humans are instinctively attuned to violence.
No one is more aware of the film’s complicated legacy than Rod Lurie. The writer-director is set to release his new version of “Straw Dogs” on Friday, with James Marsden replacing Hoffman as Sumner, Kate Bosworth as Amy and “True Blood” star Alexander Skarsgard as Charlie, the ringleader of the band of thugs. It’s a seemingly odd choice for a filmmaker who considers himself a feminist and is best known for politically minded, female-centric films and TV shows such as 2000’s “The Contender” and 2005’s “Commander in Chief,” which cast Geena Davis as the country’s first female president.
He understands the sentiment his remake stirred up among fans of the man known as “Bloody Sam.”
“When the movie was first announced three or four years ago, the blogosphere went bananas,” said Lurie, sitting down for an interview in his Hollywood office, a bound collection of Kael’s New Yorker reviews sitting noticeably on the book shelf behind him. “People were attacking me, saying I don’t know Peckinpah, I’m no Peckinpah, the film can’t possibly be good, why would they want to sully a perfect classic and finally what’s the need for it.
“The thing is,” Lurie said, “there’s no need to make any movie. There’s no need to make a ‘Harry Potter’ film, there’s no need to make ‘Bridesmaids,’ there’s no need to make a James Bond film. But there is a purpose. I had a purpose. My purpose was to tell a really exciting story but from a point of view completely different from the one that had been presented 40 years ago.”
Lurie maintains that remakes have essentially become their own genre by now, and with the success of the Coen brothers’ update of “True Grit” last year and planned reinventions of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “A Star is Born” (the latter of which has been remade twice previously), there seems to be little reticence in Hollywood about preserving the perceived artistic sanctity of so-called classics.
Adapted from Gordon Williams’ novel, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” “Straw Dogs” is arguably Peckinpah’s second signature feature after “The Wild Bunch,” the 1969 western that established him as a master of intense, blood-spattered cinema. In the film, squabbling couple David and Amy arrive in the rural town of Cornwall and almost instantly run afoul of the members of the tight-knit community where Amy was raised. David’s pacifism marks him as an outsider; he’s perceived as an effete intellectual whose atheism and liberal views directly conflict with the insular English pub culture, as embodied by Amy’s leering ex, Charlie Venner (Del Henney).
When David invites Charlie to help repair the roof of the barn on Amy’s father’s secluded estate, he unknowingly invites the conflict into his home. Before the story’s conclusion, Amy has been raped by Charlie and one of his cronies and David has abandoned his convictions, demonstrating that he is willing to kill to defend his property (including his wife). It was that conclusion that drove Kael to her scathing judgment — Sumner’s actions are a direct representation of fascist ideals such as the promulgation of violence as a means to renew the vitality of the human spirit.
Opening the same year as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dirty Harry,” “Straw Dogs” spoke to a new brutality in film, an artistic response to the social turbulence and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Harold Pinter, in a letter to Peckinpah dated Dec. 9, 1970, decried the director’s “Straw Dogs” screenplay as “obscene not only in its unequivocal delight in rape and violence but in its absolute lack of connection with anything that is recognizable or true in human beings and in its pathetic assumption that it is saying something ‘important’ about human beings.”
Lurie has a copy of that letter in his desk. It was ultimately what convinced the 49-year-old former film critic to undertake the project, which was first suggested to him by his producing partner Marc Frydman. Lurie maintains that Peckinpah’s film spoke to his conviction that humans harbored within them a limitless capacity for savagery — a philosophy in part inspired by the writings of Robert Ardrey (“African Genesis” and “The Territorial Imperative”).
“Basically what the books say is that human beings are genetically coded to violence — it’s a biological instinct that we have, that we’re beasts,” said the friendly, earnest filmmaker wearing a crew cut and a West Point sweatshirt. “It’s exactly the opposite of how I view human beings. At the end of my ‘Straw Dogs,’ David Sumner finds the man inside of him. At the end of Peckinpah’s, he finds the animal inside of him.”
In terms of plot, the remake mirrors its predecessor quite closely, though Lurie sets his thriller in small-town Mississippi. Bosworth’s Amy is an actress, Marsden’s David is an affluent Ivy League grad-turned-Hollywood screenwriter working on a World War II film. Skarsgard’s Charlie is the former captain of the football team who is having trouble coming to terms with his fading former glory, and James Woods is the hothead ex-coach turned barfly.
Lurie transported the story to the American South to take advantage of a culture where attending Friday night football games and Sunday morning church services is mandatory, activities like hunting are just a routine part of life and where Sumner’s decision to turn up in a vintage Jaguar convertible is perceived as an act of aggression. The animosity between the camps recalls the bitter political feuding between “tea party” and Christian conservatives and their liberal counterparts.
“There is rigidity on both sides of the political spectrum in this country,” Lurie said. “I wanted to pick a place where there is a certain amount of violence as a way of life. You take this guy, this intellectual writer, and you plop him into the middle of this world, those are going to collide.”
The movie was shot in Louisiana on a budget of about $25 million. When it came time to film the scene in which Amy is attacked, Lurie arranged a phone call between Bosworth and George, though in an email the younger actress declined to elaborate on the emotional challenges of shooting that particular sequence, saying only that “it was a very demanding experience.”
(In a 2003 interview with London’s Guardian newspaper, George, who was only 20 years old when she made “Straw Dogs,” said that she tried to leave the Peckinpah production at one point, concerned with the way the director intended to handle the rape scene. Lurie said he also spoke to the English actress extensively about the sequence, which he characterized as “the turning point in the film.”)
“I handle that scene very differently than Peckinpah did,” Lurie said. “I don’t see the virtue of brutality on screen. I don’t see women as pathetic. I see them as strong and fierce.”
Skarsgard told The Times earlier this year that he wanted his Charlie to be more than a single-minded brute. “In Peckinpah’s version, he’s definitely the villain,” the Swedish actor said. “What we wanted to do was — it’s not black and white — we wanted to make it like life. People in real life aren’t good or bad, it’s more complicated than that. With Charlie … I want the audience to feel some kind of sympathy for him and understand where he’s coming from and why he’s who he is and why he does what he does.”
Larger aspirations aside, at its heart, Lurie’s “Straw Dogs” is still a hard-edged thriller with moments of some extreme imagery; the film carries an R rating. Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper believes the film is accessible enough to speak to a wide swath of moviegoers under 35. The studio will open “Straw Dogs” on more than 2,000 screens Friday, aiming to lure in audiences with a marketing campaign that emphasizes the home invasion horror elements over cultural critique.
“I didn’t make an art house movie,” Culpepper said. “I wanted a good script and good actors and a really good director, but at the end of the day, I made a movie that delivers on a genre level, and I think the way it’s shot and acted on an artistic [level]. I hope people walk out of it thinking it had really good performances and a well-crafted movie and at the same time audiences look at it and go, ‘Wow, that’s compelling.’”
As for concerns about blaspheming the legacy of Peckinpah, Culpepper has none. He believes Lurie’s film stands on its own merits — and he maintains that most people have never even heard of the original “Straw Dogs.”
Producer Frydman, 52, said he understands the trepidation some people might have toward a new interpretation of Peckinpah’s transgressive vision. He remembers strongly identifying with Hoffman’s Sumner after seeing the original film in the theater himself, but he believes that “Straw Dogs” was a compelling movie that had not aged well and could benefit from a modern polish.
“Some critics will say Peckinpah’s movies are holy relics, but when it comes to remakes, I believe there is church and state,” he said, adding for emphasis, “We would never do a remake of ‘The Wild Bunch.’ That would be crazy.”
Two days after that interview, Warner Bros. announced it was saddling up with its “Wild Bunch” update, possibly with director Tony Scott at the helm.