This movie is about a foreigner, David Sumner, who is rejected by his new community. He is a very cerebral and principled man, which the vulgar villagers tragically mistake for weakness. Their view of him permits them to ridicule and abuse him and his wife.
The best example of David's principled nature is when he wants to protect a suspect of a crime, who stays in his house, from being lynched. The locals want immediate revenge, which they associate with strength. But the real strength lies in fighting for your believes, which David does. He cannot back up and ends up fighting for the lives of his wife, the suspect and himself.
The greatest tragedy is that even David's wife, who grew up in this neighbourhood, regards him as weak and inadequate. The fact that they are not acting in a unified way, makes it easier for her fellow villagers to attack them. Her disappointment in David goes back to the circumstances in which they left their American home. Not much about this is revealed but she vaguely accuses him of having fled, implying cowardice. Since the movie stems from the height of the Vietnam war, my best guess is that he is a conscientious objector, forced to flee the country to escape the draft. While conscientious objectors had a brave and noble cause, their stance was often misinterpreted as cowardice. In the same way, David's civilized nature is misunderstood as weak. This makes him a truly lonely hero. As in Tao Te Ching's quote, which inspired the movie's title, heaven and earth are indifferent, treating him and all creatures as 'straw dogs.'
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