They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

5The Great Depression impacted countless lives and lead people to go to extraordinary measures to try and survive – and in 1932, just over a hundred couples descend on a shabby California ballroom, where they will be taking part in the infamous Mammoth Marathon, a dance competition where the last couple standing will receive a fortune that could potentially change their lives. Amongst the many people who try their luck are Gloria (Jane Fonda), an aspiring actress hoping that she can find her way out of poverty and eventually make a name for herself, and Robert (Michael Sarrazin), a failed film director who is haunted by the traumas of the past. As neither have partners, they are paired together and thrust onto the dance-floor, which is presided over by Rocky (Gig Young), the charismatic master of ceremonies that harbours a sinister streak, with his blatant enthusiasm and apparent confidence in those taking part hides the fact that everything is for the sake of the show, and rather than motivating the participants to succeed, he is chasing a rare kind of entertainment, exploiting the unfortunate contestants as a way of making his own fortune and putting his own intentions above everything else. As the days turn into weeks, contestants drop out, with the exhaustion and intense demands taking a toll on everyone involved, and threatening them with irreparable physical and psychological damage – and with no end in sight, and a clear sense of malice lurking beneath it, the marathon continues, rejecting those too weak to survive the perverted challenges asserted on them by the vicious host.

Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a revolutionary film – set during the height of the Great Depression, and based on the novel by Horace McCoy, the film is a challenging work of period fiction, a daring and uncomfortable exploration of the depths of human resilience shown on the background of an era in which this was extremely clear. This is not a film that has received its fair share of praise – half a century of outright praise and celebration for its peculiar sense of melodrama has made this one of the most fascinating works of its era, occurring in the formative years of the New Hollywood movement, but being less of an outwardly experimental film, while still taking some intrepid risks. The film often subverts expectations – whether it be in terms of the story itself, which we are often inclined to believe will lead in one direction, with it instead deviating in another, or the tone, which turns out to be far more acidic and bleak than anyone could have envisioned it to be, and becomes something truly unexpected. From the outset, it’s clear that the film is not going to be an easy one – it begins and ends with tragedy, and there are very few, if any, moments of hope to be found anywhere in this extraordinarily bleak piece of social commentary. Where most would expect something that would demonstrate triumph in the midst of impossible adversity, Pollack removes this doubt incredibly fast, presenting us with a harrowing tale of attempted survival and eventual tragedy – those looking for an uplifting tale should avoid They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. However, those willing to see one of the most unique and poignant films of the 1960s can rest assured that for what this film lacks in comfort it more than compensates for in incredible ambition.

The audacity that’s present in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is not to be underestimated – Pollack may have been a director who mostly made relatively safe films later in his career, but in what was clearly the work of a young upstart with the ambition to do something entirely different from the rest of the films made at the time, we can’t view this film as anything less than a resounding success. Naturally, it does take some unsettling turns throughout – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? may be one of the darkest films produced at the time, particularly for one that appeared to take inspiration from more genial works – and it’s almost universally accepted that this is a film that will leave every viewer suitably disturbed. Yet, nothing can ever prepare us for the cataclysm of social horror that comes about as a result of the director’s deeply unnerving neo-noir, in which he doesn’t so much explore the human condition as he complete eviscerates it, crafting a story of despair and the unending cycle of poverty that most films would never resolve to make, especially not when it is so devoid of any hope, and where a happy ending is not so much missing as it is deliberately avoided. Some may refer to the fact that this comes at a time when kitchen-sink realism in Great Britain was at its peak (and something that John Schlesinger brought over in his magnificent social epic, Midnight Cowboy – the two films form quite a compelling double feature, as I very recently learned), and where the hopelessness associated with enduring a period of increased suffering does not always have the pleasant resolution we’d expect. Pollack made a film that attempts to capture the raw truth of existence that sometimes doesn’t get represented in more hopeful portrayals of the human condition – ultimately, it’s a suitably disconcerting, but extraordinarily powerful, portrayal of humanity that may not be entertaining, but is certainly extremely effective.

As a character-driven ensemble piece, the performances are imperative to the success of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – constructed as a film that makes use of a larger cast, Pollack goes to great lengths to assemble a set of performers that could interpret this bleak story without surrendering entirely to its hopeless nature until it was necessary to do so. As with most films that are restricted to one period over a particular amount of time, the characterization comes in how these individuals slowly change over the course of the story, and this has never been more evident than with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, where the actors are responsible for propelling the film forward. However, while the ensemble consists of dozens, there are a few performances that stand out in particular – Gig Young plays one of cinema’s most fascinating villains, a man driven not only by greed, but by a morbid fascination with the power he’s been afforded, where he holds the attention of hundreds of people, all of which look to him not only for guidance but instruction. It doesn’t matter that the character of Rocky is indirectly responsible for many mental breakdowns and even a few deaths, as long as these actions have entertainment value. Young commands the screen and leaves us completely enthralled, despite the fact that he’s such a reprehensible individual. Red Buttons is heartbreaking as a lonely sailor entering into the competition, and Susannah York gives a bold performance that steadily becomes truly disturbing as her character erodes from pride-filled ingenue to a shadow of her former self. However, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? would simply not be the same without Jane Fonda – there are few actresses who have managed to command the screen like Fonda has, and even earlier in her career, where she was given roles based less on her talent and more on her appearance, she fought against the heteronormative gaze that sought to see her as the product of nepotism. This film is one of the many formative performances where she showed herself capable of a much deeper skill than the industry expected, and in playing a woman broken by a world she doesn’t understand anymore, she truly captures (and frequently shatters) our hearts, giving one of the most soulful performances of the era, and one that would certainly remain an indelible part of her iconic career.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an anomaly of a film, because it doesn’t quite fit into any preconceived genre, nor follow any of the perceived conventions that were normally associated with this era of filmmaking. A gritty, dark tale of poverty and suffering, the film can certainly be considered nothing short of a gruelling piece of American realism, and Pollack does very little in softening the harsh blows this film deals onto the psyche of the viewer. Cinema that can make us feel this downbeat and uncomfortable are not always successful, but when done with the right intentions, it can be an extraordinarily effective experience, albeit one that doesn’t defer from putting the audience through the emotional wringer. The grit of this film is oddly authentic, especially considering how its a period piece. Unlike many films that set out to replicate a particular era, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is unusually muted, with the emphasis placed less on the spectacle, and more on the intricate, character-driven moments. The film derives most of its effectiveness from how it develops the characters – the yearning for a better life resonates from each of them, with their hopes of a brighter future being the sole quality that they all share. However, the film is also extremely realistic and refuses to become sensationalised or disingenuous in its approach – this is not a film about various characters holding onto every bit of hope that they can muster in anticipation for a better day, but rather a variety of individuals at their wit’s end, so desperate to survive, they’ll surrender themselves to the sordid activities of a sadistic man who sees them as entities for the entertainment of the rich and famous. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? goes above the realm of melodrama and becomes a tragedy, a heartwrenching portrayal of the extent to which suffering can push anyone, and how they will deliberately put themselves through horrifying situations in the hopes that their problems could be solved, which isn’t always the most logical solution, but its the only one these people knew.

Complex, disquieting and incredibly intense, Sydney Pollack made a film that is enormously successful in representing the plight of ordinary folk doing whatever they can to get through an era of great suffering. The director pulls together an unforgettable film that sees career-best work from many of the performers, including Jane Fonda, who is simply incredible as a woman trying so hard to avoid her inevitable fate, and Gig Young, who constructs one of the most fascinating literary antagonists produced in the last century, someone who is driven less by malicious intentions, and more a warped sense of the same desperation all the characters are experiencing. The film ebbs and flows with a tangible intensity, becoming incredibly dark, but not abandoning all sense of hope, with the insatiable sensation that everything will somehow work out for the best being omnipotent throughout the film – while it may not come to fruition, Pollack understands that in order to be invested in these characters, we have to be able to truly believe that they will come out triumphant. The fact that the film has one of the bleakest endings in cinema history only makes this approach even more effective, as it shows us a side of reality that fiction rarely ever demonstrates. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a beautiful, heartwrenching film that tends to linger, with many of the moments, whether the exuberant derbies or the quiet moments of introspection, leaving an indelible impression. It’s not a pleasant film, but you’d find it difficult to find one that makes more of an impact than this one, a remarkably unsentimental, and singularly unforgettable, achievement in cinematic realism.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. James says:

    The strength of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is its casting. Director Sydney Pollack knew he needed actors who could counter the bleak storyline with a defined charisma. So, instead of casting known dramatic actors of the cinema, he opted for well established rom com stars like Jane Fonda, Red Buttons, and Gig Young. Audiences had already developed opinions of the players. That good will went a long way in making the dark material more palatable.

    The odd casting choice was Michael Sarrazin. Early in production, Pollack was unimpressed with Sarrazin’s work and considered replacing him. Feelers sent out to both Warren Beatty and Robert Redford but each declined. Later Sarrazin claimed he was denied an Oscar nomination, because Pollack edited the film to highlight Fonda’s performance.

    Sarrazin was certainly a hot commodity in 1969. He was John Schlesinger’s original choice to play Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. Dustin Hoffman undermined Sarrazin’s casting when he screen tested with each actor. Hoffman reportedly evaluated the film by stating that watching the footage his eye went to himself opposite Sarrazin, while his attention was drawn to Voight in the other footage. Sarrazin ultimately lost the job over an inflated salary demand. Jon Voight won the role when he agreed to work for scale.

    Interestingly, the two films have become iconic in representing an era. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They seems to have aged better, while Midnight Cowboy endures as the seminal film because of the power of its love story.

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