[Film Review] They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

They Shoot Horses Don t They poster

Title: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Year: 1969
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director: Sydney Pollack
James Poe
Robert E. Thompson
based on the novel of Horace McCoy
Music: Johnny Green
Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Jane Fonda
Michael Sarrazin
Susannah York
Gig Young
Red Buttons
Bonnie Bedelia
Bruce Dern
Michael Conrad
Robert Fields
Al Lewis
Madge Kennedy
Allyn Ann McLerie
Mary Gregory
Rating: 8.4/10

They Shoot Horses, Don't They 1969

Sydney Pollack’s pungent film adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel about a dance marathon contest during the Depression-era – the ultimate test of energy and endurance, which blurs the line between competition and reality show. The various contestants spurred by the 1500$ reward, push their strength and fortitude to the limits, little they know, they are merely dispensable pawns to attract audience, since the mass needs something they can believe in in that particular era, and clearly, watching other people in suffering and bad shapes is a massively effective way to achieve that, what a sadistic revelation! Also the film has an unflinchingly bleak ending can give a gut punch to first-time viewers who are unfamiliar with the source novel.

The main players in the game are Gloria (Fonda), a cynical, embittered woman whose intention to become an actress has never materialized, randomly paired with Robert (Sarrazin), a wide-eyed (literally) young man who is aimless wandering around; Harry Kline (Buttons), a middle-aged sailor with his partner Shirli (Ann McLerie), British aspiring actress Alice (York) and her partner Joel (Fields), a young farmer James (Dern) with his pregnant wife Ruby (Bedelia), yes, no possible sick people allowed but a pregnant woman, welcome on board! The contest is hosted by a veteran emcee Rocky (Young), who represents the ruthless rules-maker and exploiter of the poor participants. Barely a dance competition, the entire extravaganza is an overlong battle against sleep deprivation, more heart-tugging scenes are deployed when a so-called derby is introduced, forces each pair to race in circles for 10 minutes non-stop and the last three pairs are automatically eliminated, how barbarian is could be? People die in progress, we are no more civilized than the ancient Romans who are hailing for gladiators’ slaughtering, or worse, since hypocrisy even masks the tragic event with uplifting spirits, how messed up and phony USA was at then? The film does bespeak Pollack’s true grit in making this magnificent social critique.

Thus, one can much appreciate the unexpected ending, Gloria tries very hard to comply to the rules, but the overwhelming futility of life – the overt metaphor of the marathon, waylays her with such irreconcilable disappointment, the pathos is sudden but perfectly justified at that moment when she makes that crucial decision, Fonda receives her first ever Oscar-nomination for her affecting portrayal of a woman who has nothing to live for and simultaneously is a soul full of vehemence, two-thumbs up! Gig Young won the only Oscar among the film’s overall 9 nominations (it still holds the record as the most nominated one sans a BEST PICTURE nomination), a qualified win for his outward showmanship and the script doesn’t forget to let slip his own monologue of what is made of his callous personality. York is also Oscar-nominated, and her final exit performance is so stunning, when she showers with her full dress on, after witnessing a sudden death, the horror finally overtakes her mentally, she is that scene alone should win her the golden statute which she deserves. Red Buttons, a showbiz triple-threat, previous Oscar-winner, also impresses with his physical endeavor in the derby races.

Last but not the least, Sarrazin, with his trademark big, soulful eyes, is left unheralded, his Robert is so different from the hero image required for a leading man at that time, however his bashful, effeminate persona is so spot-on for the role, in contrast with a sharp-tongued and spitfire Fonda. He is the one granted with an opening flashback, as a young boy witnessing a horse being shot after breaking a leg (and the one who articulates the profound title in the coda) and flash-forward sequences (which viewers will only realise near the end) of being interrogated for an unspecified crime, Sarrazin is so unassuming and non-threatening against the whole backdrop of competition and dissatisfaction, his innocence is the last straw of hop in the story, which albeit hasn’t been shown on screen, will be harshly stripped of in audience’s mind picture, again, one should truly admire the courage of the filmmakers here, all the wistful tunes, big band rollicking aside, the film can blow you away for its uncompromising reprimand of what a degraded world we are living and a high point in Pollack’s just burgeoning career.


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