Review: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?


Sydney Pollack
James Poe, Robert E. Thompson (Novel: Horace McCoy)
129 min.
Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red BUttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Conrad,
MPAA Rating
M (original); PG-13 (re-rated)

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What an original and compelling concept. Having never heard much about the film despite its Oscar to Gig Young, I found it most unusual and certainly most interesting. The story is set during the Great Depression where desperate people would do anything to scrape up a few coins. The film itself focuses on a dance competition where over one hundred couples hope to take home $1,500 by putting themselves through physical pain and discomfort. There are several couples we spend a great deal of time watching including a pregnant woman and her husband, a vain starlet hoping to catch her big break, a World War I sailor and his girlfriend, and a determined young woman and the young man off the street whom she pulls in at the last minute when then man she arrived with is disqualified due to health problems.

Most of the performances are quite special with Susannah York as the starlet leading the pack. Strangely enough, Fonda as the determined young woman with no real background, to me, is one of the weaker performers, never creating an emotional tie to her frequently abrasive character. Seeing films in a non-chronological order, it makes it hard for me not to picture Fonda in one of her in the many dramatic roles giving this same performance regularly. There are a few scenes, such as the two where contestants are forced to speed walk for 10 minutes to avoid a triple elimination, where she lets herself go with the character, but soon after she gets forceful and energetic in ways that don’t feel natural, though were revelatory for many at the time, this being her first major dramatic role. I can see why some might have wanted Gig Young to have an Oscar for such a dour role, and he’s good in it, but he’s out classed by two others : Red Buttons, as the aging sailor and Bruce Dern as the pregnant woman’s husband.

The performances certainly enhance the film, but the story itself is what draws me to the film. Spending the length sequestered in this massive auditorium as dozens of spectators filter in and out watching these despairing people try to eke out a few meager pennies for their entertainment. To have an entire film locked into such a small, confined space is a daring thing, but director Sydney Pollack does admirably well with the subject. It’s not often you get to see another side to the miserable stories of the Great Depression which seemed to focus mostly on hard up farmers, and this one does an excellent job exploring the deplorable events that catered to the wealthy and used the poor masses to provide that entertainment. And those closing scenes where Young asks Fonda and her partner to get married on the floor and afterward are so shocking and depressing that it makes the entire competition feel like a circus of greed. Although some of the scenes seem surreal and the entire opening credits featuring the horse in the field seem more like part of a distinct era of filmmaking than as a part of a grander whole. So, the film doesn’t always feel like one of universal appeal, it’s a film everyone should see at least once.
Review Written
August 16, 2010

1 Comment

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  1. Isn’t this a wonderful film? It features tremendous performances across the board–including that by Jane Fonda. Her character, Gloria, is a hard-bitten realist who has been to Hollywood and back, and Lady Jane is brilliant at conveying, with utmost authenticity, both the strength and vulnerability of her character. Speaking for myself, if I were part of the dance marathon, I’d jump at the chance to partner Gloria. She is can be strong-willed and feisty, but at the same time, beneath her tough exterior, there is a woman crying out to be loved, for her life to be afforded some type of meaning. Her jealousy over her dance partner Robert, the way the she feels threatened by his affection for wannabe Hollywood starlet Alice, draws attention to this fact. Gloria is the sort of woman who is typically able to make it on her own, but broken down by the endless disappointments of life and the extreme physical demands of the dance contest, she now needs Robert to (literally as well as figuratively) help her stand on her own two feet.

    I agree wholeheartedly that everybody should see this movie at least once. The title of the film has been parodied many times over, yet it is not what you would call one of the all-time most popular motion pictures. The movie remains fresh and relevant after several decades, and so much can be read into certain images and scenes contained within the film. Few movies produced these days can match its greatness. Yowser, yowser, yowser!

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