They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

“I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure know a loser.”

They Shoot Horses Poster

Synopsis:
During the Depression, a group of down-on-their-luck contestants — including Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons, Susannah York, Bruce Dern, and Bonnie Bedelia — compete in a brutal dance marathon hosted by Gig Young.

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Review:
Although Peary designates Pennies From Heaven (1981) “the grimmest of all movie musicals”, surely Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? tops that film’s melancholia factor to earn a designation as “the grimmest of all Depression-era films”. Indeed, this notoriously bleak adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel is, as noted by DVD Savant, a “depressing but riveting… emotional meat grinder”. We know very little about the host of characters populating the screen other than the following cursory information: Fonda is from Kansas, Bedelia is pregnant, Sarrazin is a drifter, aging Buttons is a former dance marathon winner, and York is desperate for a chance to make it big in Hollywood; what they all have in common, however, is a willingness to put their health and sanity on the line for three meals a day and the remote possibility of fringe benefits. Remarkably, we can’t help staying gruesomely fascinated by these characters’ fates even as we know (either from gut intuition, or from previous viewings of the film) that little good will come to them. The metaphor of Dance Marathon-as-Life — both are nasty and brutish, and then you die (or lose) — is apparent, but is so effectively framed as a bleakly vibrant history lesson that it’s easy to forget we’re watching anything other than a unique human drama playing out in front of our eyes. They Shoot Horses… isn’t for the faint of heart, and won’t likely be a repeat favorite — but it’s certainly must-see viewing at least once for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gig Young’s Oscar-winning performance as Rocky
    They Shoot Horses Young
  • Jane Fonda as Gloria (nominated by Peary for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the Year
  • Red Buttons as Sailor
  • Fredric Steinkamp’s relentless editing

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance and undeniable impact. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.

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One Response to “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)”

  1. A no-brainer must – as a one-of-a-kind experience, and for the performances, esp. Young and Fonda.

    This is arguably the best work by both Pollack and Fonda. I saw this on release, and had read the book, and was just BLOWN AWAY! I’ve seen it many times over the years and, having just rewatched it, I find it ageless. I believe it will hold up well for decades to come. Not only is it a story that doesn’t grow old – speaking as it does for its time and for The Plight of Man in general – but its power is undeniable. This is a movie that grabs at the throat and doesn’t let go. For me, as a cinema experience, that’s as good as it gets.

    Oddly, though it’s an extremely depressing film, it doesn’t depress me. It does, however, serve to remind me of the unflinching truth of what it can mean to be human and to just get through life the best way one can. This movie always seems to make me want to try to like people more – because who knows what shit they’re going through. At the same time, I recognize that the film essentially has no real moral center. It’s bleak. Relentlessly bleak.

    One only has to note the seemingly endless sprint sequences to chalk this film up to being a downer – when almost the entire cast becomes the horses of the title, with their teeth bared and their nostrils flaring.

    Still…the craftsmanship of this film is staggering. I think the film is perfect in every respect – and such care was taken to get it just right. There’s nothing random at all; everything has been quite well-thought-out. Which, again, brings Fonda front and center. Many believe her best work is in ‘Klute’, for which she got an Oscar. ‘Klute’ is a terrific movie. But, for my money, Fonda was just never better than as Gloria. You cannot bullshit this performance. You have to go inside your soul and rip it apart to play Gloria, and that’s what Fonda did. She truly astonishes me here. Although there are endless memorable moments from her, the one that sticks out most is a small one: a man asks her, ‘Has anyone ever told you–‘, to which she cuts him off quick with ‘Yeah, they told me.’ ~which ends the conversation dead. Gloria has seen it all and heard it all; her heart has been broken time and again and, as we watch the film, we progressively witness her giving away each shred of hope she has held onto. Gloria is truly a tragic character.

    Pollack gets top-notch performances from everyone – some in the cast have maybe never been better than they are here. But the film belongs to Fonda. She is the fierce focus in this breathtaking and brilliantly realized piece of cinematic art.

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