Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This depressing but riveting gem from hardboiled writer Horace McCoy uses a nightmarish
Depression-era dance marathon to construct a dark allegory for life. Bitter Kansas transplant
Gloria (Jane Fonda) sees the dance as just another rigged arena that keeps people like her
from getting anywhere. Most of the starving contestants don't have time to question the
cruel circus that kills them to provide cheap public entertainment.
Sydney Pollack's first prestige success is a grim but exacting drama that keeps its
symbolism in check and concentrates on the human cost of a shameless historical
phenomenon. The film is graced with excellent ensemble acting and impressive production
values, and is quite an emotional meat grinder.
Down & out transients in Los Angeles flock to the last hope of the
unemployed, the Monster Marathon out on Santa Monica Pier. The endurance dance
show goes 24 hours a day with only ten-minute breaks every two hours, and is
periodically interrupted for a walking footrace to eliminate the slowest couples.
Volunteering for a chance at $1500, the desperate participants turn themselves into
a sideshow of blood, sweat and tears; the marathon grinds up the optimistic and the
Gloria (Jane Fonda) latches onto another aimless drifter Robert (Michael Sarrazin) when her
intended partner turns up sick. The overage Sailor (Red Buttons) is a marathon veteran
and thinks he can make up in experience what he lacks in youth. Show-biz failures Alice
(Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields) overdress in hopes of attracting the attention
of talent scouts in the audience. And James (Bruce Dern) urges his pitiful, pregnant wife
Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) into the marathon in spite of the obvious health risks.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is an endurance test for the audience. The dancers
deteriorate physically and mentally
over almost two months of grueling torture. Outwardly, the marathon is a genteel spectacle
with a smiling emcee (Gig Young) to praise the musicians and promote phony 'personal
interest' backgrounds for the various dancers. As he puts it, the customers that fill
the bleachers are paying to see someone worse off than they are, and he encourages the
spectators to pick a couple and cheer them on. Dancers with specialty acts can perform
and keep the nickels and dimes thrown from the stands. Some of them become dancing
advertisements for local businesses by wearing shirts emblazoned with messages like
"Western Bill Collection." A few contestants are tempted to cheat and others are
manipulated by the management to add drama to the show, which pays lip service to
their efforts while waiting to exploit them when they finally collapse or go crazy
under the stress. The Day of the Locust imagined an apocalyptic Hollywood,
but this picture is a more coherent protest against a system that feeds human lives to a
ballroom version of the Roman circus.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was begun, planned and prepared by screenwriter
James Poe (The Big Knife, Lilies of the Field, The Bedford Incident)
as his directing debut. Poe's wife Barbara Steele was the intended Alice, the role
that eventually went to Susannah York. Sydney Pollack stepped in after the major
casting was done, making changes to the screenplay and adding players of his own
like Michael Conrad. The result was nominated for nine Oscars but the only winner
was Gig Young as Best Supporting Actor. When the time came for voting, the movie
was probably just too depressing for its own good.
MGM's DVD of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? doesn't do the film justice. When
Sydney Pollack's Panavision film Castle Keep was released last summer on a
pan-scanned disc, fan protests resulted in a speedy enhanced Widescreen reissue. This
much more prestigious Pollack award-winner is being dropped on the market in an old
flat letterboxed transfer with limp color and poor detail, and it doesn't even have
the stereophonic track from the 1998 laser disc release (the original film was mixed
in 3-track stereo). MGM is merely distributing the title in a multi-picture deal with
ABC films and so is not directly responsible, but this They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
release amounts to trashing a classic. The disc has an original trailer as its only extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 1, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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