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.
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: