They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) *****
Directed by Sydney Pollack
When I was in college, I woke up early one Sunday morning and began to read a short novel by Stephen King which I think was called, “The Race.” Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down and finished it two hours later. He wrote it under the pseudonym Richard Bachman which he used when he was either still in college or right out of college. The premise of the story revolves around a future
Since it’s a Stephen King story, there has to be a macabre twist. Those who do not win the race are shot dead. Also, there’s no official finish line. The boys simply start walking and if they fall over from exhaustion or fail to maintain the minimum speed limit of five miles per hour, they receive a series of three warnings. After the third warning, they are shot dead right there on the track. They get no breaks, not even to go to the bathroom. They simply must go with everyone watching. The yearly race often finishes somewhere in
Chilling, huh? Yep, that story has really stayed with me over the years, and I always thought something like it would make for a powerful movie. Little did I know that King pretty much stole his idea from Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The film, set in the depression, showcases a dance marathon which offers a prize of $1500 to the winning couple. They have ten minute breaks every once in a while and a few hours to sleep and shower every night. Couples are given food and medical attention while they compete, and the whole time they are on the dance floor, the public pays for the opportunity to watch and root them on.
We learn from an old sailor and marathon veteran named Harry Kline, played by the great Red Buttons, that marathons can last as long as 1600 hours—that’s over two months! One of the fascinating elements of the film lies in the fact that the establishment, led by the marathon’s emcee Rocky (Gig Young), really doesn’t see anything morally wrong with what it is doing. After all, these desperate people get to eat for a period of time, and the winner does go home with money. They even encourage the audience to throw pennies towards their favorite couples which gives the dancers a bit of pocket change. More importantly, though, the marathon provides great entertainment to those with a little money to spare.
The entertainment value of the marathon is the key in the film. Rocky at one point steals one of the glamorous dresses of a dancer named Alice LeBlanc (Susannah York) without telling her. He later explains that the people in the audience come to the marathon in order to feel better about themselves when they compare their situations to those of the dancers. He states that
The most chilling aspect of the marathon is the derby. At times throughout the marathon, the dancers are required to run around the dance floor for ten minutes, and the three couples that finish last are disqualified. The humiliation and exhaustion the runners ensue is difficult to watch, and it’s during these scenes that the title of the movie really makes sense.
I’ve gone many paragraphs without even mentioning Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. Their characters, named Gloria and Robert, couldn’t be more different. Gloria has learned to deal with the world by becoming cold, tough and very cynical. Of course she wants the money as badly as anyone else, but she resents the establishment for adding to the misery that life doles out. Robert, on the other hand, is a mild-mannered drifter whose distant personality has kept him naïve to the darker elements of the world. They end up being dance partners because of certain circumstances, and throughout their time together, they do grow to care for each other, though no romance ensues between them.
So many heartbreaking and enraging things happen during the marathon—too many to list here. Gloria learns something terrible about the marathon by the end of the film which pushes her over the edge. She’s tough as nails until this scene where we see her breakdown and cry. Her cynicism leads to total and complete despair, and the only one that can help her by the end is Robert.
The ending of the film is very disturbing, but extremely satisfying. The performances throughout are amazing, especially Fonda’s. I haven’t seen her in many films, but this two time Oscar winner is considered one of the very best actresses of her generation. I definitely now understand why. There’s a haunting scene in a shower room that takes place between Susannah York and Gig Young, which single-handedly probably earned both supporting acting Oscar nominations. Young won the Oscar for this movie.
I’ve been saying as I’ve watched some of the films directed by Sydney Pollack that I couldn’t understand all the fuss that people make over this guy. There were glaring problems with many of his films that to me looked like he ought to be the one to blame. They Shoot Horses, though, is a first-class example of great direction. The way the marathon is shot totally works, and the fact that Pollack wasn’t afraid to put these harrowing uncomfortable scenes front and center makes me truly understand and appreciate Pollack’s skill as a director.
I’ve got to admit that I enjoy dark films because I love the way my feelings powerfully connect with them. I certainly didn’t feel happy after this movie ended, but I sure did respond with unsettled raw emotions. “The Race” has haunted me for the last ten years, and now I know that They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? will haunt me for the next ten years. This was a tough one to sit through, but I’m absolutely glad that I did. No one really talks about this film anymore, which makes me even happier that I saw it. It’s a real buried treasure! At this point, it’s my number one buried treasure!