Friday, 17 February 2012

They Shoot Horses Don't They?

This 1969 film from Sydney Pollack has to be one of the most harrowing heart breaking watches of my life. It is nothing short of brilliant.

Based on the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy it concerns a disparate group of desperate people who enter a marathon dance competition during The Great Depression in the US.

The cast and characters are excellent; from Gig Young as the manipulative MC spurring them on, to Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin in the leads; the cynical Gloria and her last minute replacement partner, dreaming farmboy Robert. There is also incredible support from Red Buttons as the middle aged (and in denial about it) sailor Harry and our own Susannah York as Alice, an aspiring starlet.

Each character has known real hardship and suffering be it in the past (the lost loved ones in the recent Great War) or more specifically in the hard times of the present, a Depression which lasted well over ten years, in the dustbowl of America at a time which saw unemployment at 25% and its citizens living a hand to mouth existence. It is with this uncertain existence that many would enter these real life gruelling dance tournaments for the monetary prize and the fame to follow.

Fred and Ginger it ain't!

Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda cling together in the hope of winning

Gig Young's MC 

One of the gruelling derbies

Fonda backstage in the sparse and short breaks

Susannah York

Fonda as Gloria: 'Help me'

Susannah York's Alice teetering on a breakdown

John...They're only dancing

The final words, and I won't give it all away, Sarrazin numbly offering up the title "They shoot horses don't they?" is at once both chilling and utterly poignant.

It's the kind of movie that once seen remains with you forever. The kind of movie Hollywood excelled in in the late 60s and throughout the following decade; the kind of movie that told you the truth without flinching. 

It's natural to be aghast by the events depicted in the film, and wonder how we allowed them to happen in a supposedly civilised society and time not too long ago in our collective conscious. But ask yourself this; is it really any different to the reality shows we witness on TV now, in a similar time of economic slump and depression? All those endless series of Big Brother and The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor and Britain's Got Talent, and anything that can be traced back to the biggest MC of them all, Simon Cowell?

I think not. 

The Rise of the Idiots has brought us back to viewing our fellow citizens as spectacles to cheer or jeer at. Shame on us really.

The near forgotten Welsh band Racing Cars that took the film and it's title as inspiration for their biggest hit...


  1. I really want to see this, I'll have to add it to my Lovefilm

    1. Ooh do so, I thoroughly recommend it.

      The Racing Cars single is rather nice to isn't it?

  2. Love, love, LOVE this movie! Can't even count how many times I've seen it. But gotta say, I think you're the first one to make the connection with today's reality show fixation and the "people are the ultimate spectacle" voyeurism of the dance marathon. Fascinating that no matter how much the world moves on technologically, people stay essentially the same, both the good and the bad.
    Never heard of the song you mention (music link is blocked in the US)but will see if ol' iTunes has it. Brilliant post!

    1. Thanks Ken. Yeah sadly some things never change. Of course even you good people Stateside can't escape the pox that is The Cash Cow-ell and for him, we here in the UK-well us sane ones at least-humbly apologise!
      There's not many here who can recall Racing Cars, they were briefly famous, but still going in Wales I believe, so it doesn't surprise me they're completely unknown in the US. It's a lovely song, suitably mournful

  3. I have to admit to not listening to it yet *cringe*

    1. Jo you disappoint me! To be honest I'm a bit confused and annoyed that I couldn't just share the vid like I normally do. For some reason Blogger couldn't find it in the search?! So I just had to put the link on