They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

Sydney Pollack directs Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin and Susannah York in this Depression era drama where impoverished couples sign up for a dance marathon that exploits and degrades them for entertainment purposes.

Fair warning: you are gonna need a stout heart and shielded emotions to make it though They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It is unattractive, depressing viewing. Watching the pointless trials, decay and destruction of a group with people with no options is like being beaten up mercilessly for two hours. You will not be in your happy place afterwards. This is bleak. Stephen King’s The Long Walk and The Hunger Games franchise have their roots in this fertile drama but they are dystopian sci-fi contests… this was based on historical fact. The author of the source novel, Horace McCoy, was the bouncer at these grim spectacles in the thirties. Surely they didn’t last quite as long (months!) as the film suggests… but the film is an allergory for a life in poverty. The limited choices, the pragmatic need to partner up to survive, the loss of freedom and hope a minimum pay check gives you once you sign the contract, the rigged cunt’s trick of The American Dream. They showed this in Soviet Russia as a stark cinematic lesson in what capitalism is like to live under. The nightmare, worst case scenario. Natalie commented it felt like watching a horror movie. A series of murders. Desperation is the slasher. Who is going to be driven mad next by sleep deprivation? Who is going to give in and collapse after toiling for weeks? Who will abandon their hope next and exit a broken loser… or dead? The atmosphere is oppressive, clammy, leering. You give up caring about who will win the prize. You never find out. You get flashes forward to the future that are stylistically now common place in modern TV storytelling. They were groundbreaking then. OK… so it is a forgotten classic and genuinely horrible to watch… it still ain’t perfect. What starts as an ensemble gives way to being a star vehicle for Fonda at the midway point. I think Hanoi Jane is great but you do miss the other cast members when they are demoted from support to background extras. Especially early turns by Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedilia who do a lot with a little.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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