A Different Kind of Love: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)
There are some films that are just difficult to watch. Everybody has their Achilles heel when it comes to what affects them and what doesn’t. I’m fine with watching just about anything, but, boy, those damn Pixar films sure know how to get me. Every. Single. Time. I was a total emotional wreck at the beginning of Up. I mean, full-on sobs racked my body and I still had to sit there for almost another hour and a half! Then there are films like my choice for our Different Kind of Love series, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, that depict just how far humans are willing to push themselves for a prize beyond their reach. So much so, it becomes an exercise in brutality.
Sydney Pollack’s film, based on the Horace McCoy novel of the same name from 1935, is ultimately a film about survival. In the midst of the depression, some people were willing to do just about anything to make a dollar. Naturally, other people were willing to exploit this fact in order to make money themselves and, at the same time, entertain the masses. A dance contest on a pier in Southern California is our setting. The prize for winning this contest is $1,500. It’s a lot of money in a time when jobs are scarce and prospects worse. The contest draws over a hundred couples. Some might be there for a lark while others are there because this prize money means a new life for them.
Robert (Michael Sarrazin) just happens to be wandering around the pier when he notices couples signing up for a dance contest. He has no intention of entering; he’s just watching the proceedings. There are couples of all type lined up who, unbeknownst to them, are cattle to the slaughter. They are being inspected by a team selecting the best people for the show. The inspectors get rid of those they feel aren’t healthy enough to last. They are also selecting people based on other criteria; like having a good story to tell. The organizer and emcee of this contest is Rocky (Gig Young, in an Oscar-winning turn) and he is choosing the contestants like he’s choosing a piece of meat; only the best to display to the audience he is hoping will show up in droves.
While Robert watches, we meet several couples including the very pregnant Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and her farmer husband, Joel (Bruce Dern), the out-of-work actors (Susannah York and Robert Fields), and the aging sailor (Red Buttons) and his partner Shirl. We also meet Gloria (Jane Fonda). Her partner is deemed a bad medical risk and is not allowed to participate. Where is she going to find another partner in the next five minutes? Rocky sees Robert skulking over by the door and suggests he join up with her.
The rules are you gotta keep dancing. The couples get a 10 minute break after every two hours of dancing. They will be provided with everything they need during the contest: food, medical attention, showers, massages, etc. Anything to keep them going. If a person stops dancing for any reason, the referees (including Michael Conrad) can disqualify you. The contest begins with big fanfare and they’re off!
Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!
We begin to get to know the couples and it becomes clear just how desperate these people are to win this contest. They all don’t have the same reasons. The acting couple just wants to be “discovered”. The farmer couple needs the money for a baby on the way. Gloria, who came to Hollywood to be an actress, needs it because she can’t get work. She is very angry. Her every word to Robert, and anyone else, is rude and sarcastic. He just wants to get to know his partner and she is having none of it.
Hours go by…days go by…
The longer the contest goes on, the more crowded the stands become. If a couple is lucky, they get a “sponsor” who will pay for things for the couple like fresh socks and other “essentials”. I’m looking askance at you, Suzanne Collins (whom, it turns out, not only ripped-off Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale for The Hunger Games, but this film as well). Conditions in the rest areas are poor, at best. Couples have to keep dancing while they eat at tables rolled out onto the dance floor. They shovel in the food as if they’re eating from a trough. Gloria ruffles feathers on the floor and in the rest area. For example, she keeps having a go at Ruby for being pregnant; asking her why she didn’t just have an abortion since it was clear she and her husband couldn’t feed it. Joel warns Gloria that if she upsets Ruby one more time he will kill her. It’s clear by the look in his eyes that he absolutely would. Things get heated (in several senses of the word) between other couples, too, which makes some of them switch partners, including Gloria and Robert.
More days go by. 20…30…Couples continue to drop out. Everyone is long past exhaustion, but they keep on going. Rocky has some workers paint white lines on the floor and the dancers know they are in for pain. The couples now have to run a derby.
They must race the circuit on the floor for 10 minutes straight before being allowed to continue. The last three couples across the finish line are out. There is an absolute frenzy in the couples as they race around the track. Nobody wants to fall (they have 10 seconds to get up) and nobody wants to be last.
40 days… 50 days… The brutality of this competition is almost too much. During one of the derbies, one dancer dies of a heart attack and then has to be dragged by his partner for three more laps around the circuit. Ruby, who was already eight months pregnant at the start of the competition, is beyond exhaustion, but she keeps going for her unborn child. Gloria eventually finds her way back to Robert and they are partners again. It’s clear that, while they are ready to drop, they have an allegiance to each other. While they don’t profess their feelings for each other, it’s clear they have them. Rocky calls them into his office during a break and has the idea that the two should marry. Robert is willing to go along with whatever Gloria wants. Gloria hates the idea, but Rocky tries to convince her, telling her it’d be good for the crowd and that they’d get some prizes. He also reveals something about the contest and it sends her over the edge completely. She tells Robert she just wants to be put out of her misery.
Pollack’s film is nothing short of harrowing to watch. We’re stuck in this gigantic dance hall at the end of the Santa Monica pier and yet, it all feels so claustrophobic. All we want to do is get outside, see the sunlight. At one point, Robert opens an emergency door to do just that and we’re happy for the relief.
The acting in this is top notch from everyone, but it’s Fonda who is the revelation here. Her Gloria is fiery, flippant, and fabulous. She sees this dance contest as her last hope in life. She’s given up, but she isn’t leaving without a fight. All the contestants are treated like animals during their time in the contest, but she’s fighting like hell on her way to the slaughter.
Imagine the toll over 1,200 hours of dancing takes on a person. The agony, both emotionally and physically, felt after being put through that type of punishment. Add to it the feeling of desperation at not being able to provide for yourself and the fact you’ve been exploited for the entertainment of others. How far can you be pushed before asking a loved one to put you out of your misery?
They shoot horses...don’t they?