Wednesday 13 June 2018

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - 1969 film review

Horace McCoy's excellent Thirties novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was turned into an equally good film in 1969 by Sydney Pollack. The book is short, and the film is long (perhaps too long), but in different ways they present a chilling story about a dance marathon of the kind that was popular in Depression era America.

We might be tempted to feel rather superior about the behaviour of the contestants, organisers, and audiences of these dreadful events, when people half-killed themselves dancing for hour after hour in the hope of winning cash prizes - until we realise that in many ways the marathons were simply forerunners of the modern reality TV show. They appeal to much the same instincts.

The excellent cast includes the likes of Bruce Dern, in an early role, Red Buttons, and Michael Sarrazin, but there are three stand-outs. Two are contestants - Jane Fonda and Susannah York - both of whom give superb performances. York was nominated for an Oscar, and must have been dismayed not to have won. Like Fonda, she was such a beautiful woman that perhaps her very considerable acting talents tended to be under-estimated. One person who did win an Oscar was Gig Young, who plays the deeply unpleasant M.C. Again, his is an outstanding performance. But Young's story was a very sad one: he was an alcoholic who, six years after this film was made, murdered his fifth and latest wife and then killed himself.

I first saw this film a long time ago. If anything, I liked it even more the second time around. It's a very powerful story, and despite the movie's length, I think it shows Pollack's great ability as a film director. And it's a reminder of what a compelling and interesting writer McCoy was. Few books give quite such a memorable insight into life during the Depression, and the same can be said of this very watchable film.

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