They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

they shoot horses dont they poster 1969 movie
9.0 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 9/10

Solid drama that dips into other genres

Dark, no hope

Movie Info

Movie Name:   They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Studio:  ABC Pictures

Genre(s):   Drama

Release Date(s):   December 10, 1969

MPAA Rating:   R

they shoot horses dont they jane fonda michael sarrazin dance marathon

Those people in Footloose had the right idea…

It is 1932, and on a pier in California, a contest is going on.  The young contestants are dancing for a prize and the host MC Rocky (Gig Young) is presenting the show for the spectators.  Gloria (Jane Fonda) finds herself assigned a young man named Robert Syverton  (Michael Sarrazin) and hopes for something good after her dreams of Hollywood have failed.  They are joined by an aging sailor named Harry (Red Buttons), an actor and actress named Alice (Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields), and a young couple trying to win the prize for their unborn child (Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia).  They will dance until they drop, but the prize may cost more than they ever can win.

Directed by Sydney Pollack, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a period piece drama set in the 1930s Depression.  The film is based on the 1935 Horace McCoy novel and was well received by critics.  The film won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Gig Young) with nominations for Best Actress (Jane Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (Susannah York), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score.

they shoot horses dont they dance marathon red buttons jane fonda bruce dern bonnie bedelia

This was my favorite part of the Jane Fonda Workout was when you carried a dead Red Buttons around in circles…burned tons of calories!

I’m not always a period piece person, but the setting of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is intriguing.  You have a movie set during the Depression at event that was often marketed as “fun”, but there is true horror in it.  The movie is a tough movie to watch because it quickly goes dark and never resurfaces.

From the start of the movie, you can tell this is the type of movie where all the characters are doomed.  The narrative is interspersed with the story of Robert being questioned by police (which I feel hinders the story by really implying something bad is going to happen…which isn’t necessary).  The real horror is that this is entertainment.  It is like a real life Running Man game that actually would occur before reality TV and other events.  The irony that even the winner doesn’t even win is one of the killing blows.

The film cast is strong.  Jane Fonda is great at the cynical Gloria who sees the desperate dance competition as her last hope while being helped by the mysterious Michael Sarrazin who is obviously torn up inside from the war and events of his childhood.  Susannah York plays the peppy desperate actress who has a complete mental breakdown from the stress and physical nature of the competition.  Red Buttons plays the sailor playing down his age in an attempt at glory while Bonnie Bedelia and Bruce Dern show another reason why someone would enter this competition.  Gig Young appears like the typical scuzzy manager but actually has some tender moments with Susannah York’s character during her breakdown which gives his character dimension (and you get Grandpa Munster Al Lewis as his sidekick along with Hill Street Blues’ Michael Conrad as the bouncer).

they shoot horses dont they susannah york gig young shower scene

Yowza! Yowza! Yowza! This girl’s crazy!

The movie has a grittiness to it.  Despite being a typical period piece, there is an aspect of a noir and a crime film.  The shooting style of the film also gives a horror-esque look to the film at periods like the races where the contestants are forced to run (with the losers being eliminated).  It is this odd blending of genres which help elevate the film beyond a simple period piece.  Even in the Depression, California and Hollywood were seen as magical, but in this film, they are a nightmare.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an interesting look at events which usually just get a little footnote on “fads” and with other events like flagpole sitting (which also gets a reference in the film).  Movies with no hope are often hard to swallow, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is no exception…the ending definitely has you saying “Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!”

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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