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They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

1 rating: 5.0
A movie directed by Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack's dark and impassioned adaptation of Horace McCoy's novel examines the limits of devotion and endurance. The intricately interwoven plot centers on a marathon dance contest that takes place in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The … see full wiki

Tags: Movies, Dramas
Director: Sydney Pollack
Release Date: 1969
MPAA Rating: R
1 review about They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

They Shoot Horses ~ Racing to the end

  • Sep 9, 2000
Pros: great performances & directing

Cons: .......

Back in the dark ages, before even SusiDee was born, they used to hold dance marathons. This is the setting for this movie ~ the early ‘30's and the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.

The concept of the marathon: couples dance until they drop. The desire of the marathon is the guaranteed 3 meals a day, a free, dry place to sleep, free showers and the huge payoff of $1500.00 to the winner. You are permitted scheduled bathroom, meal and nap breaks but otherwise you gotta keep moving to the music. In the background is the emcee, endlessly prodding you, often seeming like a carnival barker, droning in your ear.

The Story
To tell you the beginning of this movie would give away the ending, so I will just start part way into it. The energetic players are lined up for the beginning of the dance. Fonda (somewhat of a loner and a $itch) has lost her partner and takes up with Sarrazin, a drifter. Bonnie Bedelia and Bruce Dern, a married couple. She is pregnant and he is a veteran of many marathons, therefore a pusher for the goal. Red Buttons and Suzannah York, he has heart problems and she is hoping to be ‘discovered'. Cajoling in the background is Gig Young as the emcee. The songs and the dance begin.

Days pass, and so do some of the dancers, falling to the floor in exhaustion and losing their slot in the race. The surviving person can remain to dance alone but have a limited time to locate another partner. More pressure! Young continues his harassment, urging the remaining players to Move It! Move It! We gotta show to put on!

Days turn into weeks. The remaining dancers are racked with pain in their legs and back. They begin eying each other with evil stares trying to assess the fellow's stamina. Partners begin to change. Fonda accuses Sarrazin and York of an affair (geez, when would that occur?), and boots him. Her new partner, however, is soon offered a real job and leaves, so she ends up with Buttons.

The crowd is becoming restless, wanting to see some action and to see this gig finally end. Young decides to pump things up a little by making the dancers race around the ballroom like horses on a track. Buttons collapses with a heart attack but Fonda continues to drag him around the floor on her back. Eventually she ends up with Sarrazin again.

Tortured, broken, well past pain now, mentally and physically abused, they dance on. We are in day 62 - 62!!! - of constant sound, constant motion, constant pain. Young tries to get Fonda and Sarrazin to marry on the dance floor for an extra audience boost. When they refuse, Young admits the entire marathon is a ruse and he ain't giving up the bucks.

Don't despair kiddies, I haven't given up the ending at all!

After thoughts and acting
Until this release Fonda was only known for her plastic role in the weird little sci-fi spoof Barbarella. Certainly nothing to base her abilities on. I've wondered if the directors took a big gulp when they decided to let her try her dramatic shoes on, then followed it up with a pat on the back. She certainly proved herself with this movie and continued on with great releases like China Syndrome and Coming Home.

In the same light, I guess I have always considered Red Buttons a comedic actor. The name alone implies that. I was really amazed at his dramatic abilities with this release. In addition, Gig Young flipped his usual good guy, ladies man role into this smarmy, dysfunctional road carny character. He often appears disheveled, unshaven and sweaty.

In all, a great performance was pulled from all the actors by director Sydney Pollack.

Before there was rock
I grew up with music back before there was rock and media rooms. My dad wired our house for stereo, each room had several speakers, many built right into the walls. The basement was a virtual maze of wires like some demented octopus. When he listened, we listened, like it or not. I know I cringe to this day when I hear that damn mule in Grand Canyon Suite clopping along.

Anyway, before there was rock there was big band - Dorsey, Lombardo, Ellington, Goodman - good mellow sounds and a bit of swing and jazz. This movie is jammed with greats like Body and Soul, Million Dollar Baby, Best Things in Life are Free, really good listening. And, of course, all played at the appropriate times to add even more desolation to the feel of the movie.

I have seen this movie twice and don't believe I will ever watch it again. It is just too painful. I do, however, recommend everyone see it at least once as it is a truly marvelous movie.


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