Moviedrome Redux: ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ (1969)

❉ This week, a true piece of cinematic Americana that still inspires awe.

Released in 1969 and based on the Horace McCoy novel from 1935, screenwriters James Poe and Robert E. Thompson crafted a true piece of cinematic Americana with the depression-era drama The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and through Sydney Pollack’s steadfast and unwavering direction, the film resonates just as strongly now as it likely did upon first glance. This is yet another in a long line of films that just wouldn’t be contemplated on nearly any cinematic level these days, and it’s a further reminder of how far we’ve fallen when discussing cinema as a true art-form.
Released just as one decade was finishing and the next was about to begin, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? certainly feels like a time capsule from a different era, but its themes and aesthetic ambition still sting and inspire awe. This is easily one of Pollack’s strongest films, in a career that spanned multiple decades, yielding numerous great works, including The Yakuza, Three Days of the Condor, and Jeremiah Johnson. It must also be noted that legendary editor Fredric Steinkamp (Grand Prix, Tootsie, Out of Africa) cut this picture, giving it a rambunctious sense of energy that feels unlike anything else I can think of.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an absolutely devastating movie. Disturbing to the core, really. It’s deceptive in its sadness, instead taking something as potentially jubilant like a marathon dance contest, and using it as a backdrop for some of the most poignant and cynical comments about the human experience and psyche that one could imagine. While I’ve not seen everything that Pollack directed, I’m tempted to say that, from what I’ve seen, this is his best, most defining work. How this epic yet intimate film hasn’t been picked up by The Criterion Collection or Kino-Lorber I’ll never know, as it’s the sort of picture from a lost period of filmmaking, that feels as if it should be preserved for all of eternity. And while certainly a product of its time, it still tells a thoroughly timeless story that anyone could connect with. Jane Fonda was at her iciest here, and did an extraordinary job of communicating emotional turmoil with only her facial expressions. She’d go on to collaborate with Pollack again her career in The Electric Horseman, and while she’s responsible for any number of memorable performances (Julia, Klute, and Coming Home immediately come to mind), there’s a level of intensity to her work in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? that begins to feel overwhelming, especially during the final act.

An amazing ensemble including Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, and Gig Young were all on hand, dropping atomic bomb supporting performances which all compliment each other while still feeling wholly distinct, while the dusty images by the superb cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop (Point Blank, Finian’s Rainbow, The Driver, The Cincinnati Kid) reinforced the desperate, hardscrabble nature of the disparate group of characters. Pollack was never one to overplay his visual hand as a director, opting for a classical directing style with stately images and a minimal amount of fuss; this is one of his most organic feeling films, with the style feeling perfectly in sync with the narrative content. Johnny Green’s musical score, in tandem with various era-specific classics, ranged from jaunty to severe, lively to melancholy, while the film would become noted for its use of flash-forwards, especially during the extremely grim final sequences. If this review feels coy in terms of delving too far into the plot or the symbolism that the piece begins to form, that’s by design; this is one of those films that doesn’t seem to get talked about enough, and is completely worthy of reconsideration and rediscovery. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and would prove to be a critical success and box office hit, but really needs to be rescued by a boutique physical media company as it deserves major Special Edition treatment.


❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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