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They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

August 21, 2009

I watched They Shoot Horses Don’t They? two weeks ago and the following day started one of the most hellish weeks of my life when someone stole my wallet along with half the money in my bank account. Every day since then the phrase “well they shoot horses, don’t they?” has run through my head as I fell into a slump of depression, progressively made worse by having images of They Shoot Horses Don’t They? gallop along with it. Thankfully now the proceedings of getting my money back is well underway, most of my stolen goods are replaced, and there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel– however I still think of the film and feel a bit of despair as the thought of human suffering and desperation coagulates in my mind. Although made in 1969 about a period in 1932, the film’s theme of human struggle still holds a lasting and timeless affect today.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? tells the story of a group of hopefuls involved in a dance marathon (not dance-off) in 1932 during The Great Depression. The winning prize for the desperate group of mostly poor lower class citizens happens to be $1500, a mountain of gold and dreams come true or more importantly food and shelter for most of the contestants. However as the story unfolds, resulting in over 1,000 hours of dancing, despair and the ultimate breaking of human spirit takes place as the viewer begins to see that while the dance marathon is a means of survival for the contestants, it happens to be a form of cheap entertainment for the affluent audience members who are able to spare .25 cents to watch the desolation of people.

The rules are simple: feet in continuous motion at all times, you must dance with a partner throughout the contest or dance singly for no more than 24 hours, contestants receive 10 minute rest breaks and seven meals a day in which movement must still take place. Yet the marathon proves to be no easy task as many contestants become mentally and physically unstable and others discover the harsh truth to the mechanics of the contest that eventually destroy what little bit of hope they have left.

In order to boost ticket sales and audience enthusiasm the contest has wild card rounds where the already exhausted contestants must walk or practically run as fast as they can around the venue for ten minutes leaving the last three couples to cross the finish line when time is up eliminated. The scenes are depicted with close-ups of gritted teeth, sweating bodies, blinding spotlights fixed on determined and pained faces, and screams of agony from the contestants contrasted with long shots from the cheering audience who excitedly shouts and throws silver change at the contestants as if they are animals while indulging in candied apples, ice cream, and various other snacks. The film presents the exploitation that was common in the 1930s as emcee and contest promoter Rocky (Gig Young) reminds a hopeful Robert “they don’t give a damn if you win… they just want to see a little misery out there so they can feel a little better.”

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is not a perfect film by a long shot. It’s overly melodramatic, the use of non-linear narrative is a bit unfocused at times, and character development is weak as many of the contestant’s backgrounds are never explored enough to make the viewer cheer for them; nevertheless it’s not necessarily the plot that makes this film so affective. Instead its Jane Fonda and Micahel Sarrazin’s portrayal of their character’s Gloria and Robert’s anger, sadness, and acceptance of defeat that life has brought them along with director Sydney Pollack’s vision and the editing of Fredric Steinkamp that ultimately paints the picture of misfortune and anguish.

Nonetheless the film runs over two hours with scenes that appear to have no additional use to the story, yet every single frame and shot is needed to understand the decisions made by each character as more long grueling days and adverse obstacles are delivered to them. The tragedy of dance marathons almost seems laughable in today’s society where people are willing to eat cow penis/excrement on “Fear Factor” or stay awake for days away from human contact on Solitary for pure sport, fame, or cash. However dance marathon’s peculiar truth still survives in books, newspaper articles, and documentaries pointing out that every example of brutality in the film isn’t just exaggerated but instead toned down. History Link points out that nearly every American city of 50,000 people or more had atleast one dance marathon in their heyday with the average attendance for an evening being 2,500 people, who all received gratification from watching others worse off than themselves in order to gain a feeling not common during the Depression, superiority.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? is just one of those films that sticks with you. It reminded me that in 1930s America no competition that offered money was to be taken lightly in order to indulge in spending sprees, new cars, or a Wii but it was a chance at having food, a house, clothes to wear, or plain and simple another day of life. The film left me with a deep sadness for humanity as I began to question how far would I go in a time of pure desperation.


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