The Joy of Despair: "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
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January 1, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 1
Films in Focus
by Andrew Sarris
"THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?" has finally come to the screen 34 years after the publication of Horace McCoy's classic wouldn't-that-make-a-wonderful-movie novel. I read the novel myself back in the '40s and I have been busy casting it ever since. Nowadays it would be hard to improve on Jane Fonda as Gloria, Michael Sarrazin as Robert, Susannah York as Alice, Gig Young as Rocky, Red Buttons as Sailor, Bonnie Bedelia as Ruby, Bruce Dern as James, and Allyn Ann McLerie as Shirl. All things considered, I'm glad the movie was made even after a 34-year delay. Director Sydney Pollack, scenarists James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartroff have brought "Horses" to the screen with considerable intelligence, sensitivity, and affection, and they have avoided needless flourishes of stomach-churning pseudo-realism. John Green's subdued potpourri of pop music is particularly tasteful in its avoidance of the temptations of self-parody.
But 34 years is a long time just the same, and when the picture started on a lyrical note of horses and rural America and childhood and lost illusions and the credits not even completed I began to worry that they were about to mess up my movie and so I began to kibitz the writing and direction. First I wouldn't have illustrated the last line of the movie. The visual stuff, however beautifully photographed in slow-motion, makes the reading of the line itself superfluous. What everyone remembers about the line from the novel is its marvelously apt incongruity. Either do the line without the virtual horses or do the horse without delivering the line.
My next worrisome moment came when the dance marathon contestants were lined up in a gaudy torture chamber on the Pacific Coast. Susannah York's ultra-refined Jean Harlow imitator looked at first glance like a parody of the Glenda Farrell parody "Dames at Sea." For her part, Jane Fonda made her first entrance with frizzed hair and tough talk reminiscent of Barbrara Stanwyck in her "Baby Face" period. Oh-oh, I thought, high camp on the late, late show. Perhaps, the '30s are beyond serious restoration after all.
Then I began to worry about the overly explicit ex-post-facto ironies in the dialogue. (Happy days are here, again, folks, and, as President Hoover tells us, prosperity is just around the corner.) Gig Young's smooth-talking Rocky the promoter seemed too sympathetically satanic as the diabolist ex marathon. Hence, his final confession of being a financial as well as spiritual swindler falls flat as dramatic revelation, and serves instead as half-heartedly existential ritual in order to trigger (literally) the ultimate violence.
Also, the characters take on a doomed look from the very outset, and the very modern plot-killing flash-forwards drain away the last possibility of suspense in the ongoing action. Still, the seaside dance hall succeeds as a symbol fully as much as it failed in "Oh What a Lovely War." Nothing kills a symbol more effectively than stripping away its realistic raiment. Because the dance hall is so palpably real in "Horses," it reverberates with all the symbolic resonance of the Pacific Ocean pounding under the floor. The Pacific functions on so many levels for American writers as the fatal frontier beyond which only the great, cold silences lurk that Horace McCoy's choice of locale can never cease to evoke intimations of mortality and morbidity.
And finally there are the dancers themselves, slower and slower and slower, from the dance of love to the dance of death, the girls degenerating from clinging vines to clutching serpents, the men watching the last shreds of their manhood peeling off with shame and fatigue. I was moved, then shaken by the beauty and genius of Horace McCoy's metaphor. Two people, male and female, circling endlessly around a dance floor, the girl, tough and scared and vulnerable, spitting out "Christ" as an epithet at every new evidence that God did not exist. (Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin transcend the trashy romanticism of their portentously underdeveloped characterizations.) In the last stages of the marathon with death hovering everywhere, the survivors make us rejoice for all those '30s families that hung together through the incredible squalor of the period. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" is joyous entertainment even though or perhaps because its joy is the joy of despair, the only decent mood we can feel as we enter the '70s.
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