I have seen my share of bleak films, but the 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, directed by Sydney Pollack, really takes the cake. The film stars Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin as two individuals who take part in a dance marathon during the Great Depression, hoping to win a prize of $1,500. The winners are the last two people standing at the end. Jane Fonda’s character, Gloria, is a cynical and witty woman who is determined to the win the dance competition, no matter what the cost. Michael Sarrazin’s Robert is an aimless drifter with his head in the clouds. These two characters are partnered together and develop a bond that proves disturbing at the end of the film.
The other participants in this dance competition are a man (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia), a Hollywood actress (Susannah York) and an elderly sailor (Red Buttons). Ruby, the pregnant woman, dances to the point where her stomach gives her pain and it looks like she is going to give birth right on the dance floor. The elderly sailor, who states in the beginning of the film that he is 30, dances until he actually dies of a heart attack on the dance floor. (This gives new meaning to dancing yourself to death.)
However, these unfortunate dancers do not compare to the emcee of the dance competition. Rocky, played by Gig Young, is a morally bankrupt man who presents the harrowing ordeals of the dancers as a show that the audience feeds off of. The misery and exhaustion that the dancers are going through are a spectacle that Rocky presents to his audience. After the death of the sailor on the dance floor, Rocky quickly has his body whisked away and tells the audience that the sailor just suffered from heat exhaustion and is perfectly fine. He then goes into a spiel about the heroic acts that the sailor did during his military service to get the audience to sympathize and cheer for the dead man.
While watching this movie, I felt pity for the dancers as they were put through one disturbing dance event after another. There was one event where the participants had to shuffle as quickly as they could around the dance floor before time ran out. The dancers pushed each other and dragged their partners, who couldn’t stay on their feet, to stay ahead of the others. But this is not the worst part. Rocky eventually tells Gloria that the money from the $1,500 cash prize is being used to fund the event, so the prize itself is virtually nothing. This completely destroys Gloria and leads to a series of events that causes her to do something drastic.
I am a fan of Sydney Pollack’s films, and despite all the morbidity of this movie, I still enjoyed it. It made me think about how far we would go for money and what constitutes entertainment. In today’s world, with dozens of reality TV shows that show people at their lowest points, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to this film. For just a little fame and cash, where exactly is the line drawn? This question popped into my mind after watching this movie, and I can’t help but ponder the answer.