The Depression and the Thirties. Most Americans were hungry; careers were broken; people were at a loss to understand what had happened. Most of them had been brought up to believe that if you worked hard and well, and otherwise behaved yourself, good fortune would be your fate. Yet during the Depression, failure, want, and defeat visited multitudes. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an evocation of that time. Some have interpreted the movie as a parable about the human condition. Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel has been adapted for the screen by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson.
A peculiar phenomenon of the Depression era was the dance marathon. Contestants came from all over the country and from all walks of life hoping to win $1500 and perhaps fame as well. They came to places like the Aragon Ballroom in Ocean Park, California. Unwilling to lay down their lives for anything less than money and success, the contestants competed against the clock, against physical exhaustion, and against the other dancers in the marathon.
Among those in this particular marathon: Robert (Michael Sarrazin), a farm boy who allows fate to determine his destiny; Gloria (Jane Fonda), an embittered young lady who has almost run out of the will to continue living; Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia), a pregnant Okie, and her husband James (Bruce Dern); Alice (Susannah York), an aspiring actress who desperately wants to be discovered; and Sailor (Red Buttons), an aging man whose weak heart cannot match his energetic hopes. Supervising the contest is Rocky (Gig Young), the master of ceremonies who eggs the competition on with clichés of luck, perseverance, and victory. “Yow-sah, yow-sah, yow-sah!” at once poetic and rousing soon becomes a battle cry.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a technically proficient movie. Director Sydney Pollack draws excellent performances out of Jane Fonda and Gig Young. He keeps the pace accelerated so that we are completely drawn into the race. Cinematography by Philip Lathrop, sets by Harry Horner, and musical orchestration by John Green work together in a unity greater than the sum of the parts.