Cinema Club: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Posted on June 18, 2013


Ask yourself a question.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

Desperation is a funny thing. Being from the gloriously comfortable area of Mid Wales, genuine desperation is something that I have never truly experienced. Sure, when Bethan died there was something approaching it, but it wasn’t the sort of desperation that millions experience daily, the desperation of not knowing any way out of circumstances that leave you questioning the validity of life. ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’, a 1969 film directed by Sydney Pollack based on the novel of the same, depicts desperation in its most base form, and also a scarily prophetic insight into modern day media enjoyment.

The film centres around a dance marathon during the depression in the USA, and the desperation of all involved to win the dance-off and the cash prize. All the while one of the main characters, Robert, is on/off questioned about a crime that isn’t revealed. The opening scenes of the film show a horse falling, and being shot in order to put it out of its misery. Key. The marathon goes and goes, all the while being encouraged and agitated by the opportunistic MC Rocky, eventually breaking 1000 hours. Couples drop out, contestants even die when macabre bleep test type challenges are introduced. The vulnerabilities of the contestants are exploited, and it quickly becomes apparent that the dance marathon is nothing more than a show designed to make money for Rocky. The cash prize promised practically amounts to zero, and in disgust Robert and his partner Gloria, played wonderfully by a beautiful Jane Fonda, drop out. Gloria hints at suicide, and it becomes clear that the crime Robert is guilty of is assisted suicide. Got all that? Good.

To me, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ is a film about the exploitation of misery and desperation. People who have reached their own perceived bottom are put on a stage for the enjoyment of a baying crowd. Their weaknesses are brought to the fore as they slowly go more and more insane, leading to more desperate tactics to stay relevant. This is human beings on a stage, exploiting sadness as opposed to helping it. Sound familiar? Well, it sounds like practically every reality TV show on the box these days. I can’t speak for every country, but Britain is choc full of these, and the vast majority of people adore them. Things like Jeremy Kyle, I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here and The Biggest Loser, they are watched by millions. Sure, you can argue that Jeremy Kyle is scripted, and I believe it is, but I’d wager that the majority of folk watching don’t want it to be or don’t believe it is.

Keeping on with Jeremy Kyle, what exactly is it? It is a show where people from a lower class of society are put on a stage to go deep into their issues, always intensely personal, for the entertainment of a baying audience. We watch, we laugh, we exclaim amazement at them, and go on about how we are above them. We are the audience in ‘They Shoot Horses…’, lauding the desperation and depression of ordinary people in order to get the cheapest of thrills and the smallest of self-validation. The same goes for reality shows like the aforementioned ‘I’m a Celebrity’ and ‘Big Brother’. We want people on these shows to go mad, to do something outrageous so that we can laugh at them, to lower themselves to a degree so we feel better about our own moral compass. Well, by watching and desiring this, your compass has no south.

‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ is similar to films like ‘Running Man’ and many others in this regard. Whilst on the surface it is a film about individuals attempting to win a competition through desperation, they have a very real underbelly about how low the morals of an audience can be dropped. We laugh and we laugh and we laugh, and our laughter drowns out our internal shame.

Still, good film mind.

Posted in: Cinema, Reviews