They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Written by Robert E. Thompson and James Poe
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Capitalism and the constant need to keep working/hustling/grinding feels like it is at a fever pitch. The divide between the Haves and Have Nots has grown in the United States to a historical level, worsened by inflation and stagnant wages. However, a growing number of labor unions are forming, and workers in the service industry are becoming emboldened to stand up for themselves, often collectively. That gives me some hope while I worry the powers that be will undermine these movements every day. All of these events parallel the Great Depression, one of the bleakest periods in American history. People were desperate for food, shelter, and any money they could get. This constant living on the edge of death and survival led to dance marathons, sometimes going on for days or weeks, where couples attempted to remain moving and conscious. The last couple standing would win a cash prize, but along the way, many people would be physically and psychologically harmed by the strain. Writer Horace McCoy was a bouncer during the Depression and witnessed these marathons, which inspired him to write the novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Robert (Michael Sarrazin) lives on the West Coast, drifting there from Tennessee because of the Depression. While walking along the Santa Monica Pier early in the morning, he sees a sign promoting a dance marathon. Robert wanders in and is quickly recruited by the emcee Rocky (Gig Young) as a partner for Gloria (Jane Fonda), whose previous partner is ill. We get to know other contestants along the way, like Alice (Susannah York), a London actress desperate to get spotted by a casting agent. Harry (Red Buttons) is a retired aging sailor who needs the money. James (Bruce Dern) and Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) are Okies who claim to have won many of these and need the money as their first child is on the way. Alice remains the most elusive, fueled by past traumas that have made her misanthropic and quick to lash out. Through this competition, Robert comes to see the true horror of all of this and life in general.
They Shoot Horses is one of those films that does a perfect job of using metaphor. The dance marathon is a microcosm of life in a “survival of the fittest” capitalist system. The marathon structure consists of two hours of dancing followed by 10 minutes breaks and then back on. Food is eaten while you dance, and one partner can fall asleep as long as the other holds them up, keeping their knees from touching the floor. Multiple times, to reduce the number of competitors, a race is held where the last three couples to cross the finish line are automatically kicked out. There’s even a sponsorship system where audience members bet on teams and provide them with clothing.
Rocky, the emcee, is focused on providing drama and entertainment for the audience who pay to sit in the stands and watch. A team of quack doctors has been hired to cover up serious physical injuries and mental breakdowns. This is exacerbated by the fact that Rocky knows the audience wants to see couples pitted against each other; in the same way, the modern reality television series shapes narratives to create conflict and push people to their mental limits. This element classifies They Shoot Horses as existential horror, in my opinion, a reflection on the nightmarish aspects of life. Rocky emphasizes to the audience that this is such a grand display of luck and skill when in reality, the entire production is manipulated from the moment players sign up. Certain people are kept in the game because of the drama they provide, while others are bumped out when they show too much of the ugly truth.
Alice is one of the most dramatic victims of this manipulation. We see her in a beautiful white dress; her hair and makeup are done to perfection, and she is wearing jewels when introduced. During one of the breaks, she discovers a particular dress is missing from her suitcase and becomes desperate to find it. Naturally, Alice believes one of the other women stole it out of jealousy, and it triggers her descent into madness. All of this is exacerbated by the interpersonal drama created by Rocky between Alice and her partner Joel and Robert and Gloria. Partners are swapped, and Robert discovers Rocky stole the dress because he envisioned Alice’s story as one of a dramatic downfall. Pushing people towards psychosis is not something you can control, so Alice eventually has a complete breakdown, and Rocky has her quietly removed from the competition. When Robert confronts him, Rocky responds that Alice’s madness was “too real” for the audience.
Toxic positivity is a reasonably common ideology I encountered in Tennessee. I have no doubt this is seen throughout the United States. The basic idea is that you must always remain positive no matter how horrific the conditions of your survival become. I saw this often among my fellow teachers, especially those heavily indoctrinated by Christian fundamentalism, a stew born out of white supremacy and rabid capitalism. You must always keep a smile on your face and show happiness to others. Just keep swimming. These were sentiments I would often hear in the face of real mental and physical anguish being felt by educators I worked with. If you express sadness, anger, or depression, you are being ungrateful for what you have. There’s certainly a line between genuine expressions of distress and people stuck in a negative mindset, but for the people I worked with, that was so often blurred that any “negative” expression was bad.
Paying attention to the lyrics of the popular music played during They Shoot Horses, very familiar standards I’m sure you’ve heard before, they constantly push that positivity in the face of squalor. “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” When the Great Depression is brought up in popular media, it’s always framed as noble people facing difficulties steeling themselves and overcoming the challenge, and oh, isn’t that so admirable, and we should be like that too? But, of course, the robust American socialist worker movements and the depth of horror that the Depression caused are erased, and we don’t talk about that.
Gloria gives Robert a few pieces of information that fill in her background, but the details are obscured. We know she was an aspiring actress, the reason she came to Hollywood. It didn’t work out, and Gloria has a clear aversion to almost everybody, especially Rocky. The minute she sees him, Gloria sizes him up and accurately determines he’s another slick grifter who wants to exploit her for his gain. There aren’t many options for her, so she feels forced to go along because maybe she’ll get that cash prize. To reach the golden ring, she’s forced to witness people going through total mental collapse and, in one brutal race, carrying a man who is having a heart attack and dying while she tries not to get eliminated. It’s not a leap to imagine her time in Hollywood involved her being offered small parts in exchange for sexual favors, which she likely went along with, only to find the promises were hollow. The one thing that elicits Gloria’s most significant anger is seeing pregnant Ruby, and she admonishes the woman for bringing a child into such a miserable, hopeless world. Rocky, of course, urges on this drama because the audience loves it.
These people are allowed to stop whenever they want. That’s easier said than done when you keep investing more time in this marathon than looking for a job elsewhere. When you’ve sunk a week or more into the competition, you’ll feel such a horrible sense of guilt and waste to walk away now. The only people we see leave with a smile on their faces are people that drop out on day one. They know this isn’t going to be worth it, so they are off to seek opportunities elsewhere for the ones who remain; for Gloria, what else is out there. She’s come to the marathon because the world chewed her up and spit her out, a rough husk of who she once was. You will know the ending before it happens.
The opening credits play over a scene that serves as foreshadowing, and throughout the film, scenes jump ahead to Robert being questioned about what happened. How you feel about that climax will say a lot about you and how you see life. Personally, I wept at that last moment, and so did my wife, someone who doesn’t show much emotion while watching films. Jane Fonda delivers one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, capturing the pain and tragedy of Gloria and so many other people’s lives who can’t stop moving. Life does not have to be painful, but humanity has structured it that way so a small group can benefit greatly. Their benefit exists alongside mass human suffering as people’s labor is exploited, and their connections with others are severed intentionally through powerful institutions fomenting racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, religious prejudice, etc. The drama is manufactured to keep us under the heel, never able to rest else we lose our home and three square meals a day. Existence under this system is like living in an open-air prison, and there are few methods of escape. They Shoot Horses presents the harsh reality that Rocky was so intent on hiding from his easily entertained audience, these are honest truths that hurt, but we have to see them. We have to learn from them. We have to change existence for the masses of life on this planet is simply not worth living for the majority.