They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (film)

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They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
They horses.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySydney Pollack
Screenplay byRobert E. Thompson
James Poe
Based onThey Shoot Horses, Don't They?
by Horace McCoy
Produced byRobert Chartoff
Irwin Winkler
CinematographyPhilip H. Lathrop
Edited byFredric Steinkamp
Music byJohnny Green
ABC Pictures
Palomar Pictures
Distributed byCinerama Releasing Corporation
Release date
  • December 10, 1969 (1969-12-10)
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.86 million[1]
Box office$12.6 million[2]

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1969 American psychological drama film directed by Sydney Pollack, from a screenplay written by Robert E. Thompson, and James Poe, based on Horace McCoy's 1935 novel of the same name. It stars Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia and Gig Young. The film focuses on a disparate group of individuals desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and an opportunistic emcee who urges them on.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released theatrically in the United States on December 10, 1969, and also premiered at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film became a critical and commercial success, grossing $12.6 million on a budget of $4.86 million, becoming the seventeenth highest-grossing film of 1969. Reviewers praised its direction, screenplay, depiction of the depression era, and performances (especially of Fonda, York and Young). It received nine nominations at the 42nd Academy Awards including; Best Director, Best Actress (for Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (for York), Best Adapted Screenplay, with Young winning for Best Supporting Actor. As of 2021, it holds the record for most Oscar nominations without having one for Best Picture.


Robert Syverton, who had once dreamed of becoming a great film director, recalls the events leading to an unstated crime. In his youth, he saw a horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery. Years later, in 1932 during the Great Depression, he wanders into a dance marathon about to begin in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California. Robert soon finds himself recruited by Rocky, the contest's promoter and emcee, as a substitute partner for a cynical malcontent named Gloria Beatty, after her original partner is disqualified due to bronchitis.

Among the other contestants competing for a prize of $1,500 in silver dollars are retired sailor Harry Kline; Alice, an emotionally-fragile aspiring actress from London, and her partner Joel, also an aspiring actor; and impoverished farm worker James and his pregnant wife Ruby. Early in the marathon the weaker pairs are eliminated quickly, while Rocky observes the vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants and exploits them for the audience's amusement. The arena also employs quack doctors to cover up the extreme physical and mental damage to the participants. Frayed nerves are exacerbated by the theft of one of Alice's dresses (especially when Robert discovers that Rocky himself stole it to create artificial drama to entertain the audience) and Gloria's displeasure at the attention Alice receives from Robert. In retaliation, she takes Joel as her partner, but when he receives a job offer and departs, she aligns herself with Harry.

Weeks into the marathon, in order to spark the paying spectators' enthusiasm, Rocky stages a series of derbies in which the exhausted contestants, clad in track suits, must race around the dance floor, with the last three couples eliminated. Harry has a fatal heart attack during one of the races, but the undeterred Gloria lifts him on her back and crosses the finish line. Harry dies as Gloria drags his body along the floor. After Harry's body collapses, Rocky assures the audience that he is merely suffering from heat exhaustion, and the unknowing crowd cheers for him as medics remove his corpse from the dance floor. The incident causes Alice to have a nervous breakdown, and she is dropped from the contest. Lacking partners, Robert and Gloria again pair up.

Rocky suggests the couple marry during the marathon, a publicity stunt guaranteed to earn them some cash, in the form of gifts from supporters such as Mrs. Laydon, a wealthy woman who has sponsored them throughout the contest. When Gloria refuses, he reveals the contest is not what it appears: expenses will be deducted from the prize money, leaving the winner with close to nothing. Shocked by the revelation, Robert and Gloria drop out of the competition. While packing up her things, Gloria searches for one of her silk stockings; when Robert finds it but accidentally tears it handing it to her, she breaks down sobbing.

The two leave the dance hall and stand on the pier, overlooking the ocean. Gloria confesses how empty she feels, and that she is tired of her life. She takes out a gun and points it at herself, but cannot bring herself to pull the trigger. Desperate, she asks Robert, "Help me." He obliges, and shoots her in the head, killing her. When questioned by the police as to the motive for his action, Robert responds: "They shoot horses, don't they?" Meanwhile, the marathon, having now gone up to 1,491 hours, continues with a few remaining couples.




In the early 1950s, Norman Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were looking for a project on which to collaborate, with Lloyd as director and Chaplin as producer. Lloyd purchased the rights to Horace McCoy's novel for $3,000 and planned to cast Chaplin's son, Sydney, and newcomer Marilyn Monroe in the lead roles. Once arrangements were completed, in 1952 Chaplin took his family on what was intended to be a brief trip to the United Kingdom for the London premiere of Limelight. During this trip, in part because Chaplin was accused of being a Communist supporter during the McCarthy era, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke his re-entry permit and the film project was cancelled. When the rights to the book reverted to McCoy's heirs sixteen years later (he had died in 1955), they refused to renew the deal with Lloyd, since nothing had come of his original plans.[3]

A script was written by James Poe, who wanted to direct. The rights were bought by Palomar Pictures, whose president was then Edgar Scherick. Scherick offered the project to the producing team of Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, who were enthusiastic, but felt the script needed a rewrite and that they would struggle to make the film for Scherick's desired budget of $900,000. They also had concerns about Poe's ability as a director and worried that he was too arrogant.[4]

Mia Farrow was interested in starring but Scherick felt her fee of $500,000 was too high. Eventually it was agreed to show the script to Jane Fonda, who was interested. Michael Sarrazin was borrowed from Universal to play the male lead. Scherick eventually agreed to raise the budget to $4 million. Martin Baum became head of ABC Pictures and Winkler says Baum arranged for Scherick to be fired. Baum wanted the second female lead to be played by Susannah York though Poe had promised the role to his then-girlfriend. Winkler says it was Baum who suggested Red Buttons and Gig Young, and pushed for Poe to be fired. The producers were reluctant especially as Jane Fonda liked Poe and had director approval. Winkler arranged for Poe to direct a screen test for Bonnie Bedelia with Fonda; the test did not go well and Fonda became less enthusiastic about Poe's capabilities as a director. Poe was fired from the project.[4]

The main candidates to replace Poe were William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack and Jack Smight. According to Winkler, Smight wanted $250,000, Friedkin wanted $200,000 and Pollack was willing to do it for $150,000. Pollack got the job.[4]

Fonda said she was originally unimpressed by the script, but her husband Roger Vadim, who saw similarities between the book and works of the French existentialists, urged her to reconsider.[5]

Meeting with Pollack to discuss the script, she was surprised when he asked for her opinion. She later said, "It was the first time a director asked me for input on how I saw the character and the story." She read the script with a critical eye, made notes on the character and later observed in her autobiography, "It was a germinal moment [for me] ... This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant." Troubled about problems in her marriage at the time, she drew on her personal anguish to help her with her characterization.[6]

Pollack had the script rewritten by Robert Thompson.[4]

Warren Beatty originally was considered for the role of Robert Syverton and Pollack's first choice for Rocky was character actor Lionel Stander.[7][8]


During filming there was an issue with Susannah York, who wanted a guarantee she would be able to make Country Dance. When this was not forthcoming, it seemed she would have to be replaced and Pollack suggested Sally Kellerman. However, York relented and agreed to make the film.[4]

The film uses the unusual technique of flashforward (glimpses of the future). It occurs during the last 18 minutes of the film, as passages appear foreshadowing the fate of Robert, just before the tragic ending. Costar Gig Young was noted for his deep characterization of Rocky: he patterned his character after the bandleader and radio personality Ben Bernie, and used Bernie's famous catchphrase, "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!", for the character in the film.


The film's soundtrack features numerous standards from the era. These include:

The ballroom band consisted of several professional jazz musicians, all uncredited. The band was led by Bobby Hutcherson and included Hugh Bell, Ronnie Bright, Teddy Buckner, Hadley Caliman, Teddy Edwards, Thurman Green, Joe Harris, Ike Isaacs, Harold Land and Les Robertson.

A soundtrack album was released on ABC Records in 1969.[9]


The film opened December 10, 1969 at the Fine Arts Theatre in New York City.[10]


Box office[edit]

The film was a box office success, grossing $12.6 million in the United States and Canda on a $4.86 million budget, generating theatrical rentals of $5.98 million making it the 16th highest-grossing film of 1969.[2][11] It grossed $28,000 in its opening week.[12]

Critical response[edit]

The film was screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition.[13] In the United States, the film was applauded for portraying the Depression era.

Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and named it as one of the best American movies of the 1970s:

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a masterful re-creation of the [dance] marathon era for audiences that are mostly unfamiliar with it. In addition to everything else it does, "Horses" holds our attention because it tells us something we didn't know about human nature and American society. It tells us a lot more than that, of course, but because it works on this fundamental level as well it is one of the best American movies of the 1970s.[14]

In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby said,

The movie is far from being perfect, but it is so disturbing in such important ways that I won't forget it very easily, which is more than can be said of much better, more consistent films ... The movie is by far the best thing that Pollack has ever directed (with the possible exception of The Scalphunters). While the cameras remain, as if they had been sentenced, within the ballroom, picking up the details of the increasing despair of the dancers, the movie becomes an epic of exhaustion and futility.[15]

Variety said, "Puffy-eyed, unshaven, reeking of stale liquor, sweat and cigarettes, Young has never looked older or acted better. Fonda ... gives a dramatic performance that gives the film a personal focus and an emotionally gripping power."[16]

TV Guide rated the film four out of a possible four stars and said,

Although it is at times heavy-handed, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a tour de force of acting. Fonda here got her first chance to prove herself as a serious, dramatic actress ... Young is superb in his role, a sharp switch from his usual bon vivant parts ... Pollack does one of his best jobs of directing, even if his primary strength lies in his rapport with actors. The look of the film is just right and Pollack skillfully evokes the ratty atmosphere amid which explosive emotions come to a boil ... [It] remains a suitably glum yet cathartic film experience.


In 1996, Steve Simels of Entertainment Weekly observed, "Sydney Pollack's dance-marathon movie has probably aged better than any American film of its time."[7]


Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Director Sydney Pollack Nominated [10]
Best Actress Jane Fonda Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Gig Young Won
Best Supporting Actress Susannah York Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay James Poe and Robert E. Thompson Nominated
Best Art Direction Harry Horner and Frank R. McKelvy Nominated
Best Costume Design Donfeld Nominated
Best Film Editing Fredric Steinkamp Nominated
Best Score of a Musical Picture – Original or Adaptation Johnny Green and Albert Woodbury Nominated
Belgian Film Critics Association Awards Grand Prix Sydney Pollack Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Jane Fonda Nominated [18]
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Gig Young Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Sussanah York Won
Best Screenplay James Poe and Robert E. Thompson Nominated
Best Film Editing Fredric Steinkamp Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles Michael Sarrazin Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Sydney Pollack Nominated
Fotogramas de Plata Best Foreign Movie Performer Jane Fonda 3rd Place
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [19]
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Jane Fonda Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Red Buttons Nominated
Gig Young Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Susannah York Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Sydney Pollack Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Jane Fonda Won
Best Supporting Actor Gig Young Won
Nastro d'Argento Best Foreign Director Sydney Pollack Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Best Film Won
Top Ten Films Won
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Jane Fonda Runner-up [20]
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Won [21]
Best Supporting Actor Gig Young Nominated
Taormina International Film Festival Golden Charybdis Sydney Pollack Won
Turkish Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film 3rd Place
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium James Poe and Robert E. Thompson Nominated [22]

Home media[edit]

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 1999.[23] It was later reissued on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on October 19, 2004. Kino Lorber released the film for the first time on Blu-ray on September 5, 2017.[24]


In later years, Turner Classic Movies observed, "By popularizing the title of McCoy's novel, [the film] gave American argot a catch-phrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on."[8]

The Muppet Show, Season 5, episode 515, featuring Carol Burnett as a guest star, featured a dance marathon with Gonzo as the MC, using the trademark "Yowza, yowza, yowza" as a catchphrase in a reference to this film.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ABC's 5 Years of Film Production Profits & Losses", Variety, 31 May 1973 p 3
  2. ^ a b "Box Office Information for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". The Numbers. Archived from the original on February 3, 2014. Retrieved February 25, 2012.
  3. ^ Persall, Steve (April 10, 2008). "Everybody knows Norman". St. Petersburg Times. Archived from the original on April 10, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e Winkler, Irwin (2019). A Life in Movies: Stories from Fifty Years in Hollywood (Kindle ed.). Abrams Press. pp. 525–726/3917.
  5. ^ Fonda 2006, p. 202.
  6. ^ Fonda 2006, pp. 207–216.
  7. ^ a b Simels, Steve (June 21, 1996). "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on September 13, 2020.
  8. ^ a b "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on 16 October 2007. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  9. ^ "John Green* - They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Discogs. Archived from the original on 23 June 2018. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  10. ^ a b "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Archived from the original on August 9, 2020.
  11. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs". Variety. 7 January 1976. p. 46.
  12. ^ "50 Top-Grossing Films". Variety. December 24, 1969. p. 11.
  13. ^ "Festival de Cannes: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Archived from the original on January 23, 2013. Retrieved April 11, 2009.
  14. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 16, 2011). "They Shot Horses, Didn't They?". Archived from the original on August 4, 2018. Retrieved August 4, 2018.
  15. ^ Canby, Vincent (December 11, 1969). "Movie Review--They Shot Horses, Didn't They?". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 16, 2017.
  16. ^ "Film Reviews: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Variety. November 26, 1968. p. 14. Archived from the original on August 4, 2019. Retrieved September 9, 2019.
  17. ^ "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". TV Guide. Archived from the original on September 18, 2012. Retrieved April 10, 2008.
  18. ^ "Film in 1971". British Academy Film Awards. Archived from the original on May 2, 2013. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
  19. ^ "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Golden Globes. Archived from the original on September 25, 2020. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
  20. ^ Weiler, A. H. (6 January 1970). "National Film Critics Crown 'Z,' Jon Voight, Miss Redgrave". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 4 January 2018. Retrieved 3 January 2018.
  21. ^ Weiler, A. H. (30 December 1969). "'Z' Voted Best Film of 1969 by Critics Here; Jane Fonda and Jon Voight Capture Acting Honor". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  22. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2010-06-06.
  23. ^ "They Shoot Horses, Don't They DVD review". Digitally Obsessed. Archived from the original on September 25, 2015. Retrieved September 20, 2020.
  24. ^ Rizzo, Francis III (August 19, 2017). "They Shoot Horses, Don't They Blu-ray review". DVD Talk. Archived from the original on May 18, 2019. Retrieved September 20, 2020.


External links[edit]