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
Produced byRobert Chartoff
Irwin Winkler
Screenplay byRobert E. Thompson
James Poe
Based onThey Shoot Horses, Don't They?
by Horace McCoy
Music byJohnny Green
CinematographyPhilip H. Lathrop
Edited byFredric Steinkamp
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 tragedy film[3] directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia and Gig Young. The screenplay, adapted from Horace McCoy's 1935 novel of the same name, was written by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson. The film focuses on a disparate group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic emcee who urges them on.

The film premiered at the 23rd Cannes Film Festival and was released theatrically in the United States on December 10, 1969. Upon release it was a critical and commercial success, grossing $12.6 million on a budget of $4.86 million, becoming the seventeenth highest grossing film of 1969. Critics praised its direction, screenplay, depiction of the depression era, and performances, most notably Fonda's, which marked a significant turning point in her career. It received nine nominations at the 42nd Academy Awards including Best Director, Best Actress (for Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (for York), and Best Adapted Screenplay and winning Best Supporting Actor (for Young). It holds the Academy record for most nominations without one for Best Picture.


Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), 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, near Los Angeles. Robert soon finds himself recruited by Rocky (Gig Young), the contest's promoter and emcee, as a substitute partner for a cynical malcontent named Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda), after her original partner is disqualified because of an ominous cough.

Among the other contestants competing for a prize of $1,500 in silver dollars are retired sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); Alice (Susannah York) and her partner Joel (Robert Fields), both aspiring actors; and impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). 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. Frayed nerves are exacerbated by the theft of one of Alice's dresses 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 him. Alice, who witnesses his death, has a mental breakdown and is taken away. 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 (Madge Kennedy). 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 is inside and tells Robert that she wants to kill herself, but when she takes out a gun and points it at herself, she cannot pull the trigger. Desperate, she asks Robert, "Help me." He obliges, and shoots her in the head, killing her. Questioned by the police as to the motive for his action, Robert responds: "They shoot horses, don't they?"

The marathon, having now gone on for more than 1,491 hours, continues with its few remaining couples, including James and Ruby. The eventual winners are not revealed.




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 McCoy died sixteen years later and the rights to the book reverted to his heirs, they refused to renew the deal with Lloyd, since nothing had come of his original plans.[4]

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.[5]

Mia Farrow was interested in starring but Scherick felt her fee of $500,000 was too expensive. 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.[5]

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.[5]

Jane Fonda says 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.[6]

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.[7]

Pollack had the script rewritten by Robert Thompson.[5]

Warren Beatty originally was considered for the role of Robert Syverton and Pollack's first choice for Rocky was character actor Lionel Stander.[8][9]


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.[5]

The film is notable for using the technique of flashforwards (glimpses of the future), not commonly used in movies. They are used in the last 18 minutes of the film, as passages appear denoting the fate of Robert, just before the tragic shock 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.[10]

A soundtrack album was released on ABC Records in 1969.[11]


Box office[edit]

The film was a box office success, grossing $12.6 million on a $4.86 million budget, making it the 16th highest-grossing film of 1969.[2]

According to Variety the film earned $5.98 million in theatrical rentals in North America.[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 cigarets, 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.[17]

In 1996, Entertainment Weekly observed, "Sydney Pollack's dance-marathon movie has probably aged better than any American film of its time."[8]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Academy Awards

The film won one Academy Award and was nominated in eight other categories.[18]
The film holds the record for being nominated for the most Academy Awards (nine) without receiving a nod for Best Picture.

Golden Globes
Other awards

Cultural influence and legacy[edit]

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."[9]

The title has been imitated in various media for topics having little relation to the plot or themes of the original film.

The Rolling Stones used the film set as a rehearsal space, prior to a pair of shows at The Forum as part of their 1969 U.S. tour.[19]

Welsh band Racing Cars recorded a song called "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" inspired by this movie.

The video for Jack's Mannequin's "Dark Blue" pays homage to the film by portraying a lengthy dance marathon; at the end of the video it is revealed that the eliminated couples are taken to a pier similar to the one at the end of the film and forced to jump into the sea.

Home media[edit]

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released to DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on October 19, 2004, as a Region 1 widescreen DVD. Kino Lorber released the film on Blu-Ray on September 5, 2017.

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. Retrieved February 25, 2012.
  3. ^ Danks, Adrian (22 June 2015). A Companion to Robert Altman. p. 51. ISBN 9781118288900.
  4. ^ Steve Persall, "Everybody knows Norman" Archived 2008-04-10 at the Wayback Machine, St. Petersburg Times, April 10, 2008
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Jane Fonda, My Life So Far, Random House, 2005, pp. 202
  7. ^ My Life So Far, pp. 207–216
  8. ^ a b "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  9. ^ a b "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  10. ^ "They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)". Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  11. ^ "John Green* - They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Discogs. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  12. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 46
  13. ^ "Festival de Cannes: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Retrieved 2009-04-11.
  14. ^ "THEY SHOT HORSES, DIDN'T THEY?". Retrieved 4 August 2018.
  15. ^ "Movie Reviews". Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  16. ^ "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Variety. December 31, 1968. Retrieved September 9, 2019.
  17. ^ "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  18. ^ "NY Times: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-27.
  19. ^ "The Rolling Stones". Ethan Russell Photographs. Retrieved 23 June 2018.

External links[edit]