|Note, if you can when reproduced at this size, the "M" rating.
Remind me to blather at you about that later.
When They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released in 1969, I was ten and a half years old and my folks judged that I was mature enough to to bring along to a showing. For my part, I did some reading and research ahead of time (a habit to this very day) and decided that this was going to be much too distressing for me. My parents capitulated, and while they went to see Jane Fonda and Co. put through their paces by the decidedly evil Gig Young, I went to a showing of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It was the right choice at the time.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a distressing movie to watch even today. If anything, with our economy in the tank and people willing to whore themselves on endurance game shows like Survivor (in many ways the modern-day equivalent of the dance marathon), the picture has perhaps gained some bite since its original release.
At the heart of the picture is a fairly heavy-handed metaphor of "Life as a Dance Marathon." But it works, because it's the same metaphor that Gig Young is selling his paying audience, the same metaphor that Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst hawk to their TV viewers to this very day. Young shouts the most outrageous made-up stories into his microphone, fictions designed to illustrate that the American Way is to Persevere and Soldier Ahead through Tough Times, while the dancers on the floor below him below him suffer unimaginable tortures of the body and spirit.
They're doing it because it's Depression Era America, and these folks have reached the point of desperation. The Dance Marathon offers "seven meals a day" (but you must keep moving while you eat) and a roof over their heads, and whatever pennies the paying audience are willing to throw. The prize for the last couple standing is $1,500 -- except that there's an ugly secret about that prize.
At first, the audience is made up of lower-middle class hangers-on, who, as Young puts it, "come to see someone who is more miserable than they are." But as the marathon winds on and on for three, four, five weeks and the body count begins to pile up, the stadium begins to fill with more and more affluent types: the marathon becomes a Roman Coliseum with the unemployed and desperate breaking their bodies and their spirits as entertainment for a disenchanted Ruling Class.
There is something of the disaster movie in the things that the dancers are made to endure. Chief among these is "The Derby," a torturing ten-minute race designed to eliminate three couples and exhaust the rest. All are, more or less literally, struggling to stay alive in a world that wants nothing to do with them.
Gloria, the Jane Fonda character, is so jaded and tired of life even before she enters the marathon that every blow she suffers at Young's hands is another notch cut out from the angry, withered nutshell that is all that remains of her spirit. On the other hand, the Michael Sarrazin character seems only to be guilty of naiveté, and of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the end of the film, his will is as broken as Gloria's, and the favor that he grants her is one that he understands so completely that he seems only mystified that others don't understand it as well. "They shoot horses, don't they?"
Gig Young's villainy in this picture cannot be understated, and it's not a villainy of the abstract, comic-book type. His is the world of the down-and-outer who has found a solution to his predicament by capitalizing on the suffering of others; to him, everything that he does is justified as benefitting "the show," which of course goes on and on and on, like the road in the song Bilbo Baggins sings in The Lord of the Rings. On, that is, until your bones are broken and your heart gives out and there's no one to drag you along any farther. When Young steals Suzannah York's gown and make-up (not, by far, the worst thing that he does), he doesn't perceive it as a crime against a person: she was spoiling the show by looking too glamorous.
I find They Shoot Horses, Don't They? to be an almost mesmerizing film. Even when you know where it's headed, you can't take your eyes off it. Young is right: the suffering of others can serve as a balm for one's own suffering, and their struggle compels us to carry on the struggle as well. Unless, like Gloria, you've just truly taken as much punishment, more punishment than your body and soul can bear.
It's one of my favorites, easily earning a place somewhere in my top fifty. But I am glad that I waited until I was "grown up" to see it. At ten and a half years old, I wasn't ready to learn that sometimes, all your struggles are for nothing.
Like most everything else in our culture, the MPAA Ratings System has been both dumbed-down and corrupted from its original usage, and Stephen Spielberg is to blame.
It was Jaws and the reaction of parents who could not take responsibility for their own choice to bring Junior and Sis along for the ride that challenged and changed the rating system, and for no good reason at all.
I felt, and still feel, that the original ratings made perfect sense, much more sense than the current one, and that only morons could have misunderstood what it all meant.
I was ten and a half years old, and I understood it.
G meant "General Audiences." Now, this did not mean that the movie in question was necessarily a vapid children's entertainment about fairies and teddy bears. True Grit was rated G in its first release, and the film features a mass hanging, a graphic stabbing and more, things that would never make the cut into a G movie of today. But True Grit had a redemptive quality and was morally uncomplicated. It was understood then that children are not fools, and although some of the material may be disturbing, there was clear Good and Evil in the Universe, and Rooster Cogburn, although a drunk, was there to take up your cause.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a far less overtly violent movie than True Grit, but it recieved, and rightly so, the "M" rating -- For Mature Audiences Only. There is complicated sex, a brief hint of nudity, and especially moral ambiguity.
M rated movies were a good deal rougher than the PG rated movies of today. House of Dark Shadows was an M rated movie, and it was very rough indeed: in the climax, Barnabus has an arrow thrust through his chest from behind, and his entire abdomen erupts and bursts into the camera. In effect, the PG rating has become the G rating, and the G rating simply means "something so insipid that no one in their right mind would want to sit through it."
R meant Restricted, and Restricted did NOT mean, in those days, "you can sneak in if you wear lifts." The R rating, in those days, carried weight. But over the years, that R rating became so fuzzily defined that it essentially failed to have any meaning at all.
The Verdict, starring paul Newman, went out under an R rating. It was, clearly, a PG movie. Except that in one single scene, Jack Warden came on and said, "Fuck, fuck, fuck. . . fuckety fuck, fuck fuck fuck."
On the other hand, an egregious early example of the torture porn genre called Mark of the Devil, (featuring Herbert Lom in a stage of his career where he must have been starving and desperate for work) in which, among other acts of unimaginable cruelty, an attractive young woman has her tongue ripped out with a set of tongs, also went out as an R picture.
The R rating has, for some decades now, been the least trustworthy and most misleading rating in the whole system. I've seen pictures where I literally had to ask myself why it got an R. And I'm aware of pictures, unfortunately, that should have gone out with an X or at least an NC-17 (whatever that means), but didn't. Lion's Gate in particular is a studio that must be flooding the MPAA with bribes.
Where is all this going? Nowhere, I guess, unless it's a convoluted way of saying that the ratings system is deeply flawed, and more so now than it was when it started. Like so many "self-policing" attempts in all walks of life, it is not to be trusted, and the only person who can decide what's right for YOU to watch -- as I was capable of deciding even when I was ten and a half years old -- is YOU.