‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ and The Spectacle of Human Suffering

This story is part of my weekly “Have you seen …” series where I highlight movies that I think are under-appreciated, misunderstood, or simply worth talking about. New entries are published every Wednesday. NOTICE: Spoilers follow.

A few days ago, I watched The Running Man for the first time — it was fine. As an action film, it was very 1980s in the way that only a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a character named “Ben Richards” could be. As a political statement, it fared slightly better: the film takes place after the rise of an authoritarian state that makes political prisoners compete on a televised game show known as The Running Man, during which they are gruesomely executed as an enraptured home and studio audience looks on in awe.

What other decade could this image have possibly come from?

The film’s messaging is clear enough to appeal to casual viewers but loaded enough to warrant deeper thought; in many ways, it presaged the fundamentally dehumanizing spectacle of reality television in which the lives of individuals are paraded and compromised in “entertain” (read: isolate numb, and exploit) an audience.

It was interesting to see a dystopian film so clearly presage a quasi-dystopian aspect of modern society, but what was even more interesting was to watch the 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? just a few days later and realize that none of this is in the slightest bit new.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is how much it seems to have been half-forgotten by the film community. In the year of its release, it was the 7th highest-grossing film at the American box office and received 9 Academy Award nominations (the most ever without a nomination for Best Picture), with Gig Young walking away with a statue for Supporting Actor. It was the fifth film from soon-to-be-legendary director Sydney Pollack and his first to receive wide critical and commercial attention.

And yet a cinephile today would be hard pressed to find many contemporary critics lauding the film, tracking its influence, or placing it anywhere near “best of” lists. I concede that the movie is not groundbreaking in its cinematography nor did it make huge waves conceptually, but if ever a serious critical re-evaluation was deserved for the movie, it would be now.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? is centered around a Depression-era dance marathon, a true-to-life event in which couples would dance continuously for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Aside from 10-minute breaks every couple of hours, the couples are in continuous motion — and the last one standing wins a then-life-changing $1500. The film offered a good showcase of the budding Jane Fonda’s talents, whose Gloria Beatty is forced to partner up with drifter Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) after her partner is disqualified at the last minute.

For the modern viewer, such an event seems like an antiquated curiosity: I was initially struck by the relative novelty of the idea and thought it an interesting form of entertainment in a time we rarely think of as having many divertissements. As the film goes on, however, it slowly stops becoming a period piece and start rubbing uncomfortable close with the present.

Sarrazin’s piggybacking off of Jane Fonda would, unfortunately for his career, end after this film

While most couples come for a chance at the big money, that’s far from the only incentive out there. Businesses and wealthy crowd members can “sponsor” certain couples, offering them a platry stipend for wearing branded jumpers; the Susannah York-played Alice LeBlanc has come hoping to get spotted by a big Hollywood producer; and the emcee (Gig Young) will often invite dancers up to sing a song or perform a bit, after which the audience throws coins in approval. What once seemed like a competition now more resembles a full-scale entertainment venture with curated narratives designed to engage an audience.

It doesn’t take long for the dance marathon to show its true colors to the attentive viewer: an opportunity for the wealthy to entertain themselves with the minstrelsy of the poor. In a world without economic opportunities, the next best thing is an opportunity at an opportunity — and the haves will pay big money to watch the have nots compete for a such a meagre possibility.

The emcee repeatedly gives private little speeches to the participants of the marathon, earnestly telling them of how important it is that they give the crowd something to believe in, something to rally behind. He understands that no one watches such a competition because they want to see dancing — they do so because they want to engage with human stories at a safe remove. They want to experience the passions and sufferings they lack in their own lives, but they’d much rather do so vicariously for a fee.

The obvious result of this is the fundamental dehumanization of the participants: after several weeks of competition, the dancers aren’t only physically beleaguered — they’re at risk of losing their own sense of humanity along the way.

Pollack showcases this phenomenon brilliantly with two of the most subtly grotesque sex scenes ever put to film. The first is between Alice and Robert; the former repeatedly asks the latter to kiss and undress her during one of the competition’s breaks, but instead of devoting herself to the actual sexual act, she repeatedly asks Robert to tell her about himself: his family, where he’s from, and so on. She is visibly aroused by these answers, aroused by the fact that Robert is a real person—moreover, that a real person would be willing to confirm her own reality through sex and conversation. With Robert stops things early in order to get back to the dance floor, Alice is suddenly reminded that she is actually a second tier being in this environment, merely a prop in a larger stage show. She never forgives Robert for this.

Later, Gloria, the most cynical (and therefore most composed) of all of the contestants, walks into the emcee’s office during a break and commands that he not touch her. She kneels down to start performing oral sex on him, reminding him several times not to speak and not to put his hands on her. It is the most clinical and impersonal that a consensual sexual act can be, but it’s Gloria’s own way of succeeding where Alice failed — Alice looked for confirmation of her own humanity through another participant, but Gloria understands that she can only do so through someone removed from and above the whole event. She despises the emcee for his cruelty, but has no choice but to use him to this end.

Though her screentime is comparatively scant, the character perhaps most relevant to a modern audience is Alice: she’s come to the contest not for money but for an opportunity at stardom. Over the course of the marathon, many supposed Hollywood bigwigs appear on the sidelines, ostensibly scouting for talent. Alice even arrives at the dance marathon in a gaudy dress — one that the emcee secretly steals and destroys because he worries that it destroys the idealized version of poverty his show is attempting to distill.

Alice, of course, gets no big Hollywood break from this. By the time the talent scouts arrive, the participants are emaciated and far from being able to sell themselves; the same competition intended to promote them in fact makes them unemployable.

The parallels here are not difficult to pick up on. How many scores of people are there today willing to perform unsavory acts of emotional or physical self-harm on reality TV, TikTok, YouTube, or any number of other corporate-controlled platforms in the name of achieving stardom? And yet, who has turned such an auspicious beginning into an Oscar? How long is the list of those who have emerged from their 15 minutes of fame with steady work under their belt? Sure, there are some, but does the success of those few outweigh the damage done to the many who failed?

The visual result of emotional destruction

Alice’s part in the film ends as she showers, fully clothed, repulsed by human touch, and mortally terrified of the bell that alerts dancers to return to the floor. She can no longer speak, or perhaps she no longer feels she has anything to say. She is penniless, without a partner, her only clothes have been ruined, and has sunk weeks into a contest that has landed her no prospects. The worst part of it all? She played her role in the competition perfectly — this is just what the results of that look like.

The film’s conclusion checks some key tragic boxes: Robert and Gloria learn that the prize money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and a half-murder/half-suicide follows. It’s emotional, but it only represents the logical conclusion of a scenario doomed to produce such results. When the emcee gives his impassioned speeches on how important the false narrative of dance marathon is to the audience, he’s absolutely correct—he is doing this for the audience, not for the dancers.

We like to think ourselves above abusive forms of entertainment — Shakespeare may have enjoyed a bit of bearbaiting, but we certainly don’t — and yet we love to watch suffering. Entertainers have known for decades that the only true cure for this cognitive dissonance is to craft a narrative for viewers that the entertainment itself is actually good for the participants: it gives them a chance at fame, fortune, a record deal, a spouse, and so on.

We lap up the opportunity to watch people’s lives be destroyed in this context because we’ve been convinced that it’s all worth the possibility of a prize — hell, even those who don’t make it out on top still have residual fame; surely that makes up for it!

The truth is that we will never run out of entertainers clever enough to convincingly repackage cruelty as grace. Whether it’s watching in delight as a contestant on a reality show terminally embarrasses herself in front of millions or cheering on a social media mob as it spews harmful vitriol at the victim du jour, the dopamine-fueling antics of today are no different than those we enjoyed nearly a century ago — They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was released in 1969 because it was relevant then and I’m talking about it now because it still is.

The lives of people are not toys to be played with, and any entertainment that does so is not entertainment at all. It’s exploitation.

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Haver of opinions. Lover of some things, hater of others.

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