Before Americans began to have open and critical discussions with each other about taboo topics such as economic systems, one of the only ways that people were able to express their controversial views to a large audience was through art. It was a creative and ambiguous way to make a point about something that was usually strictly avoided in conversation. Film, of course, was an especially popular form of expression during the middle of the 20th century. Combining visual metaphors and rich stories, many films during this era were made to convey problems people had with society in a stylistic and accessible way.
When it was first released in 1969, the critically acclaimed film, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ received 9 Academy Award Nominations (winning one), a BAFTA award, and a Golden Globe. As a film with a plot that was a direct metaphor for the shortcomings of the capitalist system, its success was quite a feat in a country so proud of this very system. The film takes place during America’s Depression Era in a small ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier. A man, Robert Svyerton, discovers a dance marathon being hosted in the ballroom with a prize of $1,500 so he decides to join. The other contestants include an actress, a sailor, a farmer, and a woman named Gloria, who becomes Robert’s dance partner.
All of these people are incredibly desperate for the prize, and over the course of the next two months they dance non-stop, adorned with advertisements in the ballroom’s sickeningly cheery atmosphere to win it. Beneath the ballroom’s carnival-esque decorations and bright lights, the contestants grow completely drained of life. The physical and emotional harm they endure is ignored for the sake of the show. Tragedy, misery, and even death are all overlooked. Throughout the film, the dancer’s twistedly enthusiastic host feeds them the idea that this is the only way to get by. Their grueling and dangerous show will bring them great things, it will all be worth it, but in reality, this is not the case. It is a reflection of how life works for many people. How running around in circles will benefit no one but the host.
‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ creates a direct presentation of what could go wrong in a society structured like this. It is a horribly detailed portrait of misery, with stress and pain carefully built into every frame. This film’s harrowing build up and its purposely frustrating ending make the point excruciatingly clear: there is no winning in a race like this. As the audience, we watch, tense and distraught, as the hard working characters get no where, running in figurative and literal circles around the man they work for, believing this to be for their own personal benefit. It is a brutal, ugly, and fantastic story that is meticulously crafted to show us the unacceptable state we as people are still in.
Pollack, Sydney. 1969. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" ABC Pictures Palomar Pictures.
Andrea "The Schis" Schisler is a junior at Poudre High School. She has been held on suspicions of being a dork. She failed her driver's test twice and should be regarded as extremely dangerous. If seen, do not attempt to reason with her. It won't work. You can find more of her work here.