They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Directed by Sydney Pollack
ABC Pictures Corp.,
December 10, 1969 (US)
Screenplay: Robert E. Thompson and James Poe, based on the novel by Horace McCoy
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Bonnie Bedelia, and Red Buttons
Rocky (Gig Young): It isn’t a contest. It’s a show.
On a train downtown two kids rifle through their shiny new Sales Associate folders. Both have just been given amazing careers in emptiness at Terminal B at Chicago O’Hare. Low wages. No benefits. Golden nametags that promise nothing more than overtime and humiliation. The kids are white, black, African American, Mexican, Jamaican, Russian, Croatian, Indian, Pakistani. (Pick a green card). All have the luxury of paying their own way to the airport; paying for their own uniforms; paying the local union a fat chunk of their wages (but getting all the free pop they can drink to make their stomachs explode). They wear greasy red shirts, yellow pants, blue aprons, chicken-fried blouses. Their hands are stuffed in clear plastic gloves. Hair packed in tight fishnets. They smell of soiled mayonnaise, burnt ketchup, honey mustard, hot pickles and sweet relish. They sell dark tacos and hamburgers and sloppy cheese fries. Pocket pizzas, Poor Boys and party pretzels. They wash the floors and countertops, the toilet seats and dishes. They take change and ring up sales; do over-rings and count out cash. They are young and old and butt-ugly with pimples and bad teeth. But they are Associates one and all. Gainfully employed. Cheerful. Helpful. Double-mocha-meaningful. Welcome to the black euphoria. Welcome to the show. It’s all associated with nothing.
Rocky: Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!
Things could be worse. You could dance yourself to death. Get trampled by roller skates. Drown in a triathlon. Someone might push your face down (deep down) under an Olympic-sized pool. Slug you while you’re running. Shove a stick into your racing spokes. Roller Derby. Roller Ball. Row, row, row your boat gently down and scream. You were born to win. Born to make it. Body pumped to survive the fattest. The fittest. The first and last but-you’ll-be-no- where-in-between. You’re mom’s on welfare. Your dad on the dole. Your brother’s sucking lifer-face in prison. But you have never had nothin’ so you’ve got nothin’ to lose. Except yourself. So you do the two-step. The jig. Lift your skirt and let your heels fly. Samba. Cha-cha. Tango. Tap. Shimmy. Shake your body on to the ground. Tango. Foxtrot. Waltz. Do anything, anything you can do to last it all. Endure. Make it. Get by. Live! Your legs are swollen. Your ankles cracked. Your mouth is twisted from the sheer and utter agony of it all.
Rocky: Here they are again, folks! These wonderful, wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping. As the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues! The marathon goes on, and on, and on! How long can they last?
When the market crashed the smart ones jumped off the rooftops. Out of high windows. Sprang in front of heavy trucks, buses, trains. They put cold barrels into their mouths. Swallowed turpentine. They were the lucky ones. They who had it good for just one roaring Gatsby minute. Not the dustbowl children. The hill people. Cheeks smeared with coal the color of night. Dockyard workers and shipbuilders. Slaughterhouse workers who wrapped their feet in bloody newspapers to keep warm. Shirtless farmers. Lettuce pickers. Drifters and train-hoppers. Wanderers of the empty plains that led to empty mountains that led to empty cities that lay upon the sick and soupy harbors at the edge of nowhere. Coast to coast. East to west. Poverty and misery and hunger and a cold skeleton land that slammed every ugly door in every ugly face that ever walked this cruel and ugly earth. God please take away the hurt. Take away the pain. Take away the tired children and guide them somewhere. Anywhere. There’s a light just up ahead. A roaring fire. Supper. A bed for all. Dear god please guide them, take them home. This land is your land. My land. The buck stops here. You’ll never see it.
Gloria (Jane Fonda): Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting. They got it all rigged before you ever show up.
Having not revisited this film since seeing it as a young man in high school, I’m still amazed at how much it moves me. How much it moved me back then. What it taught me. About the world. People with no luck. People in pain. Shitty jobs. Shitty lives. Shitty smiles that still beam miraculously from shitty minimum wage misery. You can still see them on all the buses. The trains and subways. You can see their plastic badges. See their names printed in laser black. See their hats and uniforms and greasy shoes. Their heads pressed to the glass of a lonely El train in a lonely city. Just trying to sleep. Just trying to get home. Next time you see them in daylight you might even smile. Can I take your order please? The face in the glass could be yours.