They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Information

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1969 American drama film directed by Sydney Pollack. The screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson is based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Horace McCoy. It focuses on a disparate group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic MC who urges them on to victory.


Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who once dreamed of being 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, 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. He is recruited by MC (Master of Ceremonies) Rocky (Gig Young) as a substitute partner for a cynical malcontent named Gloria (Jane Fonda), when her original partner is disqualified due to an ominous cough.

Among the other contestants competing for a cash prize of $1500 are Harry Kline (Red Buttons), a middle-aged sailor; Alice (Susannah York), a would-be Jean Harlow with delusions of grandeur, and her partner Joel (Robert Fields), an aspiring actor; 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. Already 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 remaining contestants, clad in track suits, must race around the dance floor, with the last three couples eliminated. Harry suffers a fatal heart attack during one of these, and an undeterred Gloria lifts him on her back and crosses the finish line. It is clear that Harry dies as Gloria drags him. Alice, witnessing this at the end of her rope, suffers a breakdown and is taken away. Robert and Gloria, now without partners, once 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 to be on the surface. Numerous expenses will be deducted from the prize money, leaving the winner with close to nothing. Shocked by the revelation, the couple drops out of the competition.

Distraught and despondent, Gloria confesses how empty inside she is. She 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. Questioned by the police as to the motive for his action, Robert responds: "They shoot horses, don't they?" This final line of dialogue, echoing the film's title, is the "coup de grāce": the "blow of mercy." In committing assisted suicide, Robert is found guilty of murder and sentenced to be executed. His fate is not explicitly stated or depicted, but it is suggested through the film's use of flash-forwards and symbolism. The marathon continues with its few remaining couples, including James and Ruby. The eventual winners are never revealed.


  • Jane Fonda as Gloria Beatty
  • Michael Sarrazin as Robert Syverton
  • Susannah York as Alice LeBlanc
  • Gig Young as Rocky
  • Red Buttons as Harry Kline
  • Bonnie Bedelia as Ruby
  • Bruce Dern as James
  • Allyn Ann McLerie as Shirley
  • Robert Fields as Joel Girard
  • Michael Conrad as Rollo
  • Al Lewis as Turkey
  • Madge Kennedy as Mrs. Laydon


In the early 1950s, Norman Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were looking for a project on which they could 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 was aborted. 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.

When Sydney Pollack signed to direct the film, he approached Jane Fonda with the role of Gloria. The actress declined because she felt the script wasn't very good, but her then-husband Roger Vadim, who saw similarities between the book and works of the French existentialists, urged her to reconsider.

Meeting with Pollack to discuss the script, she was surprised when he asked for her input. She read the novel 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." Experiencing problems in her marriage at the time, she drew on her personal anguish to help her with her characterization.

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

In later years, Turner Classic Movies observed, "By popularizing the title of McCoy's novel, [the film] gave American argot a catchphrase that's as recognizable today as when the movie first caught on." The title has been imitated in various media having little relation to the plot or themes of the original film. Episodes of the television series Happy Days, Webster, Due South, Family Matters, Sex and the City, Designing Women, Gilmore Girls, Class of '96, Sledge Hammer!, Ally McBeal and Gossip Girl have used variations of the phrase for their titles. Humorist Patrick F. McManus titled one of his story collections They Shoot Canoes, Don't They?. Australian rock band TISM's 1990 album Hot Dogma includes a song titled "They Shoot Heroin, Don't They?" A song named after the film is included on Canadian indie rock band Apostle of Hustle's 2004 debut album, Folkloric Feel. An indie rock band from Fort Myers, Florida were named They Shoot Poets (Don't They?), and the story served as the inspiration for a hit 1976 single by the band Racing Cars. A Vancouver band named themselves after the film.

The film is notable for using the technique of flashforwards (glimpses of the future), which are not commonly used in motion pictures, which are used towards the last 18 minutes of the film as passages appear denoting the fate of Robert just before the tragic shock ending. In addition, it saw costar Gig Young go deep into the role of Rocky: he patterned his character after the great show MC/composer Ben Bernie, who was famous for the catch phrase, "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!" which was used in the film.


The film's soundtrack features numerous standards from the era. These include:

  • "Easy Come, Easy Go" by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman
  • "Sweet Sue" by Victor Young and Will J. Harris
  • "Paradise" by Nacio Herb Brown and Gordon Clifford
  • "Coquette" by Green and E. Y. Harburg
  • "The Japanese Sandman" by Richard A. Whiting and Ray Egan
  • "By the Beautiful Sea" by Harry Carroll and Harold R. Atteridge
  • "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
  • "The Best Things in Life Are Free" by Buddy G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson
  • "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" by Jay Gorney and E. Y. Harburg
  • "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store)" by Harry Warren, Billy Rose, and Mort Dixon
  • "California, Here I Come" by Buddy G. DeSylva, Joseph Meyer, and Al Jolson
The ballroom band consisted of several real jazz musicians, all uncredited. The band were 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.

A soundtrack album was released on ABC Records in 1969. It has never been reissued on CD.

Box Office

The film was a box office success, grossing $12,600,000 on a $4.86 million budget, making it the 16th highest-grossing film of 1969.

Critical reception

The film was screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, but was not entered into the main competition. In the United States, the film was applauded for recapturing the Depression era.

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."

Variety said, "Puffy-eyed, unshaven, reeking of stale liquor, sweat and cigarettes, 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."

TV Guide rates the film four out of a possible four stars and comments, "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."

Time Out London says, "The acting is strident and overblown, the narrative technique gimmicky and obvious, and the implication that the competitors' situation is a microcosm of a wider-reaching American malaise (though safely distanced by the period and the flash-back-and-forth narrative technique) rather pretentious."

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

Awards and nominations

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

  • Academy Award for Best Director (nominee)
  • Academy Award for Best Actress (Jane Fonda, nominee)
  • Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Gig Young, winner)
  • Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Susannah York, nominee)
  • Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Harry Horner, Frank McKelvy, nominees)
  • Academy Award for Best Costume Design (nominee)
  • Academy Award for Best Film Editing (nominee)
  • Academy Award for Best Score (nominee)
  • Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (nominee)
Golden Globes
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama (nominee)
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Director - Motion Picture (nominee)
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama (Fonda, nominee)
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture (York, nominee)
  • Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture (Young, winner; Red Buttons, nominee)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Fonda, nominee)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (York, winner)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Young, nominee)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (nominee)
  • BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer (Sarrazin, nominee)
Other awards
  • New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (Fonda, winner)
  • Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (nominee)
  • Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium (nominee)
  • National Board of Review Award for Best Film (winner)

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