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Cockfighter
(1974)
 

Director: Monte Hellman                           
Cast:
Warren Oates, Richard B. Shull, Harry Dean Stanton


From about two decades or so ago, producer Roger Corman's output of movies became, within a few years, the schlockiest of Hollywood schlock. Though there are certainly some exceptions to this rule, decent movies like Cheyenne Warrior and The Doorway are few and far between. Many people will find it hard to believe that during the '70s, Look at the cock between that guy's legs!Corman was actually concerned about having too big of an exploitation image, and actually made efforts to bring serious and less commercial movies to the American public. In fact, part of him back then could be called the Miramax of his day. He bought the rights to distribute acclaimed foreign movies like Cries And Whispers, The Tin Drum, and Derzu Usala, and actually managed to get respectably sized audiences for them. His New World Pictures' studio also occasionally made some serious-minded movies, such as I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, which was profitable. 

One of his other efforts at a more serious movie happened to be one of his few failure at the time. The movie was Cockfighter, based on the novel by Charles Willieford, who also wrote the screenplay. Starring acclaimed actor Warren Oates (previously in movies like Badlands and The Wild Bunch), and directed by cult director Monte Hellman (The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop), it seemed like a good gamble to make. But when the movie was released, nobody went to see it. Corman tried desperately to make it more attractive to audiences, including retitling the movie several times, as well as  editing in some exploitation footage from other movies so that the trailer would suggest something more exploitive, but it still didn't work. Years later, Corman had this theory for the movie's failure: "To my knowledge, no one had ever made a picture about cockfighting. Now I know why. No one wants to see a picture about cockfighting."

Now I'll admit that when I first heard about the movie years ago, I wasn't in the mood to see a movie about cockfighting. (Not that it would have made much difference - until recently, the movie was nearly impossible to find anywhere.) Still, the seeds of the presence of Hellman and Oates were planted in me back then, and the growth of curiosity went on slowly through the subsequent years. Then recently, when the movie was finally available again on video, I decided to give it a chance. At the very least, it would have some curiosity value. And what a curious little movie it is. It's a loose, rambling collection of many little things, That Warren Oates sure had one big cock!instead of being a more straight and conventional storytelling. At times the movie doesn't seem to know what it's supposed to be about. Though every so often the mishmash forms itself into a precious nugget, something that grabs you for the moment, even if it has little or nothing to do with what happens before or after its occurrence. Some people have called this movie a masterpiece; while I don't think it's nowhere near that, I think that a number of  viewers with a taste for the unconventional and a reasonable amount of patience will find digging through the mishmash worthwhile to get to those pieces of gold, which are precious.

Of course, there will be some people who will automatically be turned off by this movie simply because it shows (unfaked) cockfighting. Others may not want to risk seeing the gorier aspects of the sport, though the movie is remarkably blood-free until the final bout. As well, though the movie does contain cockfights, the central focus is not on the bouts themselves, but on the life of the individuals who participates in the sport, both in and out of the tournaments. Oates plays this individual, Frank Mansfield. When we're first introduced to him, we not only find out that he's been involved in this Deep South sport for some time now, he's practically obsessed by it. Part of his obsession comes from an incident that happened two years earlier, when his big mouth and impulsive behaviour cost him the chance to participate in the big state cockfighting tournament just hours before it started. From that point on, he took a vow of silence, vowing not to speak until he's won the coveted cockfighting medal awarded at that tournament. Though it's clear that he still has a long way to go, since shortly after his introduction we see him lose both his camper and car in a backyard tournament.

He also loses the squeeze that's been accompanying him for the past while, though to be more precise he simply abandons her, setting off on the road again with suitcase and rooster cage in hand to find the money to start over. Though Frank may not speak (apart from the occasional times we hear his thoughts as narration on the soundtrack), we're still able to learn a great deal about this intriguing character. He is completely obsessed with cockfighting, and credit must go to Oates for making this character's obsession so believable. Another actor may have given Frank's actions a wild energy, but instead Oates gives Frank a low key demeanour - this character is obviously weary after two whole years, but he is still stumbling on. His actions have become almost unconscious - he doesn't seem to realize the consequences of throwing out his family from the old homestead so he can have money on hand. Even when he shows affection to an old girlfriend who despises his sport, he can't help but mail her tickets to see him at the cockfighting tournament. More interesting is the fact that he seems to take some pride in his lifestyle; you can see some sort of self-satisfaction in his eyes whenever he communicates via his silence, something that is not only his, but that he's perfected.

At the beginning of the movie, Frank's narration explains why he does what he does: "I learned to fly a plane - lost interest in it. Water skiing - lost interest in it. But this is something you don't conquer. Anything that can fight to the death without making a sound... Well, the person who puts in the most and works the hardest is supposed to win, and usually that's the way it works out." With those words, I saw Frank for the rest of the movie as a sad figure, A big throbbing red cock!someone who really had to lower himself to find some form of self-respect and happiness. Seeing him struggle to win by doing things like using a razor blade to fake a crack in a rooster's beak come across as pathetic, and we realize Frank has freely lowered himself to be doing this. Animal rights activists will at least be happy to know that the sport of cockfighting is not glamorized in this movie. It's a world where bouts are fought secretly in motel rooms, in order to not get the wrath of the SPCA. You'll probably find yourself robbed several times, and you can't exactly go to the police and say you were robbed during an illegal bet. Even if you're not robbed and you actually manage to win, you'll probably find that the loser "forgot" his wallet, and cannot pay the amount that he owes you. Of course, the sport is even worse for the roosters, and we are given glimpses of the rigorous training and abuse they go through before the matches themselves, and there's always an axe nearby if they don't cooperate with their handler.

Hellman certain does a superb job when it comes to depicting this world; everything that is shown has the feeling that places like this exists, events like these do happen. He captures the rural South as being full of heat, peeling paint, and overgrown and unkempt backyards. The cockfighting bouts feel uncannily real, using hand-held cameras to capture the action, and cut with the sights and sounds of what seems to be a real group of spectators. So there's nothing wrong with what we see, but Hellman seems to occasionally have some problem knowing when to quit. Sometimes a scene goes on for too long, and other times scenes seem to end before they feel finished. And though the cockfighting footage looks to be indeed the real thing, it's sometimes hard to tell who is the winner (That is, if you can consider any one of the participants to be a "winner".)

Also, Hellman seems to be so eager to show us as much of this world and these characters as possible, the movie becomes unfocused. Though we are reminded several times that Frank is heading to that tournament, and will be there sooner or later, you can't help but think Franks' journey there isn't the most efficient that could be possible. Along the way, Frank strikes up a amicable Just before they let the birds loose, they engage in some "cock teasing"partnership with a fellow cockfighter (Richard B. Schull), he spends time with a former girlfriend (engaged to another man but still loving him), he goes shopping for roosters, he engages in private bouts, he meets other old friends and associates, he... there's too much of this stuff here. Don't get me wrong; a lot of these scenes by themselves are interesting. But with the movie insisting on showing one vignette after the other, you can't help but eventually wonder when the movie is going to get right to it. Though the movie is really about a man, you'll want to see him make some progress instead of constantly spinning his wheels all of the time.

If the story had been constructed in a somewhat (though not necessarily completely) more linear fashion, and then focused more of what we subsequently learn about Frank in vignettes that had more to do with him getting closer to his ultimate goal, I think the movie would have worked a lot better than it does now. But as it is now, it's kind of a mess, but a somewhat compelling mess. There are a number of good moments here, but I can't say for sure whether you'll have the patience to sift through some muck to get to them. One group I can certainly recommend the movie for is for people who have to watch an art movie for some reason, and they don't really want to. If they watch Cockfighter, they can let their minds drift and relax during the moments when the movie is going on about little consequence.

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Check for availability of original Charles Willeford novel

See also: Homegrown, Incubus, Shanks

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