I Saw a Film!
This is a challenge. If you’re someone who is dead set against this kind of entertainment spectacle (and you likely should be) you don’t want to be watching this as the camera does not shy away from the carnage. Animals were harmed in the making of this film. Of course, chickens are a food product and we raise billions for slaughter every year, and there’s certainly not much that’s romantic about bullfighting or bull-riding despite our cultural heritages involving such spanning the globe. My heart aches for the poor donkeys who were lowered into mines back in the day, never to be lifted out again. Of course that was largely true of the men who worked those mines as well.
What we have here is a strange little gambler’s tale involving Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton in very tough and believable roles as southern bird men certainly trapped in a cycle of down-on-luck trailer life (though he has a cute lady who is not given much attention and literally given to Stanton as he wins the trailer!) and huckstering to raise the funds for a fighting bird. At one point he loses his trailer his truck and his lady in a bet to Stanton, but is still determined to win the prestigious cockfighter of the year medal. I had no idea such a thing even existed. Putting all the blood and guts aside Oates is as believable as can be in his role. He even swears an oath not to speak again until he wins. Consider that for a movie, your lead doesn’t speak.
So the gamble in this high stakes corner of repugnant humanity is all in the idea that these handlers are training the birds. Running them, improving their strength and power, looking into their eyes to see that killer instinct. My initial reaction is that aside from a few physical characteristics of an ideal fighting bird, much of the “training” is probably hooey. The birds are beautiful and it’s heartbreaking to see them killing one another, but it’s clear that there’s unlikely much of a system to regularly win on it.
Corman had his hands in this product, which has been banned in parts of the world despite critical acclaim. The main issue with the cockfighting isn’t that the birds naturally fight (males of many species are driven to) but that men make them deadly by adding weapons to their otherwise normally dull legs. The birds kick one another fiercely but without the steel spikes generally can’t cause much damage. With the sharp metal however the birds puncture one another rapidly and the main aspect of the horror unfolds. Lots of birds lost their lives in the making of the film.
There’s a cute short scene with a young Ed Begley Jr. who loses his favorite bird to Oates and ends up in quite a dust-up over it. It’s a believable transaction. The film takes place in Georgia and there are a lot of references to Flannery O’Connor’s hometown of Milledgeville.
There’s another difficult romantic aside with Oates coming to a head at the end when said romantic interest realizes her man is a kind of psychopath, careless about the birds and their casual use as gambler’s fodder. However, he interprets it as love just the same.
This is running free on Prime and you’ll never see anything else like it. Oates and Harry Dean are very impressive in these roles that had to be a bit of work. The tagline including the lady having a game about men is extremely misleading. The ladies have very little part in this film and mainly serve to show how driven to win the protagonist is. This is apparently based on a tale told in a book by Mansfield, the Oates character – who allegedly lived it.