Frank Marshall (Warren Oates) is a master cockfighter but one prone to shoot his mouth off. A reckless boast results in the death of his best bird just before he was to win the Cockfighter of the Year Gold Medal. As a result, he has taken a vow of silence until he wins that medal, and struggles to rebuild his career.
After the critical success but commercial failure of Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman started work on Shatter (1974), Hammer Films’s entry into the kung fu genre, filmed in Hong Kong, only to leave the production halfway through. Returning to America, Roger Corman (for whom Hellman had begun his career in the 1960s) offered him Cockfighter, based on the novel by Charles Willeford. Willeford wrote the script (rewritten, uncredited, by Earl Mac Rauch) and appears in the film. Cockfighting, though illegal in forty-eight states, was a widespread sport, and Corman hoped to tap into people’s curiosity. Hellman and his crew (including director of photography Nestor Almendros, in his first film shot in the USA) filmed in secret in Georgia. Released on the drive-in circuit to protests and pickets from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Cockfighter never found much of an audience, despite several re-editings and retitlings (as, variously, Born to Kill, Wild Drifter and Gamblin’ Man), becoming yet another cult item in Hellman’s wayward career.
It received a better reception in Europe. In the UK, it played the Edinburgh and London Film Festivals and appeared on two critics’ best-of-year lists. Although Anchor Bay’s packaging (and other sources) claim that Cockfighter was banned in Britain, no formal rejection is shown on the BBFC’s website. It’s more likely that the film was never submitted on their advice as it was, and is, certain to fall foul of the Cinematograph (Animals) Act of 1937, which prohibits unsimulated cruelty or distress to animals for the purposes of feature films. Cockfighter would seem to have had some kind of limited release without a certificate, as contemporary British reviews do exist (e.g. The Monthly Film Bulletin, Time Out). Its most recent British showing to my knowledge was as part of the National Film Theatre’s Hellman retrospective in 1995 (which I attended).
Cockfighter is a film of considerable merit, but it’s one I feel very ambivalent about. On the plus side, it’s a fascinating and even at times blackly funny account of a quintessential Hellman obsessive hero. Warren Oates gives one of his very best performances – which, considering that he was one of the great American character actors of his time, is saying a lot. Apart from the flashback establishing his vow of silence, he doesn’t speak until the very end, though he does provide an occasional voiceover. Almendros’s natural-light camerawork is very lyrical, making a great deal out of a landscape of small towns, gas stations, not to mention the cockpits themselves. Hellman’s direction keeps the film moving: at under 90 minutes, there’s not an ounce of fat on it. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the setting, but I’m sure that Hellman gives us a truthful picture of a very macho world, one where women are sidelined. (Laurie Bird and Patricia Pearcy play the women in Frank’s life.) These are all good reasons to see it. But the film is a downer: however Hellman and his cast and crew depict it, its subject matter remains intensely sordid.
This brings me to the cockfights themselves. These were staged for the camera as, among other things, the outcome was scripted. For the most part the cocks were fitted out with rubber spurs instead of metal ones, so came to no harm. There were also special handling techniques so that birds would seem to hang dead but were in fact still alive. (Claire Denis used a similar technique in her 1990 film S’en fout la mort (No Fear No Die), which was also denied a British release due to problems with the Animals Act.) However, the cocks are clearly fighting – what the Act’s position on this is I will leave to lawyers to say – and in one case (the hotel-room fight) a bird did die. In the commentary, Hellman admits to the latter, though in his defence says that as the birds were trained fighting cocks, if they hadn’t fought in front of the camera, they would have fought in a pit somewhere else. Also, the scene where Frank beheads a chicken with an axe (in long shot) is not faked. Some gory insert shots in the final fight were not filmed by Hellman, but added by Corman. Hellman states that his goal was to replicate in the audience what he felt – horror, repulsion – when he first saw a cockfight. It’s fair to say that he succeeds. Needless to say many people will find these scenes distressing.
I don’t condone cruelty towards animals in the purpose of entertainment. So why am I recommending, or even watching, Cockfighter? It’s a key film in Hellman’s filmography, and remains one of his best. It’s a serious film about a distasteful subject. Between this and the likes of Cannibal Ferox, which uses unsimulated animal cruelty as cheap shock effects, I can draw a distinction. Ultimately, though I regret the harm done to animals in its making (as I do with Andrei Rublev, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and so on), and don’t enjoy watching these scenes, I do ultimately trust Hellman, Oates, Almendros and everyone else. I recognise their integrity…which is an undeniably personal call on my part.
Anchor Bay’s DVD follows on from the good job VCI made of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Cockfighter was shot open-matte but intended to be shown in 1.85:1. The DVD transfer is anamorphic, in a ratio of 16:9, as were the two VCI discs and also Anchor Bay’s edition of Iguana. Since Hellman personally supervised the transfers of all the DVDs, I’d suggest that this narrower ratio (with less letterboxing) is his preference. The transfer of Cockfighter is virtually perfect, with good strong colours and shadow detail, with only occasional artefacting which isn’t distracting. The soundtrack is the original mono, and perfectly serviceable. Michael Franks’s country score comes over well, though there is some occasional distortion. There are a generous twenty-five chapter stops, but unfortunately no subtitles. The layer change, eighteen minutes in at the beginning of Chapter 7, is awkwardly placed.
Cockfighter continues the run of excellent commentaries that Hellman has recorded for his DVDs. As with the two VCI discs, the commentary is moderated by Dennis Bartok of the American Cinematheque. Here, Hellman is joined by production assistant Steven Gaydos (who has an uncredited role in the film as the robber in the Richard Nixon mask). It’s an entertaining and consistently interesting commentary with few dead spots, and an obvious rapport between the three men.
Another bonus is a documentary, Warren Oates: Across the Border. Made by Tom Thurman in 1992, ten years after Oates’s death, it weighs in at 54 minutes, though unfortunately only one chapter stop. It’s a thorough look at Oates’s career, with plenty of clips and interviews with fellow actors, directors (including Hellman), critics (especially David Thomson), family and friends. As this documentary was made for TV, it was shot on video and is shown full-frame. The film clips are also full-frame – open-matte for the 1.85:1 films, pan-and-scan for those in Scope – but that’s a minor nitpick.
The trailer and TV spot are the same ones as on the DVDs of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. The only difference is that the TV spot (which bears the Born to Kill alternate title) is shown full-frame instead of anamorphic 4:3 as on the two VCI discs. There are also two radio spots, lasting 60 seconds and thirty seconds. The short print essay by Steven Davies is on the reverse side of the cover sleeve.
Cockfighter is definitely not for everyone, but is recommended to advised viewers. No complaints about the package that Anchor Bay have put together, which justifies their reputation for treating cult films like this one with the respect they deserve.