Cockfighter (1974)

From Cockfighter, Monte Hellman’s best movie.

I was quite surprised a few months ago while leafing through the New York Times Sunday Arts section, to see that director Monte Hellman was not only still alive, but at age 78 has a new movie coming out (called Road To Nowhere, it hasn’t been released yet, if it gets a theatrical release it will be a minor miracle).
Hellman’s career consists of twenty films of varying quality, and I must admit, I don’t quite get what many consider his masterpiece– Two Lane Blacktop (1971), a fairly dull, counter culture road movie in the style of Easy Rider that follows Dennis Wilson and James Taylor around in some hopped up muscle cars (the cars are the best part of the film). But Hellman made one of my favorite movies of the 70’s, a peculiar thing called Cockfighter, based on the novel by Charles Willeford (who also wrote the screenplay), whose plot line it follows closely. Starring the always great Warren Oates, with a supporting cast led by Harry Dean Stanton, Laurie Bird, and in lesser roles Ed Begely Jr., Troy Donahue, Richard B. Shull, and even a cameo by Willeford himself, Cockfighter is a genre film without a genre. The story revolves around a professional game cock fighter who has just lost everything including his car, trailer and birds, and has vowed not to speak until he wins the coveted award for best cockfighter (there really was such a thing, probably still is in Puetro Rico and the Philippines where cockfighting is still legal).
It is one of Oates best performances, and the film captures the hidden world of pro cockfighting circa ’74 in all its gory, southern white trash glory. Like very few other movies (I can think of Payday and Walking Tall, both covered in recent posts), it capture the south at a strange and pivotal time, when things were going from redneck to suburbia fast. I was a teenager in Florida at the time, and I can attest to the accuracy of the characters. The world it shows is long gone, put to death by Federal legislation that banned all cockfighting (it was still legal in parts of Louisiana and Arizona until the late 90’s). All the extras and bit players look like real people, not actors, the settings are real, even the bird fights look real (and probably were, it’s hard to get chickens to act).
While I’m not advocating that the laws against blood sports like cockfighting be rescinded (although some of the mixed Martial Arts you see on TV are almost as bloody), you can loathe the subject matter and still enjoy this movie for what it is. A look at a piece of the underside of Americana long gone. Cockfighter really is a great, forgotten movie. It deals with a man and his personal code of honor, and about living with and up to that code. And about keeping your mouth shut. I’m not sure who the producers of this film envisioned as their audience, but it is a riveting film. I first saw it at a drive in when it came out in ’74, and re-watching it on DVD all these years later, it really holds up, in fact, it seems to have improved with age. Oates was one of the most under rated actors of his generation, he never gave a bad performance, but Cockfighter was one of his low budget best. Harry Dean Stanton, as his nemesis is equally great, and also quite believable in his role (as an aside, I wish they didn’t kill off his character in the HBO polygamist soap opera Big Love, he was perfect as the old time Mormon prophet). You can rent Cockfighter from Netflix or buy it on DVD. I think it’s Monte Hellman’s real masterpiece.
Addendum: Check out this documentary on Screamin’ Lord Sutch with some very rare footage of Joe Meek over at thee Bedazzled blog. It was made in the early 60’s and I’d never heard of it before. Also, check out Ben Vaughn’s interview with Jerry Blavant— the Geater with the Heater, legendary Philadelphia DJ, and probably the last of the great old time motor mouth jocks still on the air (50 years!).
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