Cockfighter was set up and then marketed as a low budget exploitation film, but was turned into a somewhat existential comic character study by director Monte Hellman with just enough elements for Roger Corman to market it as an exploitation film (some violence, controversy, and a bit of nudity).
Most people have not heard of 1974's Cockfighter. It bombed at the box-office and is too quirky a film about too violent and controversial a sport to be widely embraced.
It's time for you to discover this gem of a film, which through some odd alignment of the stars has been given a red carpet type of DVD release by Anchor Bay, which includes a few extras.
It's time to shout from the mountain-tops and let all film buffs, Warren Oates fans, 70's movie lovers , appreciators of quirky cinema concoctions and cult film aficionados know there is an excellent film out there that you probably have not seen that is worth adding to your collection as soon as possible.
The film is based on a novel written by the late great Charles Willeford who also co-wrote the screenplay and plays an important supporting role in the film. Willeford's books have been the basis for a few other good quirky films like Miami Blues and the recent The Woman-Chaser.
Cockfighter is set in the world where fighting cocks are bred, trained and pitted against each other for spectators and gamblers to enjoy, but is focused on Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) a
Man who has devoted his life to being the best Cockfighter on the circuit. He is willing to risk everything and anything in pursuit of his goal-- a medal. In fact because Frank Mansfield ws too cocky a few years ago, he wound up ruining his chances for the Cockfighter of the year medal. So he took a vow of silence. He would not talk ever again until he won the Cockfighter of the Year medal. It's an ironic vow of silence because fighting Cocks rarely make noise as they fight to the death in the pit.
We are immersed in Frank's world and watch him lose a cockfight to his old adversary Jack (Harry Dean Stanton) that costs him his motor home trailer and current girlfriend Laurie Bird (previously seen in Two-Lane Blacktop) .
He returns to his hometown, and re-acquaints himself with his old girlfriend, Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Mary Elizabeth would prefer marrying Frank than another suitor but doesn't consider Cockfighting a real profession and needs Frank to give it up. Our mute hero isn't about to give up his obsession and hooks up with a new partner, Omar (Richard B. Shull), a new attitude and some new fighting cocks to try again to win the coveted Cockfighter of the year medal. The adventures are unique and the world of this sport is not one you'll likely see portrayed in a film every again.
The violent sport is illegal and cruel to animals and this film doesn't flinch in showing the sport for what it is. Animals were killed in the making of the movie, but they were animals destined to be killed in Cockfights. The film was made on location and the crowd extras were made up of fans and participants in the sport. Also in the film are Troy Donahue, Millie Perkins, Robert Earl Jones (Father of James Earl Jones), Ed Begley Junior and Steve (Helter Skelter, Stuntman)Railsback.
Although Oates plays a man who is silent through 99 percent of the film, he delivers one of his finest performances and also does the voice-over narration. Just for Oates performance alone the film is very much worth seeing, but it's also a unique very well done film. Despite the low budget, cinematographer Nestor Almandros creates a few memorable shots while accommodating Hellman's style which uses many master shots and long takes. Nestor's lighting design accommodated Hellman's style. Some rules are broken to great effect such as when a lake background is too hot and serves as the perfect background for a love scene between Oates and Mary Elizabeth. The film has such a strong documentary verite' we can usually forget we are watching actors. In fact there are so many non-actors in the film, Hellman considers half the film a documentary anyway.
Director Monte Hellman's career started with Corman on 1959's Beast from the Haunted Cave. Hellman made two odd low budget westerns with Nicholson in the late 60's, Ride the Whirlwind and the existentially fascinating; The Shooting. The Shooting also marked the first time Hellman worked with Oates. Two directors; Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman utilized Oates best. He made The Shooting, Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37 with Oates. They worked well together. Perhaps their finest collaboration is Cockfighter.
The DVD presents the film better than it's ever been seen before. It's still a low budget film and there's grain and some soft focus but an excellent damage free print was used for the anamorphic digital transfer.
Lots of extras including one of the best commentary tracks you'll hear on DVD make this one worth getting.
Cockfighter is a gem of a film you're probably never heard of. It's one of best films of the 1970's features one of Warren Oates finest performances and has been rescued from near obscurity by Anchor Bay. The film looks very good on DVD and comes with several worthwhile extras.
Rent it, Buy it and tell your friends to get a copy of a great film they probably haven't heard a thing about. This isn't for everyone and the subject matter is disturbing, but those who enjoyUnique quirky independent films need to have this one.
Christopher Jarmick, is the author of The Glass Cocoon with Serena F. Holder a critically acclaimed, steamy suspense thriller.