Okay, first things first: cockfighting, as with any blood sport that encourages cruelty towards animals, is disgusting and inhumane. For those who don’t know (and are expecting something euphemistic here), a cockfight involves two specifically bred roosters, sometimes strapped with razor blades to their feet, placed in a ring to brawl, often to the death, and where spectators are encouraged to wager on a winner. It has ancient origins and up until recent times has been practised around the world legally. Thankfully it has been banned in most countries now, but in places like Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Philippines, it still occurs legally, and in some other places, it is regarded as a tradition and thus, is practised whether there are laws against it or not. In the US, cockfighting is illegal in some form or another in all 50 states, but that is not to say it doesn’t happen in certain underground pockets. Back in the 1960s and 70s, the outlook on cockfighting in America was slightly less suppressive. But it was still regarded as an underground betting activity, and in many states it had already been completely banned – Florida was the only exception. This would explain why a film based around the sordid world of cockfighting in backwoods America would constitute a ‘Midnight Movie’ in the mid-1970s.
Cockfighter, made in 1974, was based on an adapted screenplay by Charles Willeford, who had written the novel of the same name several years earlier. Willeford was an accomplished poet and fiction-writer by that time and he would later become famous for creating the hard-boiled detective Hoke Moseley, who is featured in a series his influential books. As well as Cockfighter, films have been made of two other Willeford’s novels: Miami Blues and The Woman Chaser. His style has always been regarded as quirky, edgy and a bit off-kilter, and this would explain why he was such an inspiration for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. He finds patterns in human characters that are strange and unusual, but never wholly comments on their morality. As someone once said of Willeford’s writing: ‘he creates characters who search for autonomy but settle for survival.’
Willeford wrote Cockfighter as a semi-successful novel in 1962 and later adapted it into a script for a film in 1972 – it was always his ambition to do so, as he had actually embedded himself in the world of cockfighting for two years as research for the novel. The king of b-grade exploitation movies, Roger Corman, liked the novel so much that he had Willeford write a screenplay based on it. Then Corman, under his studio New World Pictures, brought in his trusted protégé Monte Hellman to direct the film. Hellman was fresh from directing the counterculture classic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and he was joined by cult stars Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, who led the cast along with Laurie Bird (Hellman’s partner at the time), Ed Begley Jnr, Patricia Pearcy and Richard B. Shull. Willeford even shows up in a cameo as a fantastically mustachioed cockfight promoter. Upon release in 1974, the production struggled to find an audience and Corman would later admit that it was the only movie he backed in the 1970s that lost money. He even had it recut and reissued under several provocative titles such as Born to Kill, Wild Drifter, and Gamblin’ Man. But even then it still did not succeed.
Hellman, who had experience in editing many films at New World Pictures and elsewhere, had established his unique directing chops with Two-Lane Blacktop, but as that film had still not earned its masterpiece status, his reputation in 1974 was not one to be revered. The unfortunate and immediate failure of Cockfighter did nothing to advance Hellman’s status either. The film, despite being initially promoted by Corman as another independent nugget for the Hollywood New Wave, could not hit the right notes for his targeted audience. Being the complete gobshite that Corman was, he had Lewis Teague (Alligator, The Jewel of the Nile) film extra scenes and got Joe Dante (Piranha, Gremlins 2) to spice up the trailer with misleading sexual insinuations. Under the title Born to Kill, the film was marketed as a video-nasty b-movie. The posters led audiences into believing it was some sort of late night horror show, with a cartoon image of Warren Oates wielding an axe while a terrified blonde drives a convertible. The tagline was: ‘Ain’t but one law in these parts…and they don’t care who lives or dies’, while the description started with: ‘Take a dark and eerie walk deep into the Georgia backwoods, where those who aren’t welcome don’t always come out.’ It made the film out to be a cross between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, which it certainly is not. In actuality, the film is very respectful of the people it follows and those who appear in it. It has a deeply seated humanity, and there are no bad guys as such. More importantly, Warren Oates is not an axe-wielding murderer. In fact, he doesn’t even wield an axe at all. All of this false marketing can be seen in hindsight as a blatant mistreatment of Hellman’s genius and Willeford’s vision. Within a short space of time, this led to the film being completely sidelined.
The following more accurate description of Cockfighter thankfully now graces the available media:
‘The dedicated obsession of a fanatical sport. As in the bullring—to the death. Legal in Florida—illegal in the forty-nine other states. The iron will of a man, whose entire life was channeled into one supreme ambition!’
Warren Oates plays the titular ‘cockfighter’ of the movie. He is an enigmatic road wanderer by the name of Frank Mansfield, and he speaks only in flashback or as an occasional, wistful narrator. We learn that he has taken a vow of silence until he has been awarded ‘Cockfighter of the Year’ at the most prestigious (and illegal) championship of its sort in America. As he says at the outset: ‘I learned to fly a plane….lost interest in it’. Training and conditioning roosters to fight (and earning money from it) appears to be his raison d’être. Mansfield must contend with his mouthy fellow ‘cocker’ Jack (played with that wonderful cheeky charm by Harry Dean Stanton), whom he comically manages to lose everything to, including his young girlfriend (Laurie Bird), as the result of a cockfight. Penniless, he clambers back to his once-treasured home where his former fiancée Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy) still hovers around waiting for Frank to change his ways. She gives Frank a choice: cockfighting or her. In line with the general silliness of the story, Frank indeed leaves her behind to pursue his dream. But not only that, he sells the family house and leaves his brother and his wife homeless. With the money, he buys up some prized roosters and partners up with a Polish immigrant called Omar (Richard B. Shull), who pulls the strings to get him into contention for the coveted ‘Cockfighter of the Year’ prize.
Despite the sordid grounding in the world of cockfighting, the film actually turns out to be a philosophical, humane treatise centring on the inner emotions of its central character, so beautifully portrayed by Oates. As much as it is an absurdist comedy, it is also an artful piece about traditional life in southern America. The background voids are filled with sounds and images synonymous with the Deep South, while in the foreground, we have an Everyman character who is forcing upon himself a unnecessary hardship. Unsurprisingly, Willeford has stated that Frank Mansfield was foreseen as a modern-day version of Odysseus. He is a man embedded in the world of cockfighting but does not seem to know how he ended up there or how he can get out of it. Oates presence is simply unforgettable. He really was a character actor of transcendent proportions. It is such a pity he died way before his time in 1982. By 1974, he had appeared in many Westerns such as The Wild Bunch, and also had memorable roles as the car-crazy GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop and as the grimy bar-owner Bennie in Sam Peckinpah’s edgy classic Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. There was a raw, roughness to Oates image, and it was put to excellent effect in Cockfighter.
Even just thinking about a film that includes a sequence with cockfighting would be hard to digest for audiences, but this is a whole film centred around the ‘sport’, and in no way does it make a statement about it being wrong. Rather it showcases many sequences of roosters actually fighting in the ring and some even being badly mauled or killed. It is noteworthy that the film was banned in Scotland for its animal cruelty and never received a rating in Britain because it was discovered that the cockfights were staged specifically for the film. Having said all that, I do not believe that Hellman was condoning it in any way. The scenes of cockfighting, as sickening as they may be, are not gratuitous. I would go as far to say that the camerawork around the fights are tasteful and subtlety captured, such is the top class cinematography of Nestor Alemendros.
Cockfighter indeed remains a glorious and often forgotten gem of the Hollywood New Wave. It may be a difficult film to watch because of the animal cruelty, but thanks to the perfectly timed direction of Monte Hellman, the assured writing by Willeford, a catchy score by Michael Franks and cool, quirky acting by Oates, Stanton, Shull and Bird, it is a very special film and has not been given all the credit it deserves. Even though it is a Midnight Movie per se, and it comes with a warning, it is still essential viewing for those who love film and have an open-mind. The chickens do get a bad deal, but in the end, the world is a crazy place and there is a subtle acknowledgment of that throughout Cockfighter.