COCKFIGHTER (Monte Hellman, 1974)

by Paul Rowlands

Starring: Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard B. Shull, Laurie Bird, Ed Begley Jr, Troy Donahue, Warren Finnerty, Robert Earl Jones, Patricia Pearcy, Steve Railsback, Charles Willeford. 83 minutes (theatrical version with 'Cockfighter' title).

'I couldn't really get the script that I's my least favourite of my movies, with the exception of BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (1959)...I like the authenticity of that kind of milieu; I think as a documentary about the 'sport' of cockfighting, it works fairly well...I was never really happy with it; it just didn't work for me, basically because of the script.' Monte Hellman, 'Film Talk: Directors at Work', interviews by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Monte Hellman might just be the greatest least-known director in the world. Even his most famous film, the seminal road movie TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) was out of circulation for many years. One of the great tragedies of cinema is that he hasn't made as many films as he should have, always struggling to get films financed, to make them the way he wants, to have them released in the cuts he prefers, and to have them even widely seen. Probably the greatest of his films, alongside TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is COCKFIGHTER. And yet it's a film even Hellman is ambivalent about, and is now out of circulation again (at least in decent prints).

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP won some impressive reviews upon it's release. It eventually became a cult film, and is now considered to be one of the key road movies, and key films of the '70s. But it had no immediate impact on Hellman's career, and the director decided to never turn down work. He came to COCKFIGHTER after a very bad experience on the Hong Kong action thriller SHATTER (1974), where he was fired for getting behind schedule. Hellman maintains it is more likely he was fired because of producer Michael Carreras's ambition to take over the film, and that he got behind schedule because The Shaw Brothers had crews on multiple films working on rotating 24 hour shifts, and they would always turn up for work late and exhausted. It also has to be noted that, although at his own request he is uncredited as director, 2/3 of the footage in the released version is his, and when Carreras took over, it took him five months to finish, after replacing Hellman three weeks into a five week schedule.

Roger Corman offered him COCKFIGHTER almost as soon as he returned to the US. Hellman already had a work history with him. Like Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola et al, Hellman began his career with Corman, working as a director and in various other capacities. Two of his best films, the extraordinary Westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (shot back to back in 1965), were financed by Corman. COCKFIGHTER would be their final collaboration.

The film boasts Warren Oates's greatest performance, and that is really saying something. He was one of the greatest actors to emerge from the '60s, and made four films apiece with both Hellman and Sam Peckinpah. He died from a heart attack in 1983. His character in COCKFIGHTER could be seen as as a humorous reversal of his previous Hellman character: GTO in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. GTO was a talkative, restless man; Frank Mansfield is silent throughout the film (we hear him speak in flashbacks and in the final scene). If there was ever an actor who could remain charismatic and fascinating despite being silent, it's Oates. Just through a squint, a stare, a smile or a grimace, Oates could express a thousand words. Oates gives Frank an inner life, a soul, and it's one of the great performances of the decade.

Hellman is a self-confessed control freak, editing and rewriting all of his films, and never completely happy with his achievements. One can easily imagine him identifying with Frank's perfectionism, outsider status and restlessness. Frank is a man who lost his chance to be acknowledged as the best cockfighter in the business through his loud-mouthedness and ego. He has taken a vow of silence until he makes it to the top. That kind of over the top sacrifice is worthy of respect, but also ridicule too (Hellman is much more of a pragmatist). In another film, the director would have made much more of a voluntarily mute character. Indeed, it could be a subject that might have interested Antonioni, who was very interested in alienation and miscommunication. But, amusingly, Frank's silence never represents a problem in the world he moves in, where a grunt, a nod or a signature is all you need, and everyone is in their own world anyway. (It makes you wonder how important verbal communication is at all.) Frank is also a perfect Hellman character because Hellman is primarily a storyteller who places more importance on the visual and on the unsaid. The characters in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, for example, speak volumes to each other, but it's all things never said and expressed through facial expressions and body gestures.

COCKFIGHTER is a fascinating film because of what Hellman brought to it, perfectly illustrating his sensitivity and taste as a filmmaker. As was his wont, Hellman rewrote the script (written by the 1962 book's author, Charles Willeford, who also appears in the film as Judge Ed Middleton), this time with Earl Mac Rauch (NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 1977). He was happy with the progress they were making, but Corman soon pulled the plug on Rauch's involvement (Hellman believes he didn't want his 'baby' taken away from him). Hellman and Rauch's work went uncredited. Corman was clearly hoping for some visceral, exploitative thrills from the cockfighting scenes, but quickly learned that Hellman didn't share his vision. Scouting locations for a cockfight scene, Corman got excited by the atmosphere at a particular venue and laid down his bet. His director, however, was in the car park, nowhere to be seen. Hellman: 'I just had this gut reaction to seeing an animal killed, which really upset me tremendously. I wanted to convey that to an audience.' Corman: '...there goes my cockfighting picture. The director hates cockfighting.'

Hellman remains ambivalent about COCKFIGHTER: 'I think if we could have gotten more scenes like the ending and like the scene by the river and the scene on the porch, which are three of the things Rauch (Earl Mac Rauch, the co-writer) contributed to, I think we could have had more understanding of Warren's character and of some of the other characters and I think it could have been a better picture.' He is absolutely right in identifying the most resonant and memorable scenes of the picture, but his own perfectionism is getting the better of him. Such scenes are enough to make a great film. They flesh out and humanise the character of Frank: his capacity for love and his fear of domesticity. The river scene is extraordinarily erotic and tender, and had it not appeared in a 'B' movie, would be seen as a memorable moment in '70s cinema. Alongside, that is, the porch scene where like Cassavetes, Hellman is able to suddenly change mood and not completely jar the viewer. As Brad Stevens has noted, he conveys information about the character via filming techniques (shooting Frank and Mary Elizabeth, played by Patricia Peary, through the screen door informs us that Frank has no place inside a domestic situation) and action (Frank suddenly has energy once he is outside the house, informing us of his restless nature). It's beautiful filmmaking of the kind Terrence Malick would be proud of (note that Earl Mac Rauch was in fact a Malick protege).

The final scene is wonderfully ambiguous. Mary Elizabeth has finally seen a cockfight and is appalled. (Hellman made sure that Patricia Peary never saw a cockfight until she watched Frank's cockfight, ensuring her reaction was perfectly real.) She tells Frank he has no heart and seemingly breaks up with him. And yet this is the moment Frank chooses to speak. (In the book, Frank regains his voice before the final scene.) He turns to his friend (Richard B. Shull) and smilingly says 'She loves me, Omar.' It should be an infuriating moment, but it isn't. With COCKFIGHTER, Hellman comes very close to capturing the ambiguity and often seemingly illogical nature of real life. Frank may be an ambiguous man, but many people are. Only he knows what he means by the line, and the line allows the audience to personalise their viewing experience. It can mean whatever want you mean. My own interpretation is that after losing his chance to win the Cockfighter of the Year Award (in the flashback) and losing his mobile home, girlfriend (TWO-LANE BLACKTOP's Laurie Bird) and prize cock in the opening scenes, he felt he wasn't worthy of Mary Elizabeth. He felt ashamed and appalled with himself. Frank also realises that until Mary Elizabeth can reconcile the man she thinks she knows, with the man who also loves cockfighting, and accept him fully, they cannot have a future. Perhaps he has convinced himself that he can accept a domestic, married life now he has won the award and regained his self-respect. In this interpretation, 'she loves me' can mean that there is at least hope for them. She has seen a cockfight and he sees her emotion over the experience as confirming her love for him. But, this is only one interpretation! (It's interesting that in the book, the final scene has Frank and Mary Elizabeth break up, and Frank feel relieved and happy about it.)

Another extraordinary element of the film, which Hellman omits to note as a strength, is it's possible status as a dream film. Frank would seem to be an existentialist character, yet he is living in the past. His girlfriend in the opening scenes (Laurie Bird) tells him he talks in his sleep, indicating that something in his dreams or memories are troubling him, and we see from a flashback, set in a hotel room, how he lost his chance to take a shot at the Cockfighter of the Year title the previous year: he made a drunken, egotistical bet against his prize cock and Harry Dean Stanton's, and lost. After this initial flashback, the movie never loses it's dreamlike status, and the porch and river scenes are quite dream-like. The scene where the cockfighters have their money robbed seems like a dream initially and indeed, as Brad Stevens noted, it could be. Regardless, the dreamy feel of the film (appropriate for a film concerning a dreamer like Frank), especially when contrasted with the documentary style and visceral violence of the cockfighting scenes, makes for a very unique mood and feel.

An amusing thought is that Frank resembles the creatures he trains and fights. Like Frank, the cocks will do anything to survive and win, and they do so without making even a noise (Frank identifies this as something he respects about them in the opening narration). Many of the cocks in the movie end up literally losing their heads - whereas the picture of Frank taken by a fan is from the neck down. Mary Elizabeth tells Frank in their last scene, 'I think that bird had more of a heart than you will ever have'. Frank respects them because he is very much aware of his own lack of heart. One possible interpretation is that Frank, after losing his prize cock in the flashback, simply decided to emulate one and dedicate his life to becoming the victor, all without making a noise.

Hellman was a gun-for-hire on COCKFIGHTER and like fellow Corman protege Coppola with THE GODFATHER (1972), he was interested not so much as in the subject matter but with the themes that he could identify with and personalise. Despite the title of the film, it's lurid world and the sometimes bloody cockfighting scenes, Hellman made a quiet, understated, low-key character study about the search for perfection in one's profession, and the quest to be fully accepted, warts and all, by the one you love. (Any scenes of violence are not Hellman's and were mostly directed by Lewis Teague, later the director of 1980's ALLIGATOR, and added to the film at Corman's insistence. Teague edited ALL the cockfighting scenes, indicating Hellman's disinterest in them, while Hellman edited the rest of the film uncredited. )

The director described the film as 'at least 50% documentary', and if the subcultural world of cockfighting seems very real, it's because when it came to scenes set in that world, Hellman simply filmed what he saw with mostly non-actors as the cockfighters. His penchant for not judging the people or milieu he is filming is an essential component of his approach as a filmmaker. Compare this to Alexander Payne (ABOUT SCHMIDT, 2002) or Todd Solondz (HAPPINESS, 1998), who frequently seem as though they are looking down upon and laughing at their characters. Despite his disgust for cockfighting, he is fully ready to accept the people who practice the sport for what they are and to learn from the characters as he encounters them. And unlike Mary Elizabeth, Hellman CAN accept Frank (and the world of cockfighting) warts and all. Frank is an interesting and worthy man even though the sport he practices to perfection is reprehensible. Whereas Melville describes the world that LE SAMOURAI (1967) lives in as soulless and cold, and only redeemed by the honorability of the titular character, Hellman finds warmth and humanity in the various characters that populate the sport. Perhaps the world of cockfighting represents a microcosm of the human soul: we strive for perfection and some of us believe we are perfect or at least unique, and yet our very souls are imperfect, eg. our lust for blood.

Hellman's cut played in Georgia, where the film was made (in Flannery O'Connor's hometown), and didn't do well. Obviously, audiences were expecting the kind of film Corman wanted to make. Corman hired Joe Dante (GREMLINS, 1984) to recut the movie, and Corman had him insert sex and violence footage from two other of his productions as dream sequences. The movie was retitled BORN TO KILL, but was also known as GAMBLIN' MAN and WILD DRIFTER. Hellman's cut has survived as the most screened cut, only because TV stations liked his cut better.

Hellman made a hugely impressive return to filmmaking (after 21 years) with the enigmatic mystery thriller ROAD TO NOWHERE (2010), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival around the time he turned 78. It is high time for his ouevre to be rereleased and reassessed. He deserves to be more widely known and respected, and his films more widely seen and readily available. COCKFIGHTER is one of his signature works, and far far better than it's 'B' movie status and the lurid, sensationalist thrills on offer that the title might suggest.

NB. Charles Willeford's book was a paperback original in 1962, but was republished in hardcover a decade later in a slightly rewritten edition. Willeford claims he loosely based the book on Homer's 'The Odyssey' (circa end of 8 BC). Another one of his novels has been filmed: THE WOMAN CHASER (1999). Roger Corman hated the final line, 'She loves me, Omar', written by Hellman, and threw the script against the wall in protest! The two Corman productions featured in the recut of the film were NIGHT CALL NURSES (1972, directed by Jonathan Kaplan; THE ACCUSED, 1988) and PRIVATE DUTY NURSES (1971, directed by George Armitage, who would adapt Charles Willeford's MIAMI BLUES in 1990).

AVAILABILITY: The R1 Anchor Bay edition features an anamorphically enhanced, good looking print (preserving the fantastic Nestor Almendros photography), a Hellman/ Steven Gaydos commentary (Gaydos is a long-time collaborator of Hellman's) and a near hour length documentary on Warren Oates. Sadly, it is out of print and something of a collector's item. It's worth tracking down because other editions out there are usually full screen, sourced from raggedy looking prints and lacking in extras. The film has never been widely seen in the UK, and only at a few film festivals along the years. Because the cockfighting scenes certainly constitute animal cruelty and contravene certain laws, the film has never even been submitted to the BBFC.

'Charles Willeford': Wikipedia entry. Read it here:
'Cockfighter': Audio commentary on the R1 Anchor Bay DVD.
'Cockfighter': Wikipedia entry. Read it here:
'Film Talk: Directors at Work', interviews by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Rutgers University Press, 2007.
'Two-Lane Blacktop': Audio commentary and special features on the Criterion R1 DVD.
'Monte Hellman: His Life and Films' by Brad Stevens, McFarland and Co. Inc, 2003. (An excellent resource and assessment of Hellman's films. Strongly recommended. Buy it here:

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. Paul writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. An aspiring novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, he has until now mainly written about film for his own pleasure, various blogs and for so far unpublished projects.

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