Starring: Warren Oates, Richard B. Shull, Harry Dean Stanton, Ed Begley Jr., Laurie Bird, Troy Donahue
He came into town with his cock in hand, and what he did with it was illegal in 49 states.
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The 1970s are often considered a golden age of film, where movies were made by adults, for adults. They incorporated heavy themes, and did not pander to their audiences, often leaving them with downbeat, or even unsatisfactory, endings. They were often more about characters than plots, with successful films like Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971) and Annie Hall (1977) being driven almost solely by character. Unfortunately, over time, some of these films have been lost or forgotten. Such is the case with Cockfighter, a film that was essentially out of print for nearly thirty years before being rediscovered on DVD.
Frank Mansfield, played by Warren Oates, is a professional cockfighter and trainer. He spends his life scrounging up money to buy new chickens to fight, all in the hope of earning a medal for Cockfighter of the Year. Frank had been on his way toward winning the medal two year earlier, but shot his mouth off, angering his friend Jack, played by Harry Dean Stanton. Jack challenged Frank to a cockfight to back up his boasting, resulting in Frank losing both the fight and his shot at the title. Because of this experience, Frank has taken a vow of silence, which he will only break when he finally wins the medal. Since then, however, it seems that Frank’s luck has run
Cockfighter is a view into a world that many do not see, especially now that the sport is banned in all 50 states. It is an extremely cruel and heartless world. In one memorable scene, Frank can be seen taking a razorblade to a chicken’s beak, making it look cracked in order to fool gamblers into betting against his chicken when he fights. The trainers also attach metal hooks to the back of the chickens feet to make the fight even more vicious. On the one hand, this movie offers a fascinating look into something very few people know about it. On the other hand, the practices that it depicts are so revolting and disgusting that they make it hard to like or relate to Frank at times, especially given how detached he often seems. And yet, somehow, on some level, we do want him to win. Maybe that is because we have become conditioned to root for the hero, however flawed he may be. Or perhaps it is a testament to the acting of Warren Oates, who can take a character who practices such reckless behavior, and who doesn’t even speak, and still make us understand him.
Frank is a fascinating character, simply because his decision to take a vow of silence would seem to indicate that he is on some kind of a spiritual journey of self discovery. The road to that discovery, however, is lined with the carcasses of many dead chickens, making any realizations he might have almost meaningless. He hasn’t learned, or come to care enough, that what he is doing is immoral and wrong. The scenes between Frank and Mary are extremely important to his character; she wants him to settle down with her and has remained devoted to him, despite his non-commitment to her. This makes her eventual rebuke of him, and everything he stands for, even harsher at the end. She has, up until then, refused to come to any of his fights. Once she sees how brutal and inhumane the fights are, her view of him is forever altered. She seem to be the only person who ever truly cared about Frank and she is the only thing for which he actually had to fight. When he tells Omar at the end of the film that she still loves him, it is unclear whether he actually believes that or is just in denial.
Cockfighter is a film that is destined to turn off much of its audience. It shows real cockfights, with chickens viciously attacking each other until one of them is killed. This could not legally be filmed today, with PETA and the American Humane Society overseeing the production of every major film. The movie was actually banned in the United Kingdom for scenes of animal cruelty and has never been released there. Despite all of the controversial aspects of the story, hopefully, audiences that see it today can look beyond the subject matter to see the intimate character study that lies beneath.