Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) is a natural born cock-fighter. Throughout all of his life, he trained cocks and was considered the best in business. An obsession that slowly costed him everything.
Monte Hellman is probably one of the most subtly brilliant and profound American movie directors still alive, but definitely also the most underrated and shamefully overlooked one. The reasons why Hellman is so under-appreciated are actually not even that difficult to guess. Even though his films seemingly revolves around accessible and crowd-pleasing topics, the director somehow turns them into challenging, complex and implicit allegories. His westerns The Shooting (1968) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), for example, deal with ordinary topics like bounty hunters and lynch mobs and yet Hellman achieves in making them existential. The genius Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) could have been an exhilarating contemporary road-movie, but instead he decided to make it into a bleak and atypical portrait of a simplistic culture. And then there’s Cockfighter. Presumably the only movie about this controversial topic ever made, and Hellman still didn’t turn it into a provocative and action-packed trash movie but a gloomy and integer portrayal of a clandestine tradition. I once read a statement about director Monte Hellman which said that he totally isn’t interested in fame or recognition. Instead, he’s a director whose repertoire continuously flirts with self-destruction. His movies defy audiences to turn their backs against him. After seeing three of his films in one week, I’m definitely concurring with this statement.
Cockfighter is an extraordinary film from more than just one viewpoint. Charles Willeford‘s authentic script and Hellman‘s carefully researched preparations catapult you straight back to the gloomiest regions of the contemporary America’s deep south, where sleazy Georgia locals gather around, cheering and money-waiving, to witness two animals fight to the death. It’s basically a repulsive topic, and also one of the main reasons why the film was a tremendous box office flop at the time, but only through actually making the effort of watching Cockfighter, you will notice the film does not primarily thrive on animal cruelty and clandestine sports. Cockfighter depicts the story of one man’s obsession and how he will stop at nothing to accomplish a pre-determined goal. Frank Mansfield is a natural born cock-fighter. Throughout all of his life, he trained cocks and was considered the best in business. A couple of years earlier, he became overly haughty and lost his biggest prize fighter over a stupid and meaningless bet. Since then, Frank took a vow of complete silence and dedicates his entire existence to the training of new cocks so that he will eventually regain the medal of best cock-fighter. His obsession slowly costs him everything, including the house where his brother lives, his old friends and even the love and respect of the one woman he cares about.
Referring to the above statement; the urge for self-destruction can even be found in Monte Hellman‘s leading characters. The animal fight sequences are harsh and uncomfortable, but not the least bit exploitative or sensationalist. I can understand that animal rights foundations were against this film, but portraying these moments was simply a necessity, so they better be thankful that Hellman reduced them to a minimum and certainly didn’t glorify the “sport” aspect. Cockfighter owes at least half of its success to the astounding performance by Warren Oates. This man already was one of my favorite actors, based on such films as Dillinger (1973), Race with the Devil (1975) and The Wild Bunch (1969), but he truly surpasses himself here as Frank Mansfield. Oates is one of the rare actors who look enormously charismatic and imposing even without saying ten lines throughout the entire film. He frequently collaborated with Monte Hellman – like also in Two-Lane Blacktop and The Shooting – which resulted in some of his best work. Here in this film he also receives excellent support from respectable B-movie actors such as Harry Dean Stanton, Steve Railsback, Ed Begley Jr. and even Troy Donahue.
Cockfighter is a largely unpleasant movie because of its subject matter, but it’s honestly also one of the most absorbing and paralyzing cult movies of the 1970′s. And that means a lot because this decade is literally stuffed like a Christmas turkey with classics. Watch it, if you can!
Trailer on IMDb.