|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 30 January 2001|
But it also remained an exceptionally good movie. Hellman tends to underrate it somewhat, since he was unable to have Willeford's script rewritten (by Earl Mac Rauch) to his complete satisfaction. Furthermore, from the exceptionally good commentary track on this outstanding DVD, it's easy to draw the conclusion that Hellman is slightly ashamed of inadvertently glamorizing this viciously bloody sport.
But the movie doesn't glamorize cockfighting. It focuses on Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates), who breeds and trains fighting roosters, and who also personally handles them in the cockfighting ring. As the movie opens, he loses a major fight to longtime friend/rival Jack Burke (Harry Dean Stanton), who claims Frank's house trailer, Cadillac and girlfriend Dody (Laurie Bird) as prizes, while Frank heads back home.
There are strong clues throughout the film that Frank comes from a moneyed background -- his home town is actually named Mansfield, for example -- and that he could have held any number of other professions. He's drawn to cockfighting because, as his narration tells us, he admires the cocks for fighting to the death without making a sound. And he's good at the training of these birds.
Two years earlier, he'd lost another important -- but impromptu (in a motel room) -- match to Burke, who sardonically commented that Frank drank too much and talked too much. So Frank vowed (solely to himself) not to talk until he won a prized cockfighting medal. He hasn't spoken since; some people think he can't talk at all. (Oates, however, does narrate intermittently.)
Back home, he sells the family house out from under his stylish but alcoholic brother (Troy Donahue) and surprised sister-in-law (Millie Perkins), then teams up with calculatedly countrified Omar (Richard B. Shull) in a series of matches heading for the big one at which that medal is awarded.
At home, he also gets back together with Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy), who was clearly a long-time lover, but who has never seen a cockfight at all, much less one featuring roosters trained by Frank. She wants to get married, but he still wants to get that medal.
Things come to a head at the big match.
The movie is largely picaresque, a series of encounters between Frank and others orbiting the cockfighting business (the movie is mostly set, and shot, in Georgia). Longtime fight judge Ed Middleton (author Willeford himself) has agreed to his wife's demands that he leave the sport. Hayseed Tom Peeples (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his laconic father (Tom Spratley) try to trick Frank. Newcomer "Junior" (Steve Railsback) tries to cheat in a cockfighting match. Through it all, Frank maintains a kind of purity of intent and desire, even while ignoring the blood and death at the center of the sport.
This makes him a man who can be respected, but not admired. He's cold and efficient with the roosters; when one of Omar's cocks turns out to be slightly defective, Frank immediately beheads it (on screen). He's fond of White Lightning, his principal rooster, but utterly unsentimental in the long run. He admires roosters for their fierce tenacity as fighters, but that's as far as his affection extends.
We never quite know what he feels about people, either, partly because he never talks (Oates has a few lines in a flashback, and one at the end), partly because he's so focussed on cockfighting. It's clear he's in love with Mary Elizabeth, but it's also obvious he will not quit cockfighting because of her.
Earl Mac Rauch, the commentary track tells us, was largely responsible for the scenes featuring Oates and Pearcy, the only tender scenes in the film. The very ending, and Oates' last line, are tough but also somewhat sentimental, and ambiguous. But you're not likely to forget Oates' face in that last scene.
'Cockfighter' is graced by one of his finest performances, wordless though it mostly is. He was one of the most expressive actors in movies, using gesture, expression and posture as eloquently as dialog. He often played bad guys, but never villains; we always recognized his characters' humanity. The DVD includes an outstanding, must-see documentary on Oates, covering his career and technique, with commentary by many of the people who worked with him, and who wrote about him. Just this documentary alone makes this an ideal purchase for anyone who's ever been interested in him. It does not seem to be available to the public in any other form.
The home audiophile won't find anything special here, though the film is technically satisfactory; the roosters occasionally crow in the background, but their fights are grimly silent except for the spectators. (At one point, we can hear children sobbing in the audience.) The cinematographer was the great Nestor Almendros, who worked especially hard on this film. In his autobiography (the commentary track tells us), he devoted an entire chapter to shooting just this one low-budget movie. (And not long before his death, Willeford wrote an entire book about the making of 'Cockfighter.')
The commentary track is by Hellman, his 'Cockfighter' assistant Steven Gaydos, and film historian Dennis Bartok. It's even more interesting and thorough than the commentary for 'Two-Lane Blacktop.'
This is not a blood-sport movie; it does follow the standard sports film formula, though -- an early loss, dedicated focus on training, a final triumph. But the movie, as the title says, really is about the cockfighter himself, Frank Mansfield. As good as Oates is, we never quite get inside his motivations; the movie provides slightly detached view of its central character. This minor weakness is offset by the fascination of the cockfighting culture itself, by Oates' performance, the exceptional supporting cast, and the outstanding extras on this DVD.