This is the lost film of P.T. Anderson about the continuing misadventures of Dirk Diggler. No, it's really about the ancient art of roosters dueling to the death with their peckers...you know, their beaks. Read Judge Harold Gervais' ruling on this landmark 1970s film by famed director Monte Hellman.
From Governor's Mansion's to Cheap Hotels: The Big Money Sport that's Dirty-Violent and Outside the Law!
From maverick producer Roger Corman and director Monte Hellman, the best American filmmaker most people have never heard of, is Cockfighter (also known as Born to Kill, Gamblin' Man or Wild Drifter). This low budget 1974 movie from Roger Corman's New World factory features a stunning lead performance by Warren Oates, and stands as another fine example of the kind of movie that simply does not get produced by the major studios today.
For this release, Anchor Bay has put out a disc that features very good picture and sound and has enough supplemental content to qualify it as a special edition.
Facts of the Case
Professional Cockfighter Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) is a man on a mission. After failing to win the Cockfighter of the Year award several years ago because of drunken bragging, Mansfield chooses to stop speaking. Swearing to not utter a word until the award is his, Mansfield travels the back roads of Georgia looking for more fights and more money, all the while searching for his chance at personal redemption.
Teaming up with another Cockfighter named Omar (Richard B. Schull), Mansfield finally has the resources to challenge his chief rival in the world of cockfighting, Frank (Harry Dean Stanton), and get his chance at the thing he craves so deeply.
The question, though, of "at what cost" is one that dogs Frank as he also tries to juggle his relationship back home with the girl of his dreams, Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Not knowing the violent extent of the sport that Frank lives in, will she be able to accept all parts of the man she has come to love? Or will Frank's life be one that she cannot bear, leaving him to search for his hopes and dreams an old and lonely man?
One of the great joys of the world of home video, and DVD in particular, is the discovery of new and important films that I had never been exposed to before. Director Monte Hellman and Cockfighter is just such a discovery.
Director Monte Hellman's career travels back to the earliest days of Roger Corman and his unique approach to filmmaking. It was Corman who gave Hellman his first directing job with 1959's Beast From the Haunted Cave and it was through the Corman crowd that Hellman would meet Jack Nicholson, with whom he would make two of the strangest westerns ever made: Ride With the Whirlwind and The Shooting. The Shooting, outside of being one of the only existential westerns, is important if for no other reason than it was the first time Hellman would work with the legendary Warren Oates. It was this relationship that would continue onto Two Lane Blacktop, finish up with China 9, Liberty 37 but be nowhere more fruitful than with Cockfighter.
Apart, Oates and Hellman both were vastly talented men, but together their work meshed in a seamless fashion. Like the working relationship Oates had with Director Sam Peckinpah on several films, Oates and Hellman seemed to bring out the best in the other. With Cockfighter, Hellman's terse, economical style of direction combines with Oates' silent yet haunting performance to create a film of harrowing violence yet simple, elegant beauty.
It is an elegant beauty that is also helped in no small degree by the stunning cinematography of the late, great Néstor Almendros (Kramer Vs Kramer, Sophie's Choice). As Hellman notes in the excellent commentary track, Almendros set up his lights in such a complete fashion that Hellman could move the camera around to where ever he wanted and not have to waste time with adjusting the lighting. There is one particular scene between Oates and Patricia Pearcy in front of a body of water that gives the scene a stark whiteness in the background that takes my breath away every time I view it. It also helps that is a wonderfully written sequence that is really a monologue for two. Pearcy may have all the dialogue, and Oates may do a great deal of the scene in profile and with his back to the camera, but there is no doubt that he is communicating just as much as she is. Along with the lovely scoring of composer Michael Franks, it is total cinema and should be required viewing for students of the medium.
Part of the beauty of Cockfighter also comes from its intense sense of place and realism. A large part of the movie can be considered a documentary about the lifestyle of cockfighting. Filmed in actual cockpits around Georgia, it's a pretty safe bet that if the part was not a speaking one, it was played by an actual resident of the area.
It's interesting to me that so far I have talked about Cockfighter in terms of it being lovely, beautiful and elegant, when its central plot device is one that is so violent. This is after all a film protested by the ASPCA because of the terminal harm that did indeed come to some its fowl performers. Again, to the excellent commentary—Hellman makes several notes as to where real chickens were killed in the making of the movie and he also notes how there is no way that this film could be produced today. Several jokes are made about this that are certainly in bad taste. Of course I chuckled at every one. What does that say about me? I don't know, but I still thought they were funny. But, I digress.
Hellman has said that all of his favorite movies are road pictures, and Cockfighter certainly qualifies as a road picture. Oates' character travels down many roads, both literal and spiritual, to come to the point at the end of the movie where he finally speaks in "real time." It is also worth noting that the words he spoke are ones that caused producer Roger Corman to throw the script against a wall as hard as he could in anger upon the reading of the final revisions before shooting. It is because of the enigmatic final words that, Hellman notes once again, it is a script that could not be shot today.
If Cockfighter is a road picture, it stands to reason that it will be populated by several or more interesting characters for Oates' Frank Mansfield to come into contact with…and indeed it does. Like many directors of the period (certainly Robert Altman comes to mind for several different reasons), Hellman liked to use a regular cast of actors and people with whom he was comfortable. So if Oates was the leading player in Hellman Rep, Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Wild at Heart, The Straight Story) was certainly supporting player number two. As with Oates, Hellman seems to have had a special form of communication with Stanton that permeates the screen. Stanton is Oates' chief cockfighting rival, but his character never comes off as anything other than a man—meaning it is not some cheap cardboard cutout character, but rather a man, a flawed human man whose presence in the movie and in its structure moves the film along in a logical fashion. It's a fairly small role in a movie dominated by Warren Oates, but it is a performance that rings with truth.
Other actors who contribute mightily to the effort are Richard B. Schull (Splash), as Mansfield's partner-in-cockfighting, Omar. One of the more recognizable of all Hollywood character players from the past 25 years or so, he turns in solid, quiet and funny work. Former Hollywood heartthrob Troy Donahue shows up as Frank's alcoholic brother Randall, while Two-Lane Blacktop co-star Laurie Bird makes an appearance as Frank's girlfriend, whom he promptly loses in a bet, along with his car to Harry Dean Stanton's Jack character. Also look for some early appearances by such actors as Ed Begley Jr. (Best In Show) and Steve Railsback (Disturbing Behavior).
Surely there will be a special place in DVD heaven for the people from Anchor Bay. As a group, this little company has the most eclectic tastes out there today, and they champion films that most people never would have thought of, let alone heard of. Their treatment of Monte Hellman's Cockfighter is just such a case.
Included on this disc is the excellent commentary track I have made mention of several times. Moderated by Dennis Bartok, it is a lively and active discussion featuring director Monte Hellman and production assistant and friend Steven Gaydos. Bartok is quite prepared and he keeps the conversation peppered with numerous questions. While time may have faded some of Hellman's memories for little details about the filming of Cockfighter, he still makes a great commentator who provides all the answers to the truly important questions Bartok poses. One of the better alternate tracks I have heard recently, this is also something all students of film should give a listen to.
As if that were not enough, Anchor Bay also includes an excellent documentary by Tom Thurman on the life of actor Warren Oates called "Warren Oates: Across the Border." Running about 55 minutes, it may be a little light on the probing details of his life, but it offers an excellent overview of one the best American actors of the past 40 years or so and is highly recommended viewing.
The special features also include those famous, or infamous Corman film, television and radio spots. Promoted as an exploitation film, which it certainly was not, the spots are almost all good for a laugh or two.
Some excellent and extensive talent sections round out the disc. This is an area of major improvement from Anchor Bay of late and it is most welcome.
So we have a great and criminally underseen film, an excellent package of supplemental features; the final question is, how do the technical aspects of the disc stack up? The answer is as well if not better than can be expected.
Framed at the movies original aspect ratio of 1.77:1, this being Anchor Bay the film gets a brand new anamorphic transfer. When you watch as many films on DVD as I do, it is sometimes easy to get a bit jaded whenever I see an image that is not crystal clear like the bulk of today's new movies. Still, this was a low-budget, Roger Corman affair and some of those deficiencies are bound to creep through. Sure enough, there is considerable film grain to be noticed, and there are spots where the image could have been a lot sharper. Flesh tones tend to lean towards an orangish tint but otherwise colors tend to be quite warm and life like. Blacks are very solid with shadow detail being a strong suit of the presentation. The image also boasts strong source material because there is hardly a nick or a scratch to be seen. So overall, while its not the greatest picture in the world, it is more than I would have expected, and it is certainly nothing less than very good. In fact, considering the age of the film, as well as its low budget background, I would have to say Anchor Bay has done another beautiful job.
Typical of the period the sound is a 2.0 mono and for what it is, it gets the job done nicely. Very little in the way of background distortion can be heard and the dialogue, music and limited sound effects are mixed together into an easy to listen to whole. Once more taking into account all the circumstances of the film, an excellent job.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, outside of someone getting offending by the authentic and often graphic violence of two cocks fighting it out to the death, I can't think of an another reason why anyone serious about film, especially American film, would not want to see this movie.
Yes, once more this is the part where I take Anchor Bay to task for not including subtitles or close captions for the hearing impaired. Please, after all the effort you put into your releases, when will you guys learn this can and should be a basic part of any DVD release? I have read letters from several people on the DVD Verdict forum who refuse to purchase your product for this single reason. You guys are losing money to people who would otherwise spend it on your product. Isn't that good enough reason to change?
One of the most unseen of all American classics from the '70s, Cockfighter is a film that will stay with anyone long after seeing it. In it, Warren Oates gives what is probably his greatest performance on film, and director Monte Hellman is a man whose work we should be seeing on a regular basis.
Cockfighter is a great movie and is given a deluxe edition from Anchor Bay. For me there is no doubt in my mind, this is a solid purchase. It's a disc I look forward to coming back to as I work my way through the entire Hellman collection of movies on DVD.
Monte Hellman and everyone connected with Cockfighter are acquitted of all charges. Together they produced a true cinematic classic, and this court thanks them. Outside of my usual slap on the wrist for the whole no captions problem, Anchor Bay is also free to go as this judge looks forward to his next batch of Hammer Collection discs and the upcoming release of the brilliant The Stunt Man. Court is now dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Warren Oates: Across the Border a Documentary by Tom Thurman
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