Desperate times call for desperate movies, and there are few movies that express genuine desperation better than Sydney Pollack’s 1969 dance-marathon melodrama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Released for the first time on Blu-ray last week, Horses was a film that made a big impression on me as a teenager. Partly it was that ominous title (which I first heard when Welsh rock band Racing Cars had a 1977 top 20 hit with a song with the same name) and partly it was the indelible concept: in Depression-era America crowds paid to watch couples dance for days on end in the hope of winning a cash prize for the last man and woman standing (a concept fascinatingly re-worked in the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body).
Nominated for nine Oscars (it holds the record for the film with the most nominations without a Best Picture nod), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was a huge international success, as attested to by the impressive variety of international posters for the film. My favorite is Boris Grinsson’s gorgeous and startling French grande, above, which Kino Lorber decided not to use as the cover for their Blu-ray release after complaints that it was somewhat of a spoiler. (The image is printed on the reverse of the wrap, however.)
The equally striking U.S. poster centers on the mirror ball that hangs above the Santa Monica pier dancehall that is the setting of the film.
And then a second poster was released when Gig Young won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the Master of Ceremonies. (Young’s own life was to end tragically with a bullet to the head just eight years later.)
Artist Jose Gonzalez was commissioned to illustrate a poster for the film, but his art was never used.
But a similar illustration by Averado Ciriello was used for the Italian poster.
The Japanese poster is a more colorful variation on the American design.
The U.K. quad poster (a spoiler more than a teaser) is strikingly minimal.
While the Spanish poster throws everything into the mix.
The portrayal of America in dire straits must have appealed to the Eastern Bloc, as the film seems to have been widely released there, with a fabulous array of posters from Poland (by Jan Młodożeniec), Czechoslovakia (by Jaroslav Fiser), East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was based on a 1935 novel of the same name by Horace McCoy. In the early 1950s, Charlie Chaplin and Norman Lloyd optioned the book to star Chaplin’s son and a young Marilyn Monroe, but the project was scuppered when Chaplin’s immigration status was revoked. The book itself has never been out of print since it was published and it has inspired some terrific covers itself.
The book was also adapted into a stage play, the stunning Polish poster for which, by Wiesław Wałkuski, notably reverses the half-horse, half-human concept of Młodożeniec’s much more light-hearted film poster.
And if you were wondering about that 1977 Racing Cars single—which is as wonderfully lugubrious and moving as the film it inspired—you can listen to it below:
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions, Posteritati, Film Art Gallery, Terry Posters, CineMaterial, and Discreet Charms and Obscure Objects.