Friday, April 19, 2024


 by Anthony King

All animals were harmed in the making of this film.

July 30, 1974
Studios: New World Pictures, Artists Entertainment Complex
Director: Monte Hellman
Writers: Charles Willeford (screenplay based on his novel)
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Composer: Michael Franks
Editors: Lewis Teague
Running Time: 83 minutes

Cast: Warren Oates (Frank Mansfield), Richard B. Shull (Omar Baradansky), Harry Dean Stanton (Jack Burke), Charles Willeford (Ed Middleton), Patricia Pearcy (Mary Elizabeth) Laurie Bird (Dody White Burke), Ed Begley, Jr. (Tom Peeples), Robert Earl Jones (Buford), Steve Railsback (Junior)

Southern fried cult movies: Macon County Line (1974), Moonshine County Express (1977), Poor Pretty Eddie (1975), Southern Comfort (1981), Walking Tall (1973)

Pairing recommendation: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Director Monte Hellman seemed to be the type of filmmaker that only made cult movies. While many who get into the business of film don't necessarily set out to make a career out of creating movies outside popular viewpoint of the world, Hellman, who cut his teeth in the Roger Corman school of moviemaking, learned quickly how to make films that would attract an audience on a budget without sacrificing his artistry. His first film, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), is a classic Corman-style monster movie that's bad yet entertaining – otherwise known as “charming,” an otherwise backhanded compliment. His next four pictures teamed him up with actor/writer Jack Nicholson. Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell are cheap international movies, both released in 1964. FtF is a paranoid thriller co-starring Nicholson as a potential serial killer, while BDtH is a war picture not unlike Corman's earlier movie, Ski Troop Attack (1960), except set in the Filipino jungle. Hellman followed those two films with acid westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, both shot subsequently with near-identical casts and released in 1966.
The Shooting marked the first time Hellman would work with actor Warren Oates, an ex-military man and theater actor who began his Hollywood career working with director Gordon Douglas followed by several stints with Sam Peckinpah. In one of his first films, Private Property (1960), you could see something special in Oates. He carried a sort of sadness in his walk, and his eyes did all the heavy lifting. While Oates always delivered memorable performances in films like In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Dillinger (1973), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), and even later in movies like Stripes (1981) and Blue Thunder (1983), his best performance comes in Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as G.T.O., a sad and aimless character wandering the highways of America. Three years later Hellman teams with Oates again in a slice of life, southern fried story of a mute-by-choice man called Frank Mansfield in Cockfighter.

The film opens with Oates' voiceover, dropped right into the middle of his tumultuous life as a professional chicken fighter. Mansfield travels all over the south with his prized chickens, pitting them up against other chickens in a fight to the death. Within the first 10 minutes of the film Mansfield's best cock is felled and killed by Jack Burke's bird. The fight has cost Mansfield his chicken, his trailer, his girlfriend, and all his money. Mansfield then returns to his family farm where he meets up with his fiancee, Mary Elizabeth. She asks him to stay, but he refuses, sells the farm (where the buyer comes to the house and literally moves it away), and hits the road again in search of fame and fortune as a cockfighter. Mansfield eventually meets and teams with Omar, who has a sure-winning cock, White Lightning. They hit the circuit and start earning money and punching their ticket to the cockfighting championship, where Mansfield's dream of winning the prized medallion could finally happen, while also trying to win back his fiancee.
Word of warning: this movie is full of animal abuse. While there are only about four scenes of the cocks fighting, they are filmed up close and they are brutal. There are also instances of the actors killing the chickens. It's not pleasant, and I'm making no excuses for it here. That said, I still love this movie, and it's mostly due to Oates. At first we don't know why this character isn't talking, and I won't spoil it here. But in 1974, there was no other actor that could play this role with such gravitas and power as Warren Oates because he never needed to speak to deliver a moving performance. Oates could play an unpredictable loose cannon like in The White Dawn (1974), or a monster like in Hellman's China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) just as easily as he could play a sad character like in Two-Lane. Here we get a little of each. Ultimately, though, we end up liking the character of Mansfield.

Animal abuse aside (if that's even possible), Cockfighter is a slice of life film, transporting the viewer to technically “contemporary” times, but because it's set in the backwoods south, it feels mid-century. Nothing in the film feels or seems modern, including the brutal practice of cockfighting. Having driven through the back roads of Arkansas several times (don't ask me why), it's a completely different world – universe, even – to which I'm accustomed. Trailer homes are tucked behind shelterbelts of trees, hidden from main roads and wandering eyes. Sprawling plots are filled with lean-tos and coops, all housing angry chickens ready to peck each other's eyes out. Fighting pits are either out in the middle of nowhere or in dark basements or back rooms with dirt floors. The locals are people who have never nor will they ever travel outside of their communities. In real life these are places I never want to go or return to. In cinema, though, I could live there for hours on end.
Many of the smaller and background characters that populate Cockfighter are people with whom I'd never want to associate. Several of the main characters, though, have a way about them; a deep fried southern charm, I suppose, and it's all because of the cast that plays them. Oates commands such empathy from the viewer that even as an amateur contract killer in Alfredo Garcia we tend to err on the side of love for him. Harry Dean Stanton as Burke is technically the antagonist of the film, yet he never does anything worse than Mansfield. Stanton had a Keith Richards way about him, clearly brilliant and endlessly cool, but also kind of bumbling. Omar, as played by Richard B. Shull, is dumb and lovable, just excited to have a partner like Mansfield. And screenwriter and author of the original novel, Charles Willeford, as the sort-of commissioner of the cockfighting circuit is a no-nonsense, brass tacks type of man but somehow conveys empathy toward everyone involved, from the chickens and their handlers to the bettors.
No other movie centered around animal fighting could elicit such a positive reaction from me. As with most of Hellman's movies, Cockfighter failed to leave a mark at the box office or on critics. It was all but lost and forgotten until it slowly started gaining a little traction in the cult movie world. Such is the case with Hellman's entire filmography. Two-Lane Blacktop failed to produce any mark at the box office, and its reviews were middling at best, yet it's now known as one of the greatest cult movies to ever exist, thanks in large part to Danny Peary. Two other Hellman films will eventually join the ranks of Two-Lane, The Shooting, Whirlwind, and Cockfighter. Iguana (1988) is a movie that I don't like, but it's intriguing enough that I believe it will continue to rise in cult circles. And Road to Nowhere (2010), Hellman's final film, is fascinating and strange and unflinching from an artistic vision that it will be heralded as a masterpiece someday. Until then, welcome Cockfighter into the official Cult Movies lineup.


  1. I really liked this when I watched it a few years ago (the cockfighting aside). I didn't know it was the same director that made Two-Lane Blacktop. I think one of the hosts of WHM podcast had recommended it as an aside. I should check out more of M. Helleman's movies so thanks for the recommendations.

  2. Warren Oates is one of those actors whose presence can induce me to watch a film. As you aptly stated, Anthony, he could express so much without saying anything. The role that I think about most with him is Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. I cannot imagine another actor portraying the craziness of that story so effectively. Two-Lane Blacktop has been a Junesploitation candidate for many years. Maybe this will be the year that I finally sit down to watch it.