Tuesday, October 18, 2016

MOVIE: Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter” starring Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton

Critics say the decade of 1970s was a golden age of movies. Newcomers were given a chance to do the stories they wanted, and commercially doubtful films found their way to the screen because the filmmakers believed in them.

But, having read Charles Willeford’s novel, Cockfighter, I had to wonder why anyone wanted to turn it into a motion picture? Did they expect audiences to flock to the theaters to see it. (Sorry about the bad pun there.)

“Cockfighter," the 1974 movie, was directed by Monte Hellman, a quirky filmmaker who directed Jack Nicholson in a couple of westerns in the 1960s, and who made the terrific “Two-Lane Blacktop” in 1971. “Cockfighter” was produced by the dean of low-budget movies, Roger Corman. It starred Warren Oates, a very good actor, who proves it again here. Also in the cast were Harry Dean Stanton, Richard B. Shull, Troy Donahue, Ed Begley, Jr., Laurie Bird, and Charles Willeford, the author himself, in a surprisingly big supporting role as the referee of the fights.

All those people made me want to see the movie. But before watching it, I read the book.

I found the novel jaw-dropping in its violence. The movie follows the book very closely. Willeford wrote the script himself and the fights are as they were in his novel. But, without the gory descriptions Willeford detailed in the book. The documentary-style footage of roosters fighting mostly looks like a lot of wings flapping and feathers flying about. Still, it is pretty brutal stuff.

Aside from the fights – which look real – the story of Frank Mansfield doing everything he can to be the top owner and trainer of gamecocks is quite good, better than the book, which is due to Oates, a likeable actor. His scenes with the other trainers, his brother and a woman who wants to marry him are well done, if very slow by today’s standards. Movies back then took their time and allowed an audience to observe the characters, unlike today when too many movies feel rushed and choppy.

Oates, Stanton and the other actors were very good in their low-key, naturalistic performances, which fit the style of the film. Hellman seems to have used a lot of non-actors and it all blends together very well. But be warned, this movie is pretty tough to take, even for a fan of Hellman, Corman, Oates and company.

(For movie posts on movies and television, see Todd Mason’s blog)


  1. Elgin, neither the director nor the actors are familiar to me but I'd like to watch this film because of the story, which I think is unusual, and because of your warning of the kind of film it is. It also sounds like a well-made movie.

    1. Prashant – It is hard for me to recommend this movie. The subject is rough and the whole thing feels ultra low-budget. Instead, see if you can find “Two-Lane Blacktop.” As I write this, I am thinking I want to see “Two-Lane…” again.

  2. Replies
    1. Col – Make sure you have some anti-nausea medicine handy when you do.

  3. I have the book and the DVD but haven't tried either yet - great reviews!

    1. Thanks, Sergio. It is hard to recommend the book and the movie because they are so raw and brutal. But Willeford’s writing is always worth reading, and Monte Hellman’s films are always worth seeing.