They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1969 American drama film directed by Sydney Pollack. The screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson is based on the 1935 novel of the same name by Horace McCoy. It focuses on a disparate group of characters desperate to win a Depression-era dance marathon and the opportunistic MC who urges them on to victory.
Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who once dreamed of being a great film director, recalls the events leading to an unstated crime. In his youth, he saw a horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery. Years later, he wanders into a dance marathon about to begin in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier, near Los Angeles. He is recruited by MC (Master of Ceremonies) Rocky (Gig Young) as a substitute partner for a cynical malcontent named Gloria (Jane Fonda), when her original partner is disqualified due to an ominous cough. Among the other contestants competing for a cash prize of $1500 are Harry Kline (Red Buttons), a middle-aged sailor; Alice (Susannah York), a would-be Jean Harlow with delusions of grandeur, and her partner Joel (Robert Fields), an aspiring actor; and impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Early in the marathon the weaker pairs are eliminated quickly, while Rocky observes the vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants and exploits them for the audience's amusement. Already frayed nerves are exacerbated by the theft of one of Alice's dresses and Gloria's displeasure at the attention Alice receives from Robert. In retaliation, she takes Joel as her partner, but when he receives a job offer and departs, she aligns herself with Harry. Weeks into the marathon, in order to spark the paying spectators' enthusiasm, Rocky stages a series of derbies in which the exhausted remaining contestants, clad in track suits, must race around the dance floor, with the last three couples eliminated. Harry suffers a fatal heart attack during one of these, and an undeterred Gloria lifts him on her back and crosses the finish line. It is clear that Harry dies as Gloria drags him, and she unloads him on Alice, causing her to suffer a nervous breakdown. Robert and Gloria, now without partners, once again pair up. Rocky suggests the couple marry during the marathon, a publicity stunt guaranteed to earn them some cash in the form of gifts from supporters such as Mrs. Laydon (Madge Kennedy). When Gloria refuses, he reveals the contest is not what it appears to be on the surface. Numerous expenses will be deducted from the prize money, leaving the winner with close to nothing. Shocked by the revelation, the couple drops out of the competition. Distraught and despondent, Gloria confesses how empty inside she is. She tells Robert that she wants to kill herself, but when she takes out a gun and points it at herself, she cannot pull the trigger. Desperate, she asks Robert, "Help me." He obliges. Questioned by the police as to the motive for his action, Robert responds: "They shoot horses, don't they?" This final line of dialogue, echoing the film's title, is the "coup de grâce": the "blow of mercy." In committing assisted suicide, Robert is found guilty of murder and executed by hanging. His fate is not explicitly stated or depicted, but it is suggested through the film's use of flash-forwards and symbolism. The marathon continues with its few remaining couples, including James and Ruby. The eventual winners are never revealed.