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Anchor Bay presents

Cockfighter (Born to Kill) (1974)

"You got two little faults, Frank. You drink too much and you talk too much."- Jack Burke (Harry Dean Stanton)

Stars: Warren Oates, Richard B. Shull, Harry Dean Stanton
Other Stars: Ed Begley Jr, Laurie Bird, Troy Donahue, Warren Finnerty, Robert Earl Jones, Patricia Pearcy, Millie Perkins, Steve Railsback, Tom Spratley
Director: Monte Hellman

Manufacturer: Crest National
MPAA Rating: R for (animal deathsports, sexual situations, nudity, language)
Run Time: 01h:23m:26s
Release Date: 2001-01-30
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB+C+ B


DVD Review

On this disc, cult favorites Monte Hellman and Warren Oates take us on a tour of the universally illegal and nonetheless widely practiced sport of cockfighting. Taking place primarily on a southeastern circuit, the sport centers around betting on trained birds which are fitted with nasty-looking pointed metal spurs; the birds then fight to the death.

Oates stars as Frank Mansfield, a man who has tried many sports but eventually became bored by all of them, until he took up cockfighting. This is, he muses, a far more difficult sport to master, due in part to the inscrutable nature of chickens. His tendency to drink and talk too much cost him a chance at the Cockfighter of the Year medal two years earlier, which prompted him to take a vow of silence. Oates thus gives a performance mainly in pantomime, with an occasional voiceover. Pitted against Frank is his archnemesis, Jack Burke (Harry Dean Stanton), who takes everything that Frank has (including his truck, mobile home and his girlfriend) as bets in the cockpit.

When Mansfield hits rock bottom, he meets up with Omar Baradinsky (Richard B. Shull), who has the capital and the birds to get into the sport, but not the knowhow. The two become partners and begin the climb to the top of the cockfighting world. Along the way, they have to deal with holdups, impromptu fights in motel rooms, fixed fights and cheating (including the apparent edge of goosing the rooster), as well as Frank's girlfriend Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy) who doesn't understand the sport and will have nothing to do with it.

Producer Roger Corman apparently thought he was being shrewd in making a movie about a highly controversial sport which is reportedly one of the biggest sports in the world, albeit underground. However, no matter how he sold it, those taking part in it didn't come to the theater, making it one of Corman's rare films that didn't make money.

One might be surprised to learn that the cinematography is often quite lyrical and poetic. Corman photographed a few graphic inserts which stand out quite jarringly against the background. Some of the fights are shot in a stylized slow motion which make the bloodsport seem balletic at times. Several abnormally long dissolves from the contemplative scenes between Frank and Mary Elizabeth into more worldly scenes serve to emphasize and underline the difference between the two.

Oates turns in a fine performance as Frank, effectively communicating with gestures and believably getting across a man who hasn't spoken in two years. Stanton as always is quirky and entertaining to watch. Shull is good as the exuberant wannabe who partners up with Frank. Particularly noteworthy is Ed Begley, Jr., in a very early role as Thomas, a cheater who goes completely ballistic when Frank's bird kills his 'Little Joe' despite the rigged pit they're in.

Part of the meaning that Frank sees in the sport is the ability of the birds to fight to the death without uttering a sound. This nicely mirrors Frank's own desperate fight to the death, if need be, without uttering a word, in order to gain the coveted medal. Regardless of how one feels about the sport, this is an interesting look at a very different way of life. Unlike the movie, no animals were harmed in the writing of this review.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.77:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: I think that most of what's wrong with the picture on this disc can be traceable to the cheap film used by Corman's productions and the low-light conditions under which it was filmed. The colors are attractive and black levels very good. Occasionally the anamorphic picture is too dark to make out what's happening clearly, although this lends the proceedings an air of documentary style, as does the extremely high film grain visible at times. This is not a problem of the transfer; the difficult scenes, such as moving wire mesh cages, come through without artifacting or pixelization. Scarcely any speckling or damage is visible throughout. This is probably as good as this image can get.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The sound here is a 2.0 mono which tends to be hissy. However, dialogue almost always comes through clearly and the folk music soundtrack sounds very good indeed. Bass is almost entirely lacking during the scene in which heavy equipment comes to take Frank's house away.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Monte Hellman, production assistant Steven Gaydos, moderated by Dennis Bartok
Packaging: Alpha
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:18m:16s

Extra Extras:
  1. 2 Radio Spots
Extras Review: Anchor Bay provides a number of extras in support of the film. The most prominent of these is a director commentary which provides a fair amount of background into the genesis of the film and the performances (we also learn how the fights were set up so that the right rooster would win). Hellman does a pretty good job of recalling details of the film and his friendship with Oates; production assistant Steven Gaydos fills in the gaps quite well. Dennis Bartok doesn't do terribly well as a moderator, asking questions which seem to have obvious answers, and some of which seem designed to embarrass Hellman.

The other primary extra is a documentary, Warren Oates: Across the Border, which covers Oates' career in film through his death in 1984. Copious clips are included, though all are presented in full-frame aspect. Oddly enough, the documentary is presented in 1.33:1 anamorphic ratio. Although there are plenty of interviews with people close to Oates, I was ultimately left without feeling as if I understood much about him. Robert Culp talks at great length about Oates' relationship with Sam Peckinpah, although Culp seems to be more interested in Peckinpah than in the subject of the documentary. There is no interview footage of Oates himself, which seems to be an odd omission. Surely he must have been interviewed on film at some point during his career. Ultimately this is a rather disappointing extra.

Rounding out the package are an anamorphic theatrical trailer, a TV spot, two radio spots, and biographies of Hellman, author Charles Willeford and Oates, with filmographies for Hellman and Oates. Chaptering is better than adequate, with 25 chapters for an 83-minute movie. At one time, this would have been an 'A' set of extras, but the bar has been risen so high that this one now only merits a 'B'.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

While certainly not for everyone, this picture does sport some fine performances and some attractive photography. The copious extras help make this one a keeper, though PETA folks need not apply.

Mark Zimmer 2001-02-27