The democratic nature of exploitation films means that everyone will be exploited and also everyone will be seen. Blacksploitation allowed black actors to star for often the first time ever in films and be seen as heroes while also appearing in movies that often glorify the worst parts of the black experience. In the same way, drive-in and grindhouse films allow groups of geographic audiences — like southern folks who often only saw themselves as dangerous rednecks — being given the chance to be heroes, often in regional films like Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown and The Legend of Boggy Creek which gave Texarkana drive-in audiences a film that showed real stories, legends and people from their own small corner of the universe, a place that Hollywood would rarely if ever portray.
Based on Cockfighter by Charles Willeford, who also wrote the script, this was directed by Monte Hellman, who had already made Two-Lane Blacktop with Warren Oates, who plays Frank Mansfield. When we first meet the mute lead, he’s slicing a chicken’s beak so that it appears weak; sadly this actually makes it weak and causes him to lose a major match which costs him his trailer, his money and his woman.
Frank could settle down, stay back on the family farm, make Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy) an honest woman and just live a life of planned nothingness. But that’s not for him. There’s something else, the draw of putting roosters into the ring, the chance to win everything and lose it all. His goal has put tunnel vision on him, forcing him to never speak until he succeeds yet he has no idea what that success is. His life is just drifting and moving toward an endless nothingness yet if he can make some money along the way, raising his birds knowing that all his work will still mean that they’ll eventually be destroyed in front of him. And yet at the end, he’s willing to sacrifice even his finest fighter to cause a woman to smile, a woman who walks away and doesn’t care one bit.
Warren Oates remains the same stoic heading toward destruction and yet being the resolute person he’s been in nearly every movie I’ve seen him in. Never compromise, even in the face of the end.
Cockfighter just by its title is the kind of movie that people are going to skip and yeah, it’s pretty much an entire movie of roosters killing one another. Yet just as much as Cannibal Holocaust is about more than a turtle getting killed — a boa constrictor, a tarantula, a young pig and two squirrel monkeys also are murdered — but also about inhumanity, this movie tries to break free of that and say something about a life that was — and is — rarely shown.
Much like blacksploitation, I feel like my Yankee upbringing keeps me from fully understanding this experience. I reached out to my friend — and amazing writer, seriously, join his Patreon — Raven Mack for some insight, as he’s from Virginia and knows more than a few things.
B&S About Movies: Maybe I just don’t get Cockfighter and never will. I’ve been raised to not be into animal violence yet I know that we consume animals and never consider all that goes into making them ready for my food.
Raven Mack: Cockfighting is not out in the open, but I did live near a pretty major ring that got busted. I’d heard about it a lot, but never seen it in person, though I’m familiar with guys who were quite obviously raising fighting roosters. You can tell because each rooster is chained up in its own house, and the chains don’t reach the next house. So there’ll be a yard with like 50 little wooden doghouse looking structures, but each one has a rooster in it, chained by its leg to the side of the house.
B&S: I love the drive-in era stuff because it’s so specific for non-urban audiences with racing and country-specific films.
Raven Mack: Cockfighter is one of my all-time favorite movies, not so much because of the cockfighting but because of how country it is, and how Warren Oates just kills it man. Definitely in my top 5 all-time movies personally, and I actually get mad when people talk about Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia as his greatest thing. Two-Lane Blacktop/Cockfighter is dream double feature in the Raven Mack Drive-In.
B&S: Was the drive-in part of your childhood?
Raven Mack: Yeah, my dad worked as a painter for this dude who lived just beyond the drive-in in Farmville. They’d be playing poker inside and us kids would be fighting and wrestling and shit in the yard watching the movies across the way. They had occasional porn late night and the grown folks would make us all go inside and stay in the living room, but me and this other kid would sneak into the kitchen to peek.
Also with the drive-in being part of my childhood, down near where I grew up, there was still a Keysville Drive-in that was for sale at the start of the pandemic. I actually had a half-brained notion of trying to get financing to buy it. But the pandemic period of them playing non-new release movies was temporary, and I’d be miserable if I was working four nights around the weekend every week just to show another fuckin’ superhero movie. It would’ve been hell, so I’m thankful the universe trickstered me in the right direction.
Raven also added:
One reason I’m drawn to this movie, and the idea of cockfighting, is chicken watching. I used to have a decent sized flock, and my girlfriend has a large flock with a wide array of types. Just sitting there in the yard after having tossed scratch out and watching the chickens is very much like watching fish in a tank, which they say is therapeutic for you. I call it a ground murmuration the way the collective moves in weird, disjointed ways, but smoothly somehow. But also, you can’t have too many roosters. Roosters are natural born assholes, or perhaps more likely it’s the result of domestication, and they’re actual natural instincts turn them into paranoid, quick to fight assholes. Whenever there’s been too many roosters in the flock, either back in the day at my old house, or at my girlfriend’s, they end up having to be culled anyways, which I can do as “humanely” as possible, but is always gory, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, because just axing a chicken head off causes the body to have nervous reactions and it bounces all over the place quite disturbingly. But I used to joke about wanting to start an organic cockfighting ring, because roosters just wanna fight each other, and the way they fly at each other, with their legs dropkicking at each other in air… it’s really a bizarre scene, and about as close as your average dilapidated compound gets to a Renaissance painting scene. Of course, people have to make it worse, and actual cockfighting involves tying sharpened gaffes to the rooster’s legs.
Nonetheless, this movie gets at the slow boil of the better side of rural life, of course with those climactic moments of stubborn, contrarian conflict. Oates’ character is a great embodiment of that, refusing to speak just because he didn’t win the little Cockfighter of the Year award. It’s also an incredibly artsy film for an exploitation era flick in terms of how the cockfighting scenes were shot. Of course, that’s an outlaw practice now, so the film will only survive on the margins of Tubi. But it is one of my all-time favorites, signified by actually getting it on DVD in the past few years, because I hate trying to figure out where the hell some things are streaming (if they even are), so I can always have it available, in my milk crate full of absolute classics.
You can watch this on Tubi.