In the 1974 Monte Hellman film, Cockfighter, the late, great Warren Oates plays a miserable sonofabitch named Frank Mansfield who, in the film’s beginning, bets his trailer, girlfriend and all of his money on his prize cock, whose beak he cracks intentionally before the fight in an effort to increase the action against him. This, of course, backfires and he loses everything; because of the cracked beak, ironically. From this moment on, he decides he will not utter a word until he becomes the number one cockfighter. This film is based on Charles Willeford’s novel, who wrote wonderful, bitter, biting novels mostly set in his native Florida. His best known books are the Hoke Moseley novels, Miami Blues being one of them, which was also turned into a film by George Armitage and starred Fred Ward and Alec Baldwin in a comic-psycho role that cemented his reputation as a solid comic actor. Cockfighter is one of those underground classics because of Oates, whose silence speaks more eloquently than most Shakespeare. He is a taciturn, embittered American with a lot to prove through the ritual of blood sport. It is a fascinating and uncommon film which was banned in England for cruelty to animals. It is a necessary film in that it underlines the madness that failure entreats in men. It shook me.
It is probably not a suprise that Cockfighting was big with hobos, as was dog-fighting and bear-baiting. That economically disenfranchised people visit cruelties upon animals is not news. Oddly though, cockfighting throughout much of the South and in the Caribbean is considered a gentry sport. Many wealthy men (and it is almost exclusively men) raise and fight gamecocks.
When I first moved to North Damen Avenue, there was a little bodega down the street. It was run by a friendly older Peurto Rican guy I knew as Popi, who raised fighting cocks. He often shook his head at me when I mentioned the cruelty of it. He said, “You gringos get so upset about chickens fighting… but you still eat the McNuggets and wings and barbeque. . .reelly vato. What the fuck? At least the fighting cock has a 50-50 shot, you know?” I had to admit he had a point. I’ll eat a plate of wings without pitching any boo-hoo for the chickens. I guess it is where you are in life that constitutes what cruelies you can live with, what blood you’ll willingly shed; what and who’s pain is negotiable.