From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
"Frank Mansfield is a man on a mission. He's taken a vow of silence, sold his home, gambled away his RV and given up on love and friendship. He refuses to let his focus stray and he eyes his goal with the obsession of a man possessed. He must become the Cockfighter of the Year and his prized bird, White Lightning, is gonna take him to the top."
If I was Roger Corman and New World Pictures, that's how I would have marketed it. Unfortunately, I was yet to be born and Corman and company failed to make a profit off of this quirky character study. And, you know what, it's a damn shame, because director Monte Hellman and crew made a fine little picture. The cast is top-notch, the settings and action are extremely realistic, and the film's subtext takes a fascinating look at what it means to be a "winner" and how this desire for perfection can drive a man to the brink.
As hotheaded protagonist, Frank Mansfield, Warren Oates is something of a revelation, with his gestures and body language emoting all the things his mouth does not. His narration feels a bit like an addition to clue the audience in to the character's odd motivations and behavior, but it doesn't take away from his uniformly excellent performance.
The character he portrays is a man so enamored with cockfighting's top prize that he's willing to sell his family's home, abandon his fiancée, and dedicate all of his time and thought to preparation for the big event. It's fascinating to watch his unwavering focus as he trains birds to run faster and peck harder; his persistent commandeering resembling that of an Army general. His whole being and identity depends on this victory and he would not be the man he believes himself to be without the top honor.
The battles he sends his "men" into are quite a brutal sort. Every cockfight depicted in the film is authentic; down to the ring etiquette, swarms of seedy gamblers and dead roosters at fights end. The animal cruelty shown will offend most viewers, but without these scenes, Hellman's portrait of an American subculture would have never seemed so strikingly realistic and matter-of-fact. It's this brutality that makes it a telling portrait of "sport" and the voyeuristic role of the "sport's fan."
Although it's a bit of an odd entry into the exploitation cinema lexicon, Cockfighter just shows the wide variety of material that played at drive-ins and theaters in the 1970's and is an exemplary piece of authentic American cinema.
P.S. For those looking for the Southern-fried crime drama depicted on the "Born to Kill" poster, I apologize, but this film doesn't exist. It was merely a clever retitling with a bit of phony artwork intended to lure audiences into theaters after Cockfighter bombed on its initial run.
Reviewed by Mdeapo