Western, Drama | 83 Mins | Released: 1974
Director: Monte Hellman
Starring: Warren Oates, Richard B. Shull, Harry Dean Stanton, Ed Begley Jr., Laurie Bird, Troy Donahue, Warren Finnerty
Our Rating: 7
The plot of Cockfighter begins with a mute Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) locked inside a trailer preparing his best cock for an upcoming fight. He slices the chicken’s beak slightly so that it looks cracked in order to increase the betting against him in the upcoming fight. He bets his trailer, girlfriend, and the remainder of his money with fellow cocker Jack (Harry Dean Stanton). Mansfield loses the fight (ironically because of the cracked beak), almost all of his belongings, and is set on a rambling path to win the Cockfighter of the Year award.
Frank visits his home town, his family farm, and his long-time fiancée Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Mary Elizabeth has long grown tired of Mansfield’s cockfighter ways and asks him to settle down with her. Frank decides in favor of cockfighting, leaves Mary Elizabeth, sells the family farm for money to reinvest in chickens, and starts a partnership with Omar Baradinsky (Richard B. Shull). The partnership takes them all the way to the cockfighting championships.
Charles Willeford adapted the novel to the screen himself and made several major plot changes among many smaller changes in detail. The author indicated that Cockfighter is based loosely on the structure of the Odyssey, so it is most significant that the author removed the entire subplot with the beautiful widow Berenice, perhaps the Calypso character. Removing this character also excluded the protagonist’s short-lived music career from the plot, although the Cockfighter does show Mansfield plucking a guitar at one point. Two other significant characters in the novel are also missing from the movie: Doc Riordan (a pharmacist / inventor who supplies Mansfield with conditioning medicines for his chickens) and the Judge who sells the Mansfield farm. The final scene of the movie also presents a dramatic shift from the end of the book: Mansfield claims that Mary Elizabeth loves him as she walks off, whereas in the book he realizes the relationship is over and he is free.
There are many subtle details changed in the movie, most of which are insignificant to the plot. For example, it is emphasized in the book that Icky is a rare blue chicken, whereas in the movie he is a white chicken called “White Lightning”. The Mansfield farm is in Ocala in the book, in Decatur, Georgia in the movie. Possibly for some comic relief in the movie, Baradinsky goes back to the motel tournament rather than driving onto a separate tournament as in the novel. He hides his cash under the dead chickens in the bathtub and does not lose money like everyone else in the holdup. By the time of the Milledgeville tournament, Middleton’s wife had died in the book, but in the movie Middleton (played by Willeford himself) refers to his wife as living. And finally, in the movie, Mansfield does not “regain” his voice until after Mary Elizabeth leaves.