Monte Hellman's Cockfighter, adapted by cult noir writer Charles Willeford from his novel, is a strange bird indeed, an art film for an exploitation audience. Set in the game-fighting pits of the Deep South, it follows a season on the circuit with Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates), a veteran fighter whose hubris has cost him everything and who rebuilds his stable and his reputation while honoring a vow of silence. Costars Harry Dean Stanton and Laurie Bird previously appeared with Oates in Hellman's cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop. There are also appearances by Millie Perkins, Steve Railsback, Richard B. Schull, and writer Willeford, who acquits himself nicely as a pit judge.
Oates's portrayal of a determined, silent obsessive is almost minimalist yet beautifully expressive, accomplished with gestures, smiles, and nods. He's thoughtful and gentle yet dedicated to bloodsport, and his contradictions can be felt in the tension between the comic adventures and gritty stories of Willeford's script, with the meditative intensity of Hellman's often serene direction and cinematographer Nestor Almendros's lovely images of the Deep South's rural beauty.
Cockfighter was one of the few films produced by "King of the B's" Roger Corman that lost money, so he added a dream sequence full of nudity, created a trailer with action scenes nowhere to be found in the film, and rereleased the film under the title Born to Kill. Needless to say, Anchor Bay has returned to Hellman's original cut, which does contain footage of real and often savage cockfights. Animal lovers and squeamish viewers beware.
The accompanying documentary Warren Oates: Across the Border is a genial if ultimately lightweight portrait of the actor by friends and fellow performers Ben Johnson, Stacy Keach, Peter Fonda, and his Cockfighter compatriots Harry Dean Stanton, Millie Perkins, and Monte Hellman.
The DVD also features commentary by Hellman and production assistant Steven Gaydos, along with moderator Dennis Bartok. --Sean Axmaker