Bite The Bullet

Director: Richard Brooks          
Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen

Though there had been signs of a decline years before, the western really started to die during the 1970s. According to the Internet Movie Database, Hollywood studios (including co-productions with European countries) in 1970 released 23 westerns. By 1974, the number was down to just 12. Then a funny thing happened the subsequent year - the western seemed to be on a big comeback, with the number of westerns (or movies with a heavy western flavor) released that year being over double that of the previous year. Sadly, it was a short-lived comeback, due mainly in part to audiences not embracing most of these movies. And if you ask me, that was because most of these westerns weren't very good at all(*). Still, the year wasn't without some worthy entries. Breakheart Pass is still an adventurous romp after all these years, Hearts Of The West is an amusing comedy/drama concerning early Hollywood and the production of "B" westerns, and the Kirk Douglas Posse is an often interesting look at public viewpoints and politics through its western setting. (I wish I could comment on that year's X-rated A Dirty Western, though I haven't been able to find a copy of it yet - for research purposes, naturally.)

One other noteworthy western that came out in 1975 was Bite The Bullet, a big-budget all-star epic written and directed by Richard Brooks, who nine years earlier had written and directed the now-classic western The Professionals. However, while The Professionals was a big hit with audiences, Bite The Bullet was instead a big box-office flop. There doesn't seem to be one single reason that could explain why Hackman and Bergen, reunited four years after "The Hunting Party", fondly recall that movie's hilarious final sequencepeople stayed away. Maybe the title turned people off. One theory among western fans lays blame on the marketing campaign, which seemed to focus exclusively on the all-star cast - a tactic used by a number of inferior movies (such as Irwin Allen disaster movies) that audiences by then were getting wise to, staying away from movies that had a movie poster with a horizontal row of boxes with pictures of the actors at the bottom. One other possibility is that audiences stayed away because the story of Bite The Bullet quite different from what people of the time expected and wanted of westerns - this particular story doesn't exactly seem capable of promising a steady stream of the familiar, namely shoot-outs and explosions. Not only that, but I am sure that many people thought that what the movie is about would be very boring to watch, not allowing their mind to take a minute to think of the many exciting things that could, and do, happen along the way.

And what is it that the plot of Bite The Bullet concerns? A race. Not a few laps around a track, nor an all-out excursion lasting an hour or two. The race in this movie takes a week, at the very least, for a contestant to finish. Set in the early part of the 20th century, we quickly learn that a newspaper syndicate, no doubt as a tactic to boost readership, is sponsoring a cross-country race. The contestants, riding on horseback with a minimum amount of gear, are to ride across 700 miles of desert and similar rough wilderness for a chance to win the grand prize of $2000. As I indicated before, the idea of seeing long periods of people riding (and not shooting and killing) in the desert probably didn't sound appealing to many viewers, thinking it would be boring to watch. But as the movie continues its setup, we get the first sign that this is not going to be a boring race. During this time, we meet most of the contestants making their way to the town where the race is to begin, and they are a diversified bunch. For example, the high-class Norfolk (Ian Bannen, Waking Ned) is an English lord with a passion for American sport, and after traveling all over America to watch big sporting events, he wants for once to be a part of it.

The remaining contestants also manage to stand out individually in their own ways. Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent, star of Airwolf and A.A.) is much younger than any of the other contestants, with his youth and hot-headed way of thinking making him determined to show these old-timers that his bronc is as good as any thoroughbred. Two of the contestants say very little, but are intriguing all the same; Oscar-winner Ben Johnson plays a mysterious  former Confederate soldier who has lost everything and seems to want to regain some status, and another unnamed contestant, a poor Mexican who speaks no English, is clearly desperate for the money. Surprisingly, there happens to be a female among the contestants; Miss Jones (Bergen), ignoring all objections from men (and women) from her decision to enter the race, says she is after the money as well, but at the same time she seems to be in the race for ulterior motives. Whenever Vincent wanted to practice being slumped down on the floor and against a wall, it was wise not to disturb himLuke Matthews (Coburn) is one of the favorites for the race, well-accustomed to the saddle, but also a professional gambler at heart, using all his life savings to bet on himself to win the race. The last notable contestant is Sam Clayton (Hackman), a former Rough Rider who abhors the cruel treatment often inflicted on horses. Though hired to deliver a horse to the rich Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman) for the rider he's hired for the race, Clayton in the end can't resist entering himself, despite the fact it's clearly going to be a hard journey for not just beast, but man.

Clayton's love for "dumb animals", as Matthews puts it, is part of something unique found in Bite The Bullet that you won't find among westerns old or even new. Without question, the main focus on the movie is the big race and the major events that happen to the contestants during in it. But ever so often we are woken up to the fact that although the journey is gruelling to each of the riders, it is even more gruelling to the horses - after all, they are doing pretty much all of the work in this race. Although we all know that the horse was essential for the settling of the west, this did not mean that horses were always treated well, as the movie keeps showing us. We see bloody wounds caused by riders repeatedly jabbing the sides of their horses with their spurs, horses hog-tied by glue makers and left alone in the desert, and horses with metal wires running in one nostril and out the other as a way to restrain them. Sometimes the cruelty on these beasts of burden serves no purpose, as when Carbo punches a jackass unconscious to amuse some onlookers. Though the movie shows the pain these animals get from some treatment, at the same time it presents it in an honest light - like it or not, these type of things did happen even into the 20th century.

This as-it-was viewpoint also adds authenticity to other things in the movie. For example, heroin is shown being sold legally in a bar as a painkiller. Naturally you couldn't do that today, but the everyday reaction here makes us accept it without laughing at these "naive" folk; you can relate it to the times you've been to the drug store and discussed with friends a product for an ailment you or someone else is suffering from. It's moments like that which make the characters in Bite The Bullet more real than in your typical western, or any other genre for that matter. Despite their greatly different backgrounds and all of their bravado, in the end we see that all of them are regular and decent folk. Even Carbo; while he first comes across as hot-headed and cruel to animals, the course of events ultimately prove that he is not unredeemable, standing up to the challenge when other contestants find themselves facing a major crisis. In fact, while Clayton states "Riding for money ain't sport, it's war!", he and the other contestants never let their greed get in the way of their humanity. If one contestant gets in trouble - a fall, getting sick along the way - any nearby contestants inevitably jump in to lend a hand, even if it means a delay of several hours.

Although there is a lot of action and suspense during the course of the race, there is a great amount of entertainment and interest Celebrities even in those days couldn't escape those tabloid photographerscoming from the characters themselves. Needless to say, with a cast containing a number of seasoned pros like Coburn and Hackman, you know you are going to get at least some good performances in the movie, especially since many of them are familiar with a saddle already. But the younger, as well as the less-known cast members do a good job as well. Bannen is delightful as the cheery English lord who proves surprisingly up to many challenges along the way. Vincent has the challenge of not only acting in an unlikable way, but in a way that makes his subsequent reform believable - and against the odds, he handles it with ease. As for Bergen, I think some viewers will have some objection because she comes across as too "modern" for a young woman from the early 20th century. Though when you examine her carefully, you'll see that much of this "modern" vibe doesn't come from her, but more from the makeup and hairdressing departments, as well as what the screenplay makes her do. Though "saddled" with these problems, Bergen still does her best to give a professional performance, and she does well under the circumstances, being a pretty likable character and having a good rapport with her co-stars.

It's the rapport that the contestants have with each other, plus with a few other characters along the way (such as Sally Kirkland's cathouse madam owner) that prevent Bite The Bullet being boring between adventurous moments on the trail. Just about every contestant at one point or the other has some kind of interaction with each one of his or her opponents, and each interaction captures our interest on one level or another. Some moments are filled with tension, like when Carbo chooses to start insulting Miss Jones while crossing a dangerous river. There are some touching moments involving Ben Johnson's character when he confesses some painful secrets to several of the other riders as the journey gets harder and more painful for him. But there are also some lighter moments along the way. Matthews has a very funny encounter with a woodcutter he stumbles across in the middle of the wilderness; though the punchline of the encounter is that of a quite familiar old joke, the jovial way it's delivered and the conversation leading to it make it still work. Many of the other lighter moments come when Matthews and his old friend Clayton find themselves together; Coburn and Hackman have a great chemistry together, and the (friendly) rivalry both of their characters have combined with this makes for some great comedy. Whenever a slow or relatively uneventful moment seems to be approaching, you can bet on them making an appearance, and they keep the flow going until something else is ready to happen.

But actions fans need not fret from these reports of not just (gasp!) more realistic Any Brit who thinks he can ride up to the standards of Wayne or Eastwood is just going to end up with mud on his facecharacters, but plenty of sparkling dialogue; there are a number of adventurous moments the contestants face along those 700 miles. Some such incidents come across as somewhat gratuitous and tacked-on, like a short incident when Miss Jones comes across some would-be rapists. But otherwise the action sequences deliver. While they might not be elaborate for the most part, they are more believable - we can accept such things could happen, some of them even today. Even "bigger" things that happen are carefully staged to make them as convincing as possible; the big part of Matthews' encounter with a bear had my jaw drop, because what happened was dangerous yet obviously not faked. Additional excitement also comes from simply seeing the riders cross the rough and hostile terrain. It's not boring; we see them stumbling and sometimes falling on near-impassable wilderness, and driven near to death by having to cross great expanses of desert in the middle of the day.

The wilderness has its deadly side, but it also has an awesome power to leave you breathless; I cannot finish this review without pointing out the movie's constantly stunning visual look, thanks to photography by Harry Stradling Jr. and well-chosen location shooting in Nevada and New Mexico. (The digitally mastered widescreen DVD brings the movie to a splendor it hasn't seen since its brief theatrical release.) You can't help but be captivated by the riders' struggling mile after mile in the middle of nowhere; just from these struggles in the elements alone, you keep watching just to see if they will simply survive their ordeals. And while they struggle, you learn much about them, so much so that you absolutely have to know just who will win. You might already think you know the answer, though there's a surprise with just who crosses the finish line. Yet this surprise still manages to be enormously satisfying and triumphant, just what we need after a journey that's equally enormously satisfying and triumphant.

* I am convinced that even today, a western would have a good chance of attracting a sizable audience if it was good. Indeed, the westerns of the past several years that have been hits (such as Unforgiven and Tombstone) were critically acclaimed, while box office bombs like Bad Girls, Texas Rangers, and American Outlaws were trashed by critics.

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See also: Bad Company, Raw Courage, Seven Alone