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We note with great pleasure the release of Richard Brooks' Bite the Bullet on Blu-ray. Lusty, high-spirited and full of the pleasures of the American western, the 1975 release is easily the best of the director's later films, and a standout western of the post- The Wild Bunch era. Concentrating on adventure as opposed to gunplay and featuring a fresh cast in interesting roles, it deserved far better than the indifference with which it was met at the box office. Remastered by Sony in top-quality High Definition it's a pleasure to watch, a vacation from modern problems.
There's nothing fantastic or unrealistic about the story premise. In the first decade of the 20th century a newspaper promotes a 700-mile endurance horse race that attracts adventurers, gamblers, cowboys and wannabes from across the globe. News magnate Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman) enters a picked rider on his champion steed, and a real knight, Sir Norfolk (Ian Bannen) arrives with his English riding gear and a hearty attitude. Carbo, a young would-be gunslinger (Jan-Michael Vincent) arrogantly thinks he has what it takes to win, while aging cowpoke 'Mister' (Ben Johnson) signs on because he desperately wants to be somebody before he dies. Ex-prostitute Miss Jones (Candice Bergen) may have an ulterior motive for giving the race a go. A Mexican vaquero (Mario Arteaga) needs the money for his family, and signs up even though he's suffering from a badly chipped tooth. Gambler Luke Matthews (James Coburn) has foolishly bet his bankroll on winning; he and the horse-loving, thoughtful Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) are ex-Rough Riders with differing philosophies of life. The grueling race becomes a test of both beasts and riders.
This still may not be the 'real' West, but even in its glorification, Bite the Bullet abandons western movie vendettas and shootouts in favor of more interesting details and events. The cowboys of 1908 are more like outcast laborers -- reckless fools when they're young and stubborn fools when they're old. They get drunk and visit prostitutes, but they also suffer back pains, get sick, and are accidentally poisoned by quack medicines. The hardy Mexican in the race dulls his painful cracked tooth with that new miracle pill -- heroin! Hackman and Bergen fix him up with a shell casing for a temporary cap, giving the title Bite the Bullet a literal spin.
Gene Hackman heads the all-star cast with authority and good will, playing a character written to be admired. An ex- Rough Rider who lost the love of his life in Cuba, Sam Clayton rescues horses from cruel mistreatment and gives an orphaned colt to an ecstatic farm boy. He also spends half the race looking after the welfare of the other contestants. Candice Bergen is fine as the rough-edged mystery beauty. Much maligned in the 1970s, Ms. Bergen was good in practically everything she did, including some pretty difficult roles. Her other big adventure of 1975, the exciting The Wind and the Lion, was much more successful. James Coburn is just beginning to look long in the tooth, and plays his part with commendable restraint. His Luke Matthews is batted off his horse by a bear and even gets to ride a sidecar motorcycle as in his earlier Sergio Leone film Duck You Sucker: "Just tell me how you start it, how you make it go, and how you stop it." Coburn is a total embarrassment as a flamenco dancer, however. Jan-Michael Vincent allows his character to be despised and in doing so turns in his best work ever. Carbo mistreats his horse and brandishes his six-guns at his fellow racers. He's quite convincing as a brat badly in need of a whipping.
The subordinate roles are well covered. Bossy bigwig Dabney Coleman shows character when he halts the race to let some riders recover their horses from thieves. The charismatic Ian Bannen plays his English hobbyist with dignity, and never becomes the butt of a joke or a symbol of decadence. Mario Arteaga brings an ethnic perspective to the proceedings but is written as an individual personality. He shines in this sympathetic, substantial part. Veteran Ben Johnson's broken-down cowboy is a sentimental favorite. Fans of classic westerns can still see in his old man the terrific athlete and rodeo-caliber rider that Johnson once was. Richard Brooks' script ensures that we like all of the characters, even Jan-Michael Vincent's Carbo.
The screenplay has its melancholy reveries of war and lost loves but is mostly an optimistic celebration of cooperation and camaraderie. By the end of the race none of the competitors bears ill will for any of the rest; Brooks makes the conflict of the story the battle against the racecourse itself. Better yet, the film's almost Utopian spirit shows the qualities of cooperation, fair play and generosity as they grow in his characters. The riders come up against wild animals, bandits, rapists, escaped criminals -- all threats, but no more dangerous than pride, bad judgment, bad luck and over-enthusiasm. Although the racers don't know each other's names, they look out for one another - even Coburn's self-professed cynicism is a facade that, through hardship shared, turns into nobility.
Some violent action does come into play in the last act, after a surprise turn of events. And the film's conclusion -- literally the last minute or so -- isn't particularly striking or memorable. But the main delight of the show is watching men and horses go through the physical beating of a race that we feel, the kind of thing that can't be faked with CGI. The horses are powerful, but also appear very fragile when plowing down steep inclines, or running at full tilt while exhausted.
Richard Brooks showed an uncommon sensitivity to horses in his script for the 1966 The Professionals. Yet some of the horse falls in Bite the Bullet were accomplished with a 'running W' snare, the wire rig that pulls a horse straight down and more often than not causes him to do a murderous-looking flip. For the record, the American Humane Association approves the use of horses trained to fall, so long as they aren't tripped, snared, or tricked.
Does Bite the Bullet simply promote a western myth of its own? Perhaps, but Richard Books sells it well. If you're looking for an intelligent, exciting Western, Bite the Bullet is just the ticket. It teaches respect for animals and cowboys alike, and presents a world in which idealism still has a chance.
The new Blu-ray of Bite the Bullet is one of Twilight Time's most attractive releases to date. The western landscapes are spectacular. Some resemble locations previously seen in director Brooks' The Professionals. Lighting cameraman Harry Stradling, Jr. favors long lenses but few zooms and stays away from the filters and promiscuous focus tricks so popular in the 1970s. He also innovates, with an impressive use of normal and slow motion in the same shot, to contrast Carbo's wheezing, dying horse against Luke's sturdy galloper.
Alex North composes flavorful Western scores; I'd have to say that his 1959 music for The Wonderful Country strongly influenced Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Fielding's later music for more famous westerns by John Sturges and Sam Peckinpah. This composition earned North an Academy Award nomination.
Twilight Time includes North's music on an Isolated Score Track, and also offers an original trailer. Julie Kirgo's liner notes tell us that Brooks went before the cameras without a finished script, and that during filming neither he nor his actors knew who would win the race. Frankly, I think I know what kept Bite the Bullet from setting the box office on fire: a lousy ad campaign. Those of us around in 1966 remember the gut-grabbing, mysterious teaser spots for The Professionals, that emphasized a big "X" graphic. Some of the artwork for Bite the Bullet is acceptable, but the film's paste-up key ad art one-sheet poster communicates none of the film's good qualities.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bite the Bullet Blu-ray rates:
1. An informative note from the esteemed Mike Schlesinger, 4.07.12:
Glenn -- It's one of the greatest movies of the 70s, and I pushed it on exhibitors in my rep days every chance I could get. Though unlike you, I think the ending is magnificent.
However, you evidently don't know the real reason the movie flopped. It opened on June 20, 1975, the very same day as another picture you may have heard of, a little item called...JAWS.
Hope to see you at TCMfest, Mike
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