Sure, its title might bring to mind some sort of brutal, nihilistic Spaghetti Western, but 1975's Bite the Bullet is instead a character-driven adventure, one that's set against the backdrop of an epic race at the
turn of the century. A newspaper syndicate out west is sponsoring the 700 mile endurance race, pitting a handful of ambitious competitors against searing desert heat, devastating cold, and just about every other sort of punishing terrain you can imagine. Far more is at stake than the $2,000 purse. For some, it's honor...for others, pride...then there's the staggering amount of money in wagers surrounding the race, reported to approach a quarter of a million dollars in all.
|[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]|
Among the contestants are Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen), a wealthy Briton who's devoted much of his time and fortune of late to watching astonishing feats of athleticism on this side of the pond, and this race offers Norfolk an opportunity to be more than just another spectactor. Former prostitute Miss Jones (Candice Bergen) is the only woman in the race, although her motives run deeper than merely proving that she can keep up with the men around her. Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the arrogant young punk who wants to prove he's the best, Ben Johnson's "Mister" is desperate to reclaim some of the status he lost years ago in the war, and just for good measure, there's a nameless, amiable Mexican (Mario Arteaga) who sees that two thousand bucks as lifelong security for his impoverished family. On the other hand, $2,000 is barely a rounding error for what high stakes gambler Luke Matthews (James Coburn) has bet on himself galloping into first place, and newspaper magnate Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman) is so flush that he can pay someone else to ride to victory for him. Heck, Parker can't even be bothered to bring his horse with him, instead having former Rough Rider Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) deliver the beast along the way. Clayton misses the rendezvous point when rescuing a horse left for dead by a glue concern, but rather than sulk at being fired, he instead enters the race himself. Clayton's determination and way with animals may prove to be invaluable; it's not called an endurance race for nothin', and this grueling 700 mile trek will push both man and beast alike past the breaking point.
As written and directed by Richard Brooks, Bite the Bullet has little interest in most any genre convention you could rattle off. Most movies revolving around a competition of this scale and scope are littered with
clumsy backstories, awkward comic relief, bitter rivalries, and inevitable denouements. Bite the Bullet, on the other hand, has a deep respect for every one of its characters. All of the featured competitors -- even the ones who aren't given proper names! -- are realized with considerable depth and personality, no matter how thinly sketched they may appear to be at first glance. Though everyone is certainly eyeing victory, there's no emnity on display here; not only is there no real attempt at sabotage, but they generally make it a point to help one another along the way.
|[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]|
Bite the Bullet shows equal compassion for the horses these characters are perched atop as well, which seems appropriate since they're the ones doing the heavy lifting, after all. Given the long distance and extreme conditions, these majestic creatures are put through a hell of a lot even under the best of circumstances. Bite the Bullet doesn't gloss over the toll that takes, and when you see a horse's side bloodied by spurs or a broken steed having to be put down, it makes a pronounced emotional impact.
Brooks has created a world that feels convincingly real and lived-in, and he certainly makes the most of his talented ensemble cast. There's a deft balance of humor, action, suspense, and high-spirited adventure, ensuring that the pace never drags throughout a single one of its 131 minutes. The cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. captures both the awe-inspiring beauty and inescapable danger of this untamed wilderness, and lugging its cameras throughout the Southwest lends Bite the Bullet a sense of scope that would've been lost if lensed in a single location. Much like Brooks' The Professionals -- also handsomely restored on Blu-ray, incidentally -- Bite the Bullet can hardly be dismissed as just another Western. Intelligent, artfully crafted, thrilling, and consistently engaging, Bite the Bullet may have been unjustly overlooked during its theatrical release more than a quarter-century ago, but it's a film that's well-worth discovering on Blu-ray. Recommended.
As has been the case for the overwhelming majority of Twilight Time's Blu-ray releases, Bite the Bullet looks phenomenal in high definition. This presentation shows very little in the way of speckling or wear, and whatever digital cleanup was done has not impacted its warm, filmic appearance in the slightest. A very fine and entirely appropriate sheen of film grain remains visible throughout. Bite the Bullet is rendered so cleanly and clearly on Blu-ray that subtle textures and fine patterns in the wardrobe are readily resolved. The palette skews dusty and sunbaked, very much as one would expect to see in a film with this setting. More vibrant colors do emerge when appropriate, however, such as the red and blue confetti that streams down when the racers first arrive at the station. Contrast is consistently robust throughout, reinforced by deep, inky blacks. Bite the Bullet looks terrific for a Western of this vintage, and I'm left with very little in the way of complaints.
The high-bitrate AVC encode for Bite the Bullet spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the image has been letterboxed to preserve the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Bite the Bullet boasts a hefty 96kHz sampling rate -- a rarity on Blu-ray -- ensuring that this 24-bit, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is that much more impressive. The score in particular
comes through astonishingly well, bolstered by a substantial, resonant low-end and engulfing every square inch of the room. The distinctness and clarity of the instrumentation are particularly remarkable. The score aside, the surrounds are also used to further establish a sense of atmosphere. Otherwise, the mix is primarily oriented front and center, reflecting the the film's monaural origins. Bite the Bullet's dialogue and traditional effects are reproduced well, if not to the same extraordinary extent as its music. The audio is free of any intrusive hiss, background noise, or other anomalies. I did notice one unusual sound at the 1:05:00 mark that didn't seem to match anything happening on or off the screen, and I can't claim to know what that is, exactly. If that is some sort of flaw, it's certainly easily shrugged off in what is otherwise such a wonderful presentation.
|[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]|
A second lossless soundtrack isolates Alex North's Academy Award-nominated score. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are also available.
- Isolated Score: The featured extra on Bite the Bullet is an isolated score, presented here in 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio.
- Trailer (3 min.; HD): Also included is a high definition theatrical trailer.
Bite the Bullet comes packaged with a strikingly designed booklet that features a terrific essay on the film by Julie Kirgo.
The Final Word
Unconventional and underappreciated, Bite the Bullet is a smart, artful, and wildly entertaining Western that proves to be a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray. Recommended.