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Bite the Bullet

Bite the Bullet
Columbia TriStar
1975 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9/ 131 min.
Starring Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, James Coburn, Ian Bannen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Ben Johnson, Mario Arteaga
Cinematography Harry Stradling Jr.
Production Designer Robert F. Boyle
Film Editor George Grenville
Original Music Alex North
Written, Produced and Directed by Richard Brooks

Note 3/20/05: Sony Pictures is now only offering BITE THE BULLET in a Pan-Scan disc version. The Disc is NOT recommended. GE

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Lusty, high-spirited and full of the pleasures of the American Western, Bite the Bullet is easily the best of Richard Brooks' 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 greater than the indifference with which it was met at the box office. On DVD, remastered in top-quality 16:9 from a high-def transfer, it's a shining example of what's great about Columbia TriStar's policy for library titles ... the policy that's currently in jeopardy.


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. Punk Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) arrogantly thinks he has what it takes to win, and aging cowpoke 'Mister' (Ben Johnson) signs on because he desperately wants to be somebody before he dies. Miss Jones (Candice Bergen) is an ex-prostitute who 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 very badly chipped tooth. Gambler Luke Matthews (James Coburn) has foolishly bet his bankroll on winning; he and horse-loving, thoughtful Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) are ex-Rough Riders with differing philosophies of life. When the grueling race begins, its a test of both beast and character.

This still may not be the 'real' West, but even in its glorification, Bite the Bullet abandons the usual Western movie vendettas and shootouts in favor of details and events that are far more credible than fast guns or moral mythmaking. Cowboys here are more like outcast laborers - reckless fools when they're too young and stubborn fools when they're too 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 has a horribly painful cracked tooth that he dulls 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 up the all-star cast with authority and goodwill, and his character is written to be loved. He rescues horses from cruel mistreatment, gives an orphaned colt to an ecstatic farm boy, and spends half the race looking after the other contestants. Much maligned actress Candice Bergen is fine as the rough-edged mystery beauty. Savant can't fathom what problem people have with her, as she's good in practically everything she does, including some pretty difficult roles. Her other big adventure of 1975, the marvellous The Wind and the Lion, was also not very successful. James Coburn, just beginning to look long in the tooth, plays his part with fine restraint. He's batted off his horse by a bear, and even gets to ride a sidecar motorcycle as in Fistful of Dynamite: "Just tell me how you start it, how you make it go, and how you stop it." He's a total embarassment as a flamenco dancer, however. Jan-Michael Vincent allows his character to be despised and in doing so turns in his best work ever - he's very convincing as a total jerk kid badly in need of a whipping.

The subordinate roles are excellent. Dabney Coleman is a bossy bigwig, but shows character when he halts the race to let some riders recover their horses from thieves. Ian Bannen plays his English hobbyist with dignity, and never becomes the butt of a joke or a symbol of decadence. Mario Arteaga has only 3 film credits in the IMDB, including a tiny bit in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and he's truly good in this substantial part. And Ben Johnson makes his broken-down cowboy a rich character we respect. Anybody who knows Westerns, can still see in him the terrific athlete and rodeo-calibre rider that he once was.

Richard Brooks' screenplay has its melancholy reveries, spoken tales 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 race-course itself, and shows us simple 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 judgement, bad luck and over-enthusiasm. Although they don't know each other's names, they look out for each other - even Coburn's self-professed cynicism is a facade that, through hardship shared, turns into nobility.

A myth of its own? Maybe, but Bite the Bullet sells it well. We do get a little gunplay in the last act, after a surprise turn of events, 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 in CGI. The horses are powerful, but also appear very fragile when plowing down steep inclines, or running at full tilt while exhausted.

Ace Cameraman Harry Stradling, Jr. uses long lenses but few zooms and stays away from the filters that mar some contemporary period pictures, notably Zulu Dawn. He gets away with some interesting day for night scenes. There's also a very effective use of normal and slow motion in the same shot, to contrast Carbo's wheezing, dying horse against Luke's galloper.

Savant did some work for the American Humane Association last January and got an earful of their attitude regarding the abuse of animals in movies. It wasn't mentioned by name, but it's easy to see that horsefalls here and there in Bite the Bullet were accomplished with a 'running W' snare, the kind of wire rig that pulls a horse straight down and more often than not causes him to do a murderous-looking flip. Brooks showed an uncommon sensitivity to horses in his script for the 1966 The Professionals, so I have to think that he simply wasn't aware. For the record, the AHA approves of using animals horses trained to fall, so long as they aren't tripped, snared, or tricked.

If you're looking for a nonviolent but exciting Western, Bite the Bullet is just the ticket. There's a lot of hankypanky with Jean Willes' eager prostitutes, considering the picture's PG rating, but otherwise it's a fine wholesome show stressing good values for impressionable minds. It teaches respect for animals and cowboys alike, and presents a world where idealism still has a chance. Highly recommended.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Bite the Bullet is a no-extras beauty. As with many a superior film ghetto-ized in home video by the unimpressive stats from an original theatrical run, this picture deserves the great transfer it's been given. One reason it failed at the boxoffice was its ill-conceived ad campaign: the illustration on the insert sheet shows the faux-Remington picture of galloping horses with our stars' foolish faces pasted in. 1975 audiences rejected what looked like a very corny picture, and at the time, Savant skipped it for harder attractions like Jaws.

Columbia does great work with their transfers, but still needs better proofreaders. Multiple Oscar winner and Hollywood writer-director legend Richard Brooks is clumsily misidentified as Robert Brooks on the package text.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Bite the Bullet rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 19, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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