There’s a major story problem at the center of this big-canvas adventure set in the afterglow of the Wild West era, so your ability to overlook the problem will determine whether you can enjoy the film’s many verbal, visceral, and visual pleasures. Here’s the problem. A macho adventure story about a brutal 700-mile horseback race across some of the southwest’s most unforgiving terrain, the narrative is predicated on the notion that competitors are willing to endanger their steeds in the hope of winning a significant cash prize. Fair enough. Yet the film’s hero, Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman), is consistently portrayed as such a devoted equine caretaker that he beats the tar out of anyone he observes abusing horses. Therefore, his choice to enter the race—even though his original role was merely to deliver a champion stallion to one of the competitors—makes very little sense. Seriously, is the most effective means of protesting an event that you consider to be inhumane participating in that event?
As was often his wont, writer-director Richard Brooks pushes the story deep into the Myth of the American Man, which means that notions of heroism and legacy and pride often trump basic logic. That said, for viewers who can overlook the basic disconnect at the heart of the film’s principal characterization, Bite the Bullet is an exciting film.
Predictably, the race attracts a colorful group of competitors. Clayton and Luke Matthews (James Coburns), are both veterans of Teddy Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders. Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen) is an Englishman with high-minded notions of sportsmanship. Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a hotheaded kid looking to make a reputation as a tough guy, no matter the cost to animals or people. Miss Jones (Candice Bergen) is a prostitute eager to change her life. The oldest competitor (Ben Johnson), is a saddletramp with health problems who never shares his name—making him a surrogate for the countless anonymous adventurers whose labors helped birth the legend of the Old West.
Brooks, an adept screenwriter who often wandered into strange narrative terrain, mostly stays focused in generating character-driven pathos and rip-roaring adventure, essentially recapturing the vivacious tone of his great film The Professionals (1966) while infusing the picture with a thread of melancholy. Much of this works. Brooks capably introduces the characters with pre-race vignettes, and then he follows groups and individuals during intimate scenes of adversity and bravery. Hackman hits consistently interesting notes by playing to his mean streak while also demonstrating compassion, Johnson hums the same elegiac melodies he performed so beautifully in The Last Picture Show (1971), and Vincent incarnates the arrogance of youth. Meanwhile, Bannen, Bergen, Coburn and fellow supporting player Mario Arteaga add important colors to Brooks’ palette.
Speaking of palettes, the film looks terrific, with cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. crafting just the right mixture of frontier grit and nostalgic beauty.
Ultimately, the lingering image from this picture is that of horses moving in slow motion, sweat pouring out of their bodies in clouds of foam, as their riders push them beyond their limits. One imagines Brooks was after some sort of Big Statement here, so it’s a shame he didn’t find the right leading character to use as a prism. At best, the film’s Big Statement is hopelessly murky; at worst, the assertion is bewilderingly hypocritical. It doesn’t help, of course, that the film is quite long-winded, especially during a pair of endless monologues, one inflicted by Hackman and the other by Johnson.
Bite the Bullet: FUNKY