[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
Bite the Bullet will be easy for some people to underrate and easy for others to overrate—which evens out to saying it’s a pretty good movie. Richard Brooks has hardly specialized in Westerns, but those he’s made are worth remembering: The Last Hunt, an utterly original tale about buffalo hunters, full of pain and cold, and vouchsafing Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger rare opportunities to acquit themselves admirably; and The Professionals, a fat and sassy Mexican-bandido thing that bit off its gritty-romantic conceits too neatly for serious credibility but still yielded a generous portion of thrills, laughs, and shameless glory. Bite the Bullet is built around a 700-mile endurance race sponsored by a newspaper called The Western Press. The reporters and a few high-toned gamblers, promoters, and horse-owners travel by railroad while a satisfyingly diverse band of aspirants and one hired rider—cover the terrain the hard way.
By definition it’s not a spur-poking, sweat-frothed endeavor—at least not for most of the riders involved. For the first several days out, the contestants rendezvous and take brief breathing spells at various checkpoints in forests and deserts, testing one another—again, for the most part—with graciousness and respect and a sense of sportsmanship that even the money stakes don’t particularly jeopardize. The rules of the game and a sense of how it should be played are both established in a fine afternoon-and-night scene when everyone collects at the starting point and George Grenville cuts stunningly between main-street brouhaha and the testy/friendly, sizing-up session in the corral. Brooks’s dialogue (he has written virtually all of his films) is the best sort of movie-ese: pushed one stop beyond everyday density and ingenuity, so that we delight in the stylization (“Just like old times—you start trouble and I start bleedin’!”) without feeling compelled to play it cool with an aw-come-on; and his characters’ behavior, if it lacks the marrow-deep commitment and personal veracity of Hawks or Peckinpah people, is still eminently professional, self-contained, and entirely likable. People tend to draw big speeches now and again—a congenital weakness of writer-directors—but when the people are Gene Hackman and Ben Johnson there’s no reason to grouse, especially since Brooks manages not to give everyone extended reverie time. No one is forced into cute or glibly self-defining postures, from the major characters down through the rank and file.
It’s particularly gratifying to see Candice Bergen assimilated painlessly into the structure of film and events as a hard-riding contender who turns out to have something besides her gender in store as a surprise. As for the men, the completely convincing relationships Brooks creates include seasoned friend- and partnership, instinctive mutual regard between gentlemen who are gentlemen regardless of class or country of origin, and an unofficially communal school-of-hard-knocks-tutorship for an initially unbearable snot (Jan-Michael Vincent, bien sur); it’s worth noting that, unlike almost any other filmmaker who’s ventured into Western territory in the past few years, Brooks has succeeded at this without waving the battle-flag of machismo or hinting, at the other extreme, that if there weren’t beautiful horses to ride the fellows would be slapping each other’s leather. These virtues far overshadow the lameness of the final day of the journey, covered without conviction by a postcard-pretty montage of individual horsemen moving we’re-not-sure-where in relation to their rivals or the finish line. For the record, Brooks makes the first use I can remember seeing of slowmotion and normal-speed action within the same frame, to memorable effect.
BITE THE BULLET
Screenplay and direction: Richard Brooks. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. Editing: George Grenville. Art direction: Robert Boyle. Directorial assistance: Tom Shaw. Music: Alex North.
The players: Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Ben Johnson, Ian Bannen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Mario Arteaga, Robert Donner, Dabney Coleman, Paul Stewart, Jean Willes, Sally Kirkland.
Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson