Bite the Bullet

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 14, 2014

Bite the Bullet—Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Ben Johnson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Dabney Coleman, Ian Bannen (1975; Dir: Richard Brooks)

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This is the story of a newspaper-sponsored endurance horse race (700 miles in seven days) in the early days of the 20th century (1905), with a variety of contestants including old friends and former Rough Riders Gene Hackman and James Coburn.

Reporter: “Two important regulations. Rule One…”
Carbo: “Win!”
Reporter: “Rule One: each horse must carry no less than 160 pounds including rider, saddle and extras.  Rule Two:  You’ll be issued a compass and a map for each leg of the race.  On it, you will find the safest route.  You don’t need to take it.  You do have to make every checkpoint.  Miss one, you’re disqualified—out of the race.  Any questions?  Jump off time: six in the morning.”

Sam Clayton (Hackman) is a sort of horse-whisperer type; Luke Matthews (Coburn) is a gambler, in the race purely for the money.  The other contestants seem to be a variety of stereotypes:  Carbo, the Kid who’s not really the cowboy he pretends to be but comes of age during the race (Jan-Michael Vincent); the dying but sympathetic Old-Timer (Ben Johnson); Jones, the Gritty Babe with a Past (Candice Bergen); the Competent Mexican (Mario Arteaga); Sir Harry Norfolk, the Sporting Englishman (Ian Bannen); Jack Parker, the Distasteful Magnate (Dabney Coleman); and others.  The story develops in seeing them get winnowed out while eventual winners, and a couple of non-winners, demonstrate their worthiness.

Character gets established early in the film.  Clayton has been hired to deliver a thoroughbred to the train transporting race participants, and he misses the connection while saving a colt.  Carbo has a big mouth and doesn’t treat animals well.  Clayton sticks up for underdogs; Matthews sticks up for Clayton.  Jones makes connections with her former madam and establishes general competence despite her background.  The Mexican has a bad toothache but can’t get it attended to because of social prejudices.  The wealthy Englishman is a good sport who cares about his horse; the wealthy American less so.

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The loutish Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) punches out a donkey.

Miss Jones: “For a family who don’t know a jackass from a mule, you sure know a lot about the West.”
Jack Parker: “We don’t have to know about it. We, ah, we own it.”

The plot feels organic, up to a point.  Backstories on most of the contestants are revealed bit by bit, but some of them remain more enigmatic than others.  The movie is most interested in Sam, Luke and Jones, with perhaps more of Carbo than the audience needs to see.  There are a couple of changes of heart that are not entirely convincing because they happen so fast.

Carbo: “That sonofabitch [Clayton] tried to kill me.”
Luke Matthews: “Oh, he couldn’t a tried very hard.”

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Miss Jones (Candice Bergen) defends herself in the desert.

Near the end of the race, it develops that Jones is in the race to help her bank-robbing boyfriend Steve (Walter Scott) escape from a chain gang.  Her eyes are opened when Steve brings along two others, kills guards unnecessarily and steals horses from contestants in the race (the Mexican, Sam and Luke).  The various parties—Jones, Sam, Luke, Carbo and even the American magnate—cooperate in getting them back, with Luke maniacally driving the newspaper’s motorcycle.  This rehabilitates Carbo’s careless character, who redeems himself with this and by taking care of the Old Timer’s horse.

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Sam (Gene Hackman) and Luke (James Coburn) give chase on a modern contrivance.

There are only three contestants still in the race at the end: Sam, Luke and the thoroughbred rider. The grueling race has taken its toll on them, and the conclusion is fairly satisfying.  It’s not entirely clear what happens to the Mexican and the thoroughbred.  Jones leaves after her role in abetting the escape becomes obvious, although it is clear that she remains good-hearted and didn’t intend the nasty things Steve did.  She’s well rid of him.

Gene Hackman and James Coburn were at the peaks of their careers in this.  They were well-cast for their parts, and they form the center of the film.  Candice Bergen was great to look at, not a superb actress but able to do what is required of her here.  Well written, this makes pleasant enough watching, but it’s not quite as good as writer-director Brooks’ previous effort in The Professionals (1966).  It may be better than Brooks’ seldom-seen The Last Hunt (1956).  The social attitudes seem quite current for a film now forty years old, but maybe we’re just now catching up with Hollywood liberals of the 1970s.  The point is made a couple of times about technology overtaking the horse, with a recurring motorcycle.  Music is by Alex North.  In color, at 131 minutes.

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Things just aren’t working out.

Lest the title seem too arbitrary, there is an actual bullet bitten in this movie.  When the Mexican can’t get dental attention for his tooth, Jones lances the infection and Clayton fashions a temporary crown for the tooth out of a bullet casing.

For another endurance race featuring a westerner (albeit a race in the Arabian deserts), see Hidalgo, with Viggo Mortensen (2004).  Historically, there were several endurance races like the one in this film.  The most famous took place in 1893, a 1000-mile race from Chadron, Nebraska, to Chicago, promoted by Buffalo Bill Cody in connection with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The best-known participant was horse thief Doc Middleton.  The race in this movie is said to have been inspired by the 1908 700-mile cross-country horse race from Evanston, Wyoming, to Denver, Colorado.  It was sponsored by the Denver Post, which offered $2,500 in prize money to the winner.

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