Tag Archives: Gene Hackman

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)


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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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Nicholas Chennault ~ August 5, 2013

Unforgiven—Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Jaimz Woolvett, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek (1992; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

A bleak and unyielding western, one of the two westerns that won the Best Picture Oscar in the early 1990s—a period not otherwise noted for its production of westerns.  It’s a great western, but it’s not where you’d start if you weren’t already familiar with this genre.


This is the movie that established Clint Eastwood as one of the premier directors of his time, and not just of westerns.  Eastwood is said to have approached a script that had been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, with the intention of making the last western.  It obviously wasn’t the last in a literal sense, but it feels like it has a note of grim finality.  And Eastwood himself hasn’t made or appeared in another western since.

unforgiven1  Eastwood as William Munny

Eastwood’s performance as reformed, then unreformed, gunman William Munny is the linchpin of the film, but Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman are superb as well.  Hackman won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as sadistic sheriff Little Bill Daggett.

Farmer, widower, family man and former gunman William Munny is “a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition,” although you wouldn’t know it to see him initially in his role as a pig farmer.  He is reluctantly brought out of retirement by a young man who calls himself the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to collect the bounty a group of prostitutes have put on some cowboys who cut up the face of one of them in Big Whiskey, Wyoming.  Over the course of the movie Munny reverts more and more to his previously cold-blooded self, especially when his long-time sidekick Ned Logan (elegantly played by Morgan Freeman) is killed by the vicious Little Bill.  Ultimately, for Munny there is no going back to pig farming this time.  It’s a fascinating journey as the characters make their choices and play them out, their free will pitted against an increasing sense of grim inevitability.  The most moral character is probably Freeman’s, and he ends up dead.  For least admirable character, it’s kind of a toss-up between Eastwood and Hackman, and the winner is the one who’ll be the most ruthless.  It’s powerful stuff.  William Munny recognizes what he’s doing, but is relentless in doing it anyway.  “Hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

There’s running commentary by Little Bill himself, as he kind of adopts nebbish scribe W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) to explain his tactics and motivation in trying to maintain some kind of order in the violent town of Big Whiskey, while the bounty attracts all kinds of undesirables.  Among them is bounty hunter English Bob (Richard Harris), of whom Little Bill makes short work.  Beauchamp has come west in search of western stereotypes he thinks he knows, only to find that the real thing is a lot more daunting and dangerous.  Munny becomes more hard-bitten and even less verbal as the movie goes on, although he doesn’t seem to mind explaining himself to the writer, either, so far as there is an explanation other than “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ people.”  Finally, there’s a futility about it.  From the dying Little Bill:  “See you in hell, William Munny.”  “Yeah.”


For a movie whose subject is killing, with the cost of killing to both those killed and those doing the killing, this movie nevertheless carries quite a kick without anywhere near the body count of less gritty fare like Young Guns or, obviously, such classics as The Long Riders and The Wild Bunch.  For those who think of westerns as all action, beautiful horses, impressive landscapes, quick justice and the adventure of blazing guns with no introspection, this is kind of an antidote.  From Hal Herring:  “These are collisions set in motion on a grand scale that remain extremely human and comprehensible.  There has never been a set of characters so believable, yet so extreme, and, even with all of the cruelty, so likable.  You never know, exactly, who to root for.”

This is unsurprisingly rated R for violence and language.  It seems impossible to make a western with modern cinematic standards for gunfights without having an R rating, and this one is particularly grim.  This may not be a movie that one will love, but one has to see it if one loves westerns.  For the second time in three years (and only the third time ever), the Oscar for Best Picture went to a western when Unforgiven won it, and Eastwood won for Best Director.  With his respect for tradition, Eastwood dedicated the movie simply “To Don and Sergio”–his film-making mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (director of his Dirty Harry movies and Two Mules for Sister Sara).

This is the most recently-made of five westerns on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies, where it appears along with High Noon, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch.  (There are six if you count Treasure of the Sierra Madrehttp://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx)

Note:  Don’t confuse this one with the overblown, John Huston-directed The Unforgiven from 1960, with Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn (as an adopted Kiowa sister) and Audie Murphy.

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