Bite the Bullet: Gene Hackman heads up an all-star cast in this underrated, highly entertaining, high-spirited Western adventure

Bite the Bullet(1975), written and directed by veteran Richard Brooks, is the last of the magnificent old-fashioned westerns. It eschews traditional cowboys and Indians narrative to delve deep into the relationship between man and his horse and man and the western wilderness to create an exhilarating adventure story.

“In 1906, a newspaper promotes a 700 mile endurance horse race. The fifteen contestants include News magnate Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman), who enters a picked rider on his champion steed;  British Knight Sir Norfolk (Ian Bannen); Arrogant youngster,  Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent), who thinks he has what it takes to win, and aging cowpoke ‘Mister’ (Ben Johnson), who desperately wants to be somebody before he dies. Miss Jones (Candice Bergen) is an ex-prostitute who’s motives for joining the race remains mysterious. 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 bet his lifesavings on the race and his horse-loving, while his comrade in ‘Rough Riders’, the animal-lover, Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) has entered the race purely on a whim. The race is going to take the riders through dangerous terrain: deep rivers, expansive deserts, mountains and jungles. When the grueling race begins, its a test not only of the endurance of horses and riders but also their philosophies of life and the meaning of victory and defeat.”

That in a nutshell explains Director Richard Brooks’ 1975 Western, Bite the Bullet; the last of the traditional westerns that was made smack in the middle of the most revisionist period in American cinema. Of Course, 1975 was also the year of Steven Spielberg’s  blockbuster Jaws that would change the film business forever; the audiences, who patronized the wunderkind Spielberg’s reworking of a classic adventure story: about the struggles between man and beast and man and nature, turned their backs on this old-fashioned Western –  that tackled similar themes – from an old master like Brooks. The film, in spite of  having a top notch cast – led by then hot Gene Hackman, who was still riding on the wave created by his Oscar winning performance in The French Connection as well as blockbusters like The Poseidon adventure –  turned out to be a disappointment at the box office, and faded from the public memory very quickly. But that does not diminish the film’s virtues. The film is  primarily a character study with the endurance horse race serving as the backdrop; accepting the consequences of a hard choice is a main theme of the film, hence the title Bite the Bullet, but the title also acquires a literal meaning: The hardy Mexican in the race has a horribly painful cracked tooth; Hackman and Bergen fix him up with a shell casing for a temporary cap, giving the title a literal spin. Brooks is famous for that kind of economy, whether in storytelling or budgeting, which extends to this film also; budgeted at a modest $4 million, the film looks truly epic and grandiose on screen, thanks to the breathtaking locations and the majestic  cinematography of Harry Stradling Jr. Within its primary theme, Brook’s story questions the American fascination with being the best. He wanted to take the viewers to a time when “the doing” was more important than “the winning” and the characters  had a code of honor and sense of ethics that had nothing to do with winning – By the end of the race, none of the competitors bears ill will for any of the rest. Gene Hackman’s lead character Sam Clayton even calls himself un-American because: ” if you’re not the best, the first and the greatest – if you don’t win, then you’re not American“. The film abandons the usual Western movie tropes: cowboys Vs Indians, Cavalry Vs Indians; lawmen Vs outlaws, vendettas and gunfights, and concentrates on the very basics of the Western history rather than its mythology, which is the fact that the history of the American west was written from the saddle of the horse; the  relationship between a “man of the old west” and his horse was almost spiritual in nature, and this has always remained an underlying theme in every western, though it was never overtly explored. Brooks attempts to do that here; along with that is the relationship between man and nature; the western landscape is one of the most beautiful looking, majestic landscapes in the world; at the same time, it’s harsh and hostile; which is why man’s attempt to settle down in the west makes such a rich cinematic subject matter. Western is the most American of film genres, it’s also the most cinematic of genres. There is no greater, overpowering visual image than a man astride a horse in the Western landscape;  Brooks’ film germinates from these themes and images, especially since it is set circa 1908, when the old west had pretty much become extinct, and  modernity had already encroached upon its pristine landscapes, with new modes of travel, communication and accommodations. In that regard, the endurance race takes on  a ‘meta’ dimension: what the organizers of the race is giving  the participants is exactly what Director Brooks is giving the film’s modern audiences: a slice of life in the Old West. which  was all about the bonding and struggle between man, beast and nature. Cowboys here are more like outcast laborers – reckless fools when they’re too young and stubborn fools when they’re too old. They are very much human, enduring illnesses and accidents, a far cry from the romanticized western heroes of yore, even though, the film is still a romanticized, traditional Western, except that Brooks makes the conflict of the story: the battle against the race-course itself, rather than moral conflicts between good and evil. 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, the contestants look out for each other. In the end, the main delight of the film is watching men and horses go through the grueling  physical exercise of proving their worth against an unforgiving Western landscape.

This sort of masculine storytelling is par for the course for the tough, no-nonsense Richard Brooks.He started out as a screenwriter, co-writing the hard-edged Key Largo(1948) with John Huston. After turning director, he adapted some revered literary works into films, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brothers Karamazov, Elmer Gantry and Lord Jim. Though not all of them very successful, his screenplays always possessed literary value, irrespective of whether the movies were big or small. Bite the Bullet has a lot in common with his 1966 Western, The Professionals, which told the story of a group of over-the-hill soldiers who take up a mission of mercy to rescue a rich man’s wife from a Mexican revolutionary. The film was a big hit, and  gave a major boost to Brooks’ career, which was in jeopardy after a few flops. If The Professionals was his ‘Iliad‘, then Bite the Bullet is his ‘Odyssey‘. The film possesses the same sweaty, masculine poetry and same group of beat-up, ragtag group of characters who are looking for a lost shot at redemption; and with a single female character in the middle, who is rather foolishly in  love. To shoot his Western ‘Odyssey’. Brooks chose locations suggesting the majesty of the West and the special relationship between its unspoiled distances and the independence of the horsemen who moved through it. The most memorable location is in the middle of the White Sands National Monument, where the sand is a dazzling white – it resembles an ocean – and the horses and riders stand out against it, almost as specters. Brooks also uses slow-motion photography in a very ingenious way, mainly to showcase the contestants’ and their horses, as they are put to the test in all kinds of terrain. One of the most arresting  sequence in the film involves the characters of Coburn and Vincent, where a Vincent  is overtaken by Coburn:  the exhausted Vincent  is shot in slow-mo, the rival advances in normal speed, creating a hypnotic contrast. The slow motion is again used in the climax of the film, just to show how exhausted and fatigued both the rider and the horse has become. The last mile of their journey, when they are just about to breast the tape, is the most torturous, and Brooks extends it to the maximum via slow motion to increase the desperation of the riders and the audience. Gene Hackman pulls out all the stops in performing this scene, showing the utter exhaustion and desperation of the character; something that he does very well as an actor; the same year he would brilliantly showcase Popeye Doyle’s drug addiction and climactic desperation – to kill Fernando Rey – in French Connection II.

Gene Hackman is a very special actor. He is considered part of the New Hollywood gang that invaded movies in the late 1960’s; of course his breakout role was in Bonnie and Clyde(1967) that basically launched the New Wave in American cinema; but when he was doing that film, he was also starring in films like Hawaii, – starring Julie Andrews –  which is the most old Hollywood of traditional epics. Hackman always had that incredible ability to fit equally well in both these worlds. One cannot imagine Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino or Robert De Niro as a traditional Western Hero, But Hackman is totally convincing; and it is never more convincing than in this film. This film came out in the same year as French Connection II, as well as Arthur Penn’s brilliant neo-noir Night Moves, in which Hackman gave one of his greatest performances as a washed out detective. These three films in the same year not only prove his versatility with varied characters, but also with varied genres. Here Hackman is presented as an epitome of moral and physical strength; a hero with principles and codes in the mold of a Gary Cooper; a lover of animals and fellow human beings: 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. The film opens with Hackman’s Sam Clayton (ex-Rough Rider and cowboy) escorting the wealthy Parker family’s prize racehorse, Tripoli, to the rendezvous point where his anxious owner awaits. Sam is compelled to stop along the way when he sees three horses left for dead in the desert, next to an abandoned glue factory wagon. The adult horses have been hobbled, one mare still cruelly attached to the wagon by a wire through her nose, her foal milling restlessly nearby. Sam sets the other horse free, but it’s too late to do anything for the mare. Disgust and anger plain upon his face, Sam removes the wire from her nose, gathers the colt up in his arms and slings it over his saddle. An opening scene specifically created to shed light on Clayton’s character and one of the primary themes of the film. Sam Clayton is correctly described by fellow contestant, Luke Mathews (James Coburn) as “Champion of dumb animals, ladies in distress, lost kids, and lost causes.” It goes without saying that one of  the movie’s main subject matter is its great love and respect for horses. And this theme is driven home even further with the character of  Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent), who mistreats and abuses his horse, to which Hackman’s love for horses forms a strong counterpoint. It is in sync with Director Brooks’ commitment for the same: not one horse was injured or came up lame in the film’s arduous 64 days’ shoot. Indeed, One of the messages of the movie is how you can measure a person’s character by the way they treat their animals. It also breaks new ground in portraying horses in  a western. Horses are the most majestic and photogenic of animals; the popularity of the western is directly linked to how good a horse looks on the screen; but the horses have always been portrayed as rather superhuman in these westerns, we hardly see them as tired or sweaty or even mortal. But in this film Horses are portrayed as human (if that’s right word), we see them sweating blood and salt, we see them becoming lame, we see them tired and wee see them driven to death, which seems appropriate for a film that celebrates the relationship between a rider and his horse in the old west. It is truly great that the film doesn’t gloss over the toll that these rides takes on these majestic animals, though it creates a staggering emotional impact, something that’s very new for me as a fan of westerns,  when you see a horse’s side bloodied by spurs or a broken steed having to be put down; Brooks make you feel the pain of the owner who has to shoot his horse that has gone lame.

Now getting back to the film (and the race), the various racers assemble around the starting point, all out for the $2,000 (eventually $3,000) prize. Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman) angrily fires Sam for being late. Maybe to get back at him or perhaps just on a whim, Sam decides to join the race. The next morning the race begins, and over the next 7 days (at a 100 mile-a-day pace), the contestants combat nature, bandits, thirst, exhaustion, and themselves, gradually forging a strong respect for one another. Again and again, the behavior they demonstrate during the race is shown to be more important than who wins in the end. After a night-time river crossing, Mister’s horse rides into camp without him. While Sam goes back to help the injured old cowboy, the others hang around, despite the urgency to move on and get back in the race. Only when Mister makes it back to camp do they take off again. But Sam has an extreme competitive spirit, though early on, he states “The horse doesn’t give a damn about who wins the race. Me neither.” Yet he rides his horse nearly to its death on the final leg, to try and win it. And he won’t take his friend Luke’s generous offer to throw the race. Similarly, Coburn’s Luke’s cynicism is also a façade; he shows uncharacteristic sportsmanship, walking with Hackman instead of ruthlessly passing him, in the climax. Both of them breast the tape together, when Coburn could have won the race all by himself. Coburn, was by then a veteran of westerns; having started with Bud Boetticher’s ‘Ranown’ Westerns, and then moving on to John Sturges and finally the great Sam Peckinpah. He pulls of the character of Luke with characteristic élan. One of the more ironic moments in the film is when both Hackman and Coburn ride a motorbike to get back their horses which where stolen by Miss Jones’ lover and his gang. It’s a very funny conceit to pull off in a traditional western, people searching for horses on bikes. They are joined in the hunt by the young, undisciplined Carbo, who by then, had mended his ways, coming to look up to the principled but taciturn Sam as a mentor, and beginning to learn what it means to be a real cowboy, and a real man. At the end of the film, i did feel this is more of a Brooks the Director’s show than Brooks the Screenwriter, because there are too many loose ends, with regards to plot and characterization, one of them being Carbo’s change of heart. Either it is inconsistent character development or a lot of scenes were excised at the editing stage; maybe Brooks was going for a 3 Hr. roadshow movie, but then the film had to edited down to 131 minutes for the release. But that doesn’t mean that film is devoid of his literary talent, on the contrary, the script is full of memorable lines and speeches.. It is very interesting to note that one of the most moving, bravura moment in this visually dazzling western is a lengthy dialogue scene in which Hackman’s Sam narrates an episode from his past life to Candice Bergen’s Miss Jones; his time as a rough rider during the famed charge up of San Juan hill.  At first he repeats the popular version of the charge. He then turns to leave, pauses and, with a lovely bit of body language, turns to say, “That ain’t the way it was at all,” and then tells her how it really was.  Sam tells her about the brave sacrifice of his dead wife, Paula, a Cuban prostitute turned insurrecto, with whom he met and fell in , then tells her what really happened:

’Til that day. We came out of the jungle and there it was, San Juan Hill. Spanish guns looking right down our throat, the sharpshooters pickin’ us off. Well, we just charged right up that hill. (He rides off, then turns back.) That’s not the way it happened at all. It wasn’t anything like it was at San Antone, where we did our training. That’s where I ran into Luke and a lot of other men from every other country that wanted to be Rough Riders. Bakers and barbers and congressmen, cattlemen, ballplayers, farmers, reporters, cowboys. Hell, we didn’t rough ride up that hill. ’Cause we didn’t have any horses. We didn’t charge up there, neither. We crawled up there on our scared bellies. There was only one horse and one rider. That was Colonel Teddy. He went charging up that damn hill and they shot his glasses off and he put on another pair. They nipped him in the elbow and he said, ‘Follow me!’ And we did, because we was too damned ashamed not to. After the hill came the church. There was a French .75 out front and every window had a rifle sticking out of it, and there was a Gatling gun in the bell tower. We could’ve called the artillery boys to blow it to pieces, but outside along the walls they’d tied all these people up, they’d roped ’em together, hog tied ’em, like a bunch of sandbags. Women and children and nuns and prisoners. And my Paula among them. Neither me nor Luke nor anybody else knew what to do. Inside the church they knew what to do. They opened up on us and we fell back. All of a sudden I heard Paula scream out, ‘Assaulto, Cubatos, assaulto! Assaulto!’
Then a Spanish bullet . . .And the rest of the women, they took up the cry. ‘Attack, Cubans, attack! Attack!’ Their own band of guerillas led the way. The people some people marry . . . I wasn’t worth her spit.”
A fantastic monologue that’s a dream for every actor and Hackman knocks it out of the park. As it’s the case with a great classical American actor, like Spencer Tracy or James Cagney, Hackman turns this monologue into a dialogue; breaking  down the formal nature of the words and turning into a conversation piece. It’s exactly the opposite to what a classical British actor does, which is to turn even dialogues into very formal, self centered monologues and soliloquies. Hackman turns it into a tour de force, with a lot of emotions playing out within those lines: pride, disgust, affection, hostility, anger, pity, regret; Hackman, while wary of signing onto a movie without seeing a finished script, agreed to put off filming the sequel to The French Connection to star as Sam. His confidence in Brooks was justified, though he may have been disappointed with the box office results. But today it comes across as one of his most vibrant, effortless, emotionally rich performances. And apart from Coburn, there is also the old Western warhorse and John Ford favorite, Ben Johnson, in the cast, who 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. And for an actor who hates dialogues, Johnson pulls off some really great lines. The monologue he gets to deliver before his death is phenomenal. Behind the scene, Veteran composer Alex North provides a rousing score, keeping in with the mood of the film, and he did it without watching a foot of film. Brooks was notorious for maintaining secrecy of his projects, which extended to the cast and music composer also. Brooks wouldn’t allow North and his orchestra to see any film playback while they laid down the tracks, because he didn’t want anyone to get an idea of what he was doing.

Bite the Bullet received two Academy Award nominations, for sound and for Alex North’s score. The Oscars were overwhelmed by One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. By comparison, Brook’s tribute to the country and the people who made it was stylistically and emotionally old-fashioned. it wasn’t ‘hip’ enough for the time, and that maybe the reason why it did not go down well the audiences. The film is set in the same time period as Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and in many ways, it expands on the themes of those films, which is a lamentation at the loss of the old west. The film is also successful in achieving a docu-drama like quality in placing the actors and their horses in extreme locations Though Brooks would continue working for another decade or so, Bite the Bullet (along with 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar) is arguably the writer-director’s last of his best cinematic outings. Soon enough, the westerns will die out, making appearances only intermittently – no thanks to the big budget flop Heaven’s Gate(1980), which , ironically, would kill off both ‘New Hollywood’ and the Western. But Bite the Bullet remains one of the most enjoyable, grander Western outings, especially noteworthy , because it came in a decade, when American filmmakers – especially the ‘New Hollywood’ cinephile directors – had no idea how to tackle this most American and cinematic of genres.

3 thoughts on “Bite the Bullet: Gene Hackman heads up an all-star cast in this underrated, highly entertaining, high-spirited Western adventure

  1. I remember an old interview with Hackman where he specifically stated that his reminiscence/monologue in Bite the Bullet was one of his favorite scenes in all of the films he’d done (interestingly, his favorite film was Scarecrow!-which I’ve always loved).
    Another nice piece.

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  2. Questions: #1) When Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) has trouble sleeping, a women gives him a ‘medicine’ that goes badly because it was mixed with alcohol. Does anyone know what that ‘medicine’ was? #1) Does anyone know the names and breeds of the horses the contestants rode? Thanks.

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