The year is 1906 and a horseback race across the country promises $2000 dollars to the winner but a trip through hell to get there. Such is the premise for Richard Brooks’ 1975 western Bite the Bullet, now streaming on CHILI (here). It stars a host of familiar and dependable faces, starting with Gene Hackman’s genial ex rough rider Sam Clayton. Clayton is unusual in his kindness to animals and his willingness to go toe to toe with a young gunslinger (Jan-Michael Vincent) who the dude takes the appellation cowpuncher too literally. James Coburn co-stars lending his classy silver presence as a gambler who has everything he owns riding on the race. Other competitors include Candice Bergen, who did a slew of westerns in the 70s, Ben Johnson as an aging cowboy on his last puff and Ian Bannen as a gentle Englishman, there for the sport.
The plot itself is necessarily episodic as the race proceeds from checkpoint to checkpoint, across deserts, through forests, fords rivers, and the riders have to brave bandits, escaping prisoners, rattlesnakes and the heat and exhaustion of the journey itself. Meanwhile, the wealthy sponsor of the race follows in a train and a journalist on a motorcycle tags along. The contrast of the old West and the new is stark and like many of the best Westerns – actually probably all of them – the film is an elegy for the end of the West and the arrival of civilisation. Even the race is a contrived event to give a bored readership a flavour of the old days.
I don’t quite understand why this film doesn’t have a higher profile. Brooks had already proven his worth as a director of Westerns in 1966 with the excellent The Professionals, starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. The acting here is superb from several of the best screen actors in their prime. Hackman is particularly good given a lead role which is as close as he gets to heroic. His humanity is the heart of the film. He has done many things in his past he’s not proud of and this race looks like only adding to his self-disgust. Coburn keeps his lanky cool but there’s a real fizz like spit in a campfire when the two are on the screen.
And the West looks beautiful in all its glorious variety. Cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr, who shot Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, makes the most of his panoramic landscapes. If I have one criticism, it would be that as the film goes on, like the horses pushed to their limits, the film itself seems to lose its wind. The final episode is a somewhat unbelievable twist. But that said, there’s so much to enjoy in this self-consciously old fashioned film, revising the West while at the same time revelling in its former glory. And as an extra special treat there’s a scene of improvised dentistry which illustrates the title literally. What more could you want?