Columbia Pictures // 1975 // 131 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 10th, 2012
A new western classic is born!
"I want you to tell me the story of your life. Just skip everything up till the last fifteen minutes."
It's the dawn of the 20th Century. The era of the cowboy is coming to a close, but there are still some places in which the hardened citizens of the west are required to prove their mettle. A newspaper has organized a 700-mile horse race, which will be held over the span of just a few days. The journey will be hard and dangerous, but there's a $2000 prize waiting at the finish line. Among the contestants: a seasoned gunfighter (James Coburn, The Great Escape), an aging cowboy (Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show), an ex-prostitute (Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown), an ex-Rough Rider (Gene Hackman, Crimson Tide) and an arrogant young kid (Jan-Michael Vincent, Airwolf). Which of these misfits will win the grueling competition?
In most westerns, horses are treated the same way that cars are treated in many modern action films. They're nothing more than objects designed to look cool and to get the characters from point A to point B in exciting fashion. However, Richard Brooks' Bite the Bullet is the rare western that actually remembers that horses are beautiful, mysterious, living creatures. Much like David Milch's Luck (an ambitious program that was cancelled after three horses died during production), it regards horses as an endlessly fascinating enigma.
Gene Hackman's Sam Clayton establishes himself as an atypically tender cowboy during the film's opening scenes. In a lyrical, moving passage, we watch as Sam demonstrates varying forms of respect for the horses he encounters, whether it's nursing an abandoned colt to health or gently removing wire from a dead horse's nose. Later, he encounters the hot-headed Jan-Michael Vincent, who gleefully punches a mule and knocks him out for sport. Hackman responds by punching Vincent in the face, and throughout the film attempts to persuade the young man of the notion that living things need to be treated with kindness. It's made clear that Sam's view on the matter is a good deal beyond the common thinking of the era, most of the other characters regard Sam's idealistic zeal with an amused bewilderment. To quote James Coburn's Luke Matthews: "Don't you know Sam Clayton? Defender of dumb animals? Damsels in distress? Champion of lost causes?"
Ah, but even Matthews is idealistic, in his own way. He's a man of the world who's never really managed to attain a full-time romance, so he contents himself with paying for one-night stands wherever he can find them. Unlike most men, he has a deep respect for the women whose services he requires, and he takes offense when he hears the kid spewing cruel words at Bergman's character. This side of the film's reflective point-of-view is less elegant than the material featuring Sam and the horses, but it's a nice mirror element which helps build to part of the film's larger purpose: to take living beings which are generally objectified in the genre and grant them thoughtful consideration.
For all of its sensitivity and warmth, Bite the Bullet is still an effectively rousing western, generating a great deal of suspense and excitement as it unfolds the details of the competition. All of the characters are engaging, and they're frequently allowed to develop in unexpected ways. Most movies might have positioned the Hackman and Coburn characters as bitter rivals, but they share a warm friendship in this film which brings some fresh shades to the story. They both need the money, and they both feel bad about the notion of having to defeat their pal. Not that it's going to stop either of them from doing their best.
The film capped off what was arguably the most remarkable period of Gene Hackman's career. Between 1971-1975, he did sublime work in The French Connection, The Poseidon Adventure, Scarecrow, The Conversation, Night Moves and this film. Bite the Bullet is less celebrated than those movies, but it's absolutely a gem worthy of rediscovery. Hackman's turn is one of the most gentle performances of his career; even the character's moments of brutal violence seem rooted in a kind-hearted desire to protect the innocent. He's a hard man with a soft heart, and Hackman pulls off the role with naturalistic ease. Equally deserving of praise is James Coburn, who delivers the sort of world-weary authenticity we saw far too little of over the course of his career. Coburn's trademark charisma is in full force during his bigger scenes, but his best scenes are the small moments of private dialogue he shares with Hackman. Ben Johnson does fine work as the aging cowboy, and Candice Bergman does an impressive job of holding her own against some top-notch actors. Bergman was criticized by some as seeming too modern for the era in which the film is set, but her demeanor is well-suited to the character she plays.
Bite the Bullet (Blu-ray) has received a stellar 1080p/2.35:1 transfer from the folks at Twilight Time. Though the image looks a bit soft on occasion, that's largely due to the manner in which the film was shot. There's some genuinely gorgeous cinematography offered during many stretches of the film, and there's a pleasing layer of natural grain which gives the picture a welcome warmth. Colors are vibrant, flesh tones are natural and blacks are suitably deep. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also pretty strong, particularly when it comes to Alex North's rousing score (one of the composer's more broadly exciting and accessible efforts). Dialogue can be a little soft on occasion, but it's most clear and free of hissing or crackling. Supplements are limited to an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet featuring liner notes by Julie Kirgo. The only drawback is the cost -- you'll pay a Criterion-level price for this release, but won't get Criterion-level bonus features to ease the pain. Additionally, the Blu-ray release is a limited edition of 3,000 units, which means far too few people will get a chance to experience this terrific movie in hi-def.
Bite the Bullet is one of the great "revisionist" westerns of the 1970s; a dynamic and emotionally involving experience featuring superb performances from its entire cast. While it's tough to advise that you spend upwards on $30 on a Blu-ray without much of a supplemental package, the transfer is a huge upgrade from the DVD release.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Isolated Score