Monday, March 22, 2010

Into the West: "Bite the Bullet" Races Toward the Finish

Richard Brooks produced, wrote, and directed Bite the Bullet in 1975. A prolific screenwriter and later director, Brooks earned Oscar nominations for penning the screenplays for Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Professionals (1966), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and In Cold Blood (1967). He won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation for Elmer Gantry in 1960. He married Jean Simmons, who was his leading lady in that movie.

Brooks loosely based Bite the Bullet on a 700-mile cross country horse race that took place in 1906. The film opens with a newspaper sponsoring such a race with the winner receiving $2,000. The race’s participants are followed by a train that stops at various checkpoints along a course loaded with supplies and even prostitutes for the men. When a horse and rider check in at these stops, they are allowed to rest, eat, and sleep and leave in the order they arrived. A newspaper reporter follows some of the racers with his motorcycle. He writes about the race and helps out any riders who might get into trouble.

The race’s contestants are a mixed group of people. Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) and Luke Matthews (James Coburn) are former Rough Riders who went separate ways in life, but still remain good friends. Their friendship is the most interesting part of the movie. The race’s only female rider, a former prostitute named Miss Jones (Candice Bergen), has an ulterior motive for wanting to be in the race. A Mexican rider (Mario Arteaga), who is battling a painful toothache, wants to win the money to make a better life for his family. An old sick cowboy, Mister (Ben Johnson), is risking his life to participate in the grueling race. Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a young immature man who is cruel to animals. Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman) is the wealthy owner of a thoroughbred champion horse and desperately wants his horse to beat the quarter horses adapted to the Western territory. He has even hired an experienced rider to ride his horse. The last man is Sir Henry Norfolk (Ian Bannen), who traveled all the way from England to ride in a Western race just for the sport of it. He even rides an English saddle instead of the widely-used western saddle suited for a race like this one. The way these characters interact during the race reveals much about each of them and also how they deal with the changing times (a theme explored again by Brooks in The Professionals). The cowboy’s way of life is coming to an end with the new transportation of the twentieth century.

At the beginning Bite the Bullet, Sam in en route to deliver a champion thoroughbred horse to Jack Parker, who is waiting on the train. Sam is riding his own horse and leading the thoroughbred. He finds a wild mare that has been captured and tortured by wranglers. She is dead and Sam stops to remove a piece of metal stuck through her nose. He sees a foal belonging to the mare and hears coyotes approaching to kill the young horse. Sam loves horses and has a kind heart. He puts the foal across his saddle. He rides and sees a farm with a young boy milking a cow. Sam asks the boy if he would like a horse of his own. The boy says yes, but he can’t pay for the foal. Sam gives him the foal, telling him he doesn’t have to pay for it but just treat it well. Sam arrives late at the train stop and is promptly fired by Parker, who claims Sam made his champion thoroughbred walk too far.

In town, Sam meets his old friend Luke, who is a gambler and has bet his own money on himself to win the race. He asks Sam why he hasn’t entered the race. Sam says he has been fired by Parker and, since he’s out of a job, he adds his name to the race’s roster. Later, the two men encounter the young punk Carbo hitting a donkey and quickly put a stop to it. This scene and the rescue of the foal show Sam and Luke will not tolerate animal cruelty and truly love horses, which plays a key role in the film’s climax.

Sam and Luke also will not tolerate prejudice. When a stranger makes fun of the Mexican rider, Sam lies and says his grandfather was a Mexican. Luke follows suit and says he is part Cherokee Indian. The racist man is afraid to fight both of them and leaves. Later, the young Carbo calls Miss Jones a whore and doesn’t treat her with respect. Sam takes up for her and puts the kid in his place.

In one scene, Parker has his hired rider provide essentially handicap the race by telling him who has the best chance of winning. The rider replies that: the punk kid is too inexperienced; the Mexican is tough and so is his horse; Luke doesn’t have the best horse, but he takes chances and is lucky; the woman can ride as well as any man; and the Englishman’s horse can keep up with the thoroughbred. However, he says the one to watch is Sam. He has the experience, knows the territory, and his horse has the heart.

During the course of the story, you see these characters take care of each other. They help one another, support each other when bad things happen, grow to respect each other and even learn from one another--especially Carbo who races his horse so hard he kills him and Parker, who wants his champion horse to win wants a fair race.

Bite the Bullet is a well-acted Western with good themes, plenty of action, and interesting characters. Many things happen to the riders and their horses along the way. However, it is the story of Sam and Luke’s friendship that makes this movie an excellent Western. The surprise ending is one you will not forget.

Charles Bronson was offered the leading role of Sam Clayton, but turned it down. He would have been a good choice for the role, but Hackman does an outstanding job. The movie was shot on location in New Mexico and Nevada—the desert scenes will make you thirsty. My favorite quote is Miss Jones explaining to the young Carbo how a cowboy dresses and undresses. That description always makes me laugh.

Bite the Bullet was nominated for two Oscars: Best Sound Mixing and Best Music and Original Score by Alex North. North received an astounding 14 nominations for Best Original Score—and never won an Oscar (though he did receive an honorary one in 1986). The two leading men both later won Oscars for acting: Gene Hackman for The French Connection (1971) and Unforgiven (1992) and James Coburn won for Affliction (1997).


  1. Aki, I always love reading your well written reviews. Bite the Bullet, I know is a well written movie with wonderful actors. When Sam finds a wild mare. Is when I quit watching the movie. It was too much for me. Thank you for telling me more about the movie.

  2. Aki, I saw this movie on a whim in the 1970s and loved it for all the reasons you mentioned. Although I’m a Bronson fan, I’m not sure he would have brought the “everyman” quality to the role that Gene Hackman gave it. It’s a strong cast (as you said), the scenery (to include the horses for you) is splendid, and the ending is perfect. I am also a fan of Richard Brooks’ other Western THE PROFESSIONALS, which features an unexpected ending as well. In fact, it and BITE THE BULLET would make a great double-feature, as they share common themes and focus on strong relationships. Thanks for a splendid write-up of an under-appreciated movie!

  3. Aki, thanks for the wonderful post on one of my favorite Richard brooks film and mentioning ,and Alex Norths score. it's amazing to me that Alex never won an Oscar,and Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer only won one. One Of Candice's best films along with Wind & The Lion, and Carnal Knowledge.

  4. Aki: This sounds marvelous. I'll have to check it out. My library has a DVD copy of it, but it's full frame. I hope Sony gets around to release it wide screen.

    My biggest Charles Bronson regret is he turned down the role of Curly in "City Slickers", the role for which Jack Palance was awared the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Billy Crystal really wanted Bronson for the role, but he turned it down, to his later regret.

  5. Kevin, It looks like it might be a widescreeen version on a "double feature" disc with The Quick And The d the aspect ration is 1.85 instead of the 1.33 on the single disc.

  6. Paul: Thanks for the heads up. I'll have to check it out.

  7. I thank all of you for your nice comments. Dawn, some time when Bite the Bullet is on TV, you need to skip to the end. You will feel better about the mare that died in the beginning. By the way, that scene with the mare and foal always makes me cry no matter how many times I watch the movie. I know that makes me sound silly but it is true. Rick, you are right I do so love horses. I also agree that Hackman was a great choice for playing Sam. Paul, you know I love movie music and this score is a good one. Kevin, this is one of my favorite westerns. You must see it and tell me what you think. Charles Bronson is fantastic actor and certainly should have won an Oscar for one of his movies. He at least deserved one.

  8. What a great review of a wonderful western that is often overlooked. A very tight script and a great cast make this a special motion picture, not to mention the unforgettable ending. Thanks for reminding me of this great movie.

  9. Aki, You do not sound silly to me..I'm the one holding the box of kleenex. I will skip to the end to find out what happens. Thank you for your wonderful review.

  10. Thanks, Dawn because I needed to hear how other women cry during sad parts in movies. My husband and youngest son tease me relentlessly about weeping especially in a movie theatre. My older son just reaches in his pocket and hands me napkins. I adore him for that. I am glad you enjoyed the review because I enjoy reading yours too!

  11. I took my granddaughter to this movie at the theater. We both loved it. It has a good message about friendship and the treatment of horses. A well written film review. I would like to see it again and remember the nice day I had with my granddaughter. Aki, we cried at the end because it was so touching.

  12. One of the most underrated westerns of the last half of 20th century.. Gene Hackmans portrayal of the horse loving ex rough rider is simply superb, and every time I watch the film I see some other scene proving his skill and talent.

    1. Agree of Hackman's best and deserves to be acknowledged as such. Love the ending, too.