Candice Bergen, James Coburn, and Gene Hackman in Bite the Bullet (1975)


(director/writer: Richard Brooks; cinematographer: Harry Stradling, Jr.; editor: George Grenville; music: Alex North; cast: Gene Hackman (Sam Clayton), Candice Bergen (Miss Jones), James Coburn (Luke Matthews), Ben Johnson (“Mister”), Ian Bannen (Sir Harry Norfolk), Jan-Michael Vincent (Carbo), Paul Stewart (Jack Parker), Sally Kirkland (Honey), Jean Willes (Rosie), Mario Arteaga (Mexican), Walter Scott Jr. (Steve); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Richard Brooks; Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment; 1975)

“I wish I had a bullet to chew down on to kill the pain this pic gave me.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Richard Brooks (“Lord Jim”/”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”/”In Cold Blood”) helms and writes a pretentious and derivative thinking-man’s Western that turns hokey and offers little to think about. It’s set at the turn of the century (circa 1906), and covers a 700-mile endurance cross-country horse race through the Western frontier. It comes at a time when the automobile was being introduced. The big-budget epic is beautifully photographed, with great location shots (filmed at the White Sands, New Mexico national monument; it was also shot at Nevada and Colorado), but Brooks’s attempt to recapture the success of his previous The Professionals never materializes. It tells a quirky story, but it’s hardly compelling. The simplistic plot, like the cardboard characters, seems to be around only for Brooks to get in his comments on the rigors of American life, marriage as a failed institution, mankind’s stupidity and on life in general. The film’s pace is awkward, as it keeps starting and stopping so the indulgent Brooks can get in his licks. The race is viewed as a muddled metaphor that pays homage to the courage, fairness and endurance of those same type of frontier action types who participated in this contest.

We learn little about the race, including its destination and sponsorship. But we learn that the two rules emphasized are that the racers must be carrying at least 160 pounds and have to make every check-point. The contestants include the favorite, champion rider Jack Parker (Paul Stewart); Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman), an ex-Rough Rider and avowed animal lover and great humanitarian; the shady Miss Jones (Candice Bergen), who works in a bawdy house and her bank robber hubby Steve is in jail; Luke Matthews (James Coburn), a drifter cowpoke who rode at San Juan Hill as a Rough Rider and made a side bet with Parker that if he wins his two thousand dollar bet (all the money he has) it will bring him a profit of fourteen thousand dollars; Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen) a cheery aristocratic English sportsman, who loves America and mixing with the action-types; the twisted Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent), a reckless young cowboy putting on a tough guy act who is around to learn some life lessons from the older cowboys (Oh, my goodness!); the lifetime saddletramp who once rode for the Pony Express and is known only as Mister (Ben Johnson), who wants to win to get respect for once in his life; and the proud but impoverished Mexican (Mario Arteaga) with a bad toothache, who gets his tooth pulled on the trail by Miss Jones and to kill the pain bites down on a bullet given him by Sam Clayton.

There wasn’t much that was convincing about the asides, or from the speechifying dialogue or the stilted characters, all trying to show they had the guts to be Numero Uno. The film’s most powerful aside has Hackman tell Bergen that the famous charge up San Juan Hill wasn’t the way history has led you to believe it was and then goes on in detail to recount the actual story. In this episodic film, we encounter such incidents as the attempt by two hombres coming out of the mountains to rape Miss Jones, a horse dying because of the riders cruelty, prostitutes being part of the frontier landscape and, of course, there’s the supposedly suspenseful finish to the race. By the time this happened, I couldn’t care a lick who won.

I wish I had a bullet to chew down on to kill the pain this pic gave me.