Starring: Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Candice Bergen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Mario Arteaga
Director: Richard Brooks
Mood: If you loved Hidalgo and want all of the same thrilling elements but set in North America and with no CGI.
“Mister, did you ever see a horse run himself to death just to please the man on his back? What’s the horse get out of it? Cracked bones? Colic? See his picture in the paper? Horse doesn’t give a damn who wins a race. Me neither.”
Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman)
When I’m stressed out, I want a Western that lifts my spirits and makes me appreciate the joyful side of the genre. Other than an unexpected Bambi-like scene at the start of the movie that made me ugly cry, Bite the Bullet took me on a pretty upbeat ride.
If you love horses, be forewarned that you’ll either love or hate this film. It’s a great story about the bond between a human and their horse, and about respecting animals. It’s super horse-centric from start to finish, with fantastic horsey scenes of all types. But there’s also a LOT of horse (and donkey) abuse and injuries, which can be really f*cking hard to watch.
Director Richard Books has stated that not a single horse was injured or went lame during filming; circus animals may have been used according to some online speculation. I couldn’t find any legit sources on the topic after 10 minutes of searching, except this inconclusive AFI entry.
Candice Bergen rode her own horse for the film, so I’d like to think that if other horses were being abused and she felt pressured as a young actor to stay quiet lest she lose the part, she’d have said something now that she’s rich and famous. So let’s assume it was great stunt work, bite the collective bullet, and enjoy this epic Western and its talented cast.
Bite the Bullet, written by director Brooks, is loosely based on real events that I highly recommend reading up on. It’s the story of a gruelling 700-mile endurance race on horseback across the turn-of-the-century American frontier.
This movie wastes no time at all introducing the characters and hooking you with their familiar, comforting Western tropes:
- A Rough-Rider good guy with a deep love of animals (Gene Hackman)
- A cheeky, drifting gambler (James Coburn)
- A feisty old man with something to prove (Ben Johnson)
- An over-confident kid with anger issues (Jan-Michael Vincent)
- A prostitute with a heart of gold who can ride as well as the men (Candice Bergen)
- A Mexican whose character is literally named “Mexican” (Mario Arteaga)
- A rich Englishman who is out of his element (Ian Bannen)
There’s obviously no shortage of action to capture, given that the plot is an endurance race. But you get a surprising amount of character-driven storytelling and realistic dialogue, too.
At the same time, you pretty much get exactly what you expect in the same way Hidalgo had that Disney vibe. You’re rooting for Hackman from start to finish and he never lets you down, and the only ‘bad guy’ gets redeemed and somehow everyone forgives him right away.
Who will make it to the end of this race? Actually, hardly any of them.
Can I just take a moment to say how good it feels to see Gene Hackman smiling and laughing and being a big ol’ sweetheart in a Western?
I’m so used to Hackman the villain – he’s so good that he’s on my list of top Western villains TWICE. But here, he steals your heart with his deep respect and care for animals and women. And all people! He takes care of the other riders and just radiates such genuine goodness, you want the world to be full of Gene Hackmans.
At one point the young asshole character rides his horse to death, and when he sees Hackman coming he starts running across the desert because he just knows he’s going to get it. Hackman chases him on horseback, whipping him and forcing him on until he collapses. It’s great stuff.
Hackman’s warmth and his chemistry with James Coburn are the glue holding the movie together when the story makes a few bizarre choices and missteps. Coburn is in fine form. You get to see him in fistfights, on horseback, AND on a motorcycle with Hackman in the sidecar, which is everything.
Ben Johnson is so good, he deserved top billing. There’s a scene where he’s soaking wet and having chest pains, telling Gene Hackman about all the jobs he’s tried and how he’s never managed to make any true memories and he feels useless. It gets you right in the feels, and then he dies and it seems really f*cking unfair but I think that’s the point? Western life was cruel, and lots of men drifted around looking for something they never found.
Mario Arteaga gives you another character that tugs your heartstrings. He’s saddled with a nasty toothache for the first part of the race – his character is the reason the movie is called Bite the Bullet – and townsfolk are racist. But he’s strong-willed and determined, and holds his own against these white people through the whole race until he gets the other SUPER unfair ending.
On the other end of the spectrum, Candice Bergen falls effortlessly into her coy, tomboyish character.
I probably would have put her higher up on my list of the best women in Westerns for this one if they didn’t make her character suddenly turn on everyone to save her piece-of-shit felon of a husband who treats her like crap, and her actions get horses AND a great character killed. And then she’s just out of the story without a proper exit. None of those scenes feel necessary and don’t fit with the generally positive tone. But seriously, she’s enjoyable in this role.
Jan-Michael Vincent does a great job of rounding out the group with an arrogant, mean-tempered young man who has way too much pride and unearned confidence. He’s given the aforementioned implausible redemption arc that also wasn’t necessary for the story. Still, it wouldn’t have worked as well without him there pissing everyone off so Hackman could show off his good-guy skills.
Unlike so many other Westerns I’ve watched of late, the characters in Bite the Bullet all have a purpose. They all get time to unfold their stories. Although Hackman and Coburn are the clear leads, each character plays a key role in the story.
And what a story! You get the physical challenges of an endurance ride across deserts, the emotional challenges of what that kind of ride does to you. The past traumas. The current interpersonal tensions. The directing is thoughtful, and the writing is quite good for the ’70s. The whole thing is shot in New Mexico and Nevada, and really puts you in the place and time.
Sure, some of it makes no sense. And the sound effects for the first brawl scene are terrible. And at one point I was SO sure that they shot the winning thoroughbred, then that horse showed up again and was in the rest of the movie. I still don’t know what I saw in that scene where James Coburn gave the English rider a gun. Somebody, please tell me.
But did I enjoy Bite the Bullet? Hell yes. I would watch this movie again. Just next time I’ll know when to cover my eyes so I’m not traumatized by all the horsey injuries and deaths.
But seriously – why does Jan-Michael Vincent look like Josh Hartnett?