Out west at the dawn of the Twentieth century, a disparate group of cowboys and adventurers gather to compete in a gruelling seven-hundred mile horse race across the desert and western plains. Among the colourful competitors, former rough riders Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) and Luke Matthews (James Coburn) cannot let their friendship come between them if they intend to win while gutsy ex-prostitute Miss Jones (Candice Bergen) is out to raise money to spring her lover out of jail, a punk kid named Corbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) antagonises everyone, an ageing cowpoke known only as Mister (Ben Johnson) rides in poor health, English gentleman Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen) competes for the sheer fun of it all, and a Mexican (Mario Arteaga) with a toothache literally needs to bite a bullet. All race against a thoroughbred of championship pedigree owned by a wealthy man (Dabney Coleman) who has no intention of losing his bet.
Much like the similarly underrated The Professionals (1966), Bite the Bullet is a pacey western adventure mounted in the Hawksian style by often ingenious though overlooked writer-producer-director Richard Brooks. Although set in a hearteningly familiar world of rugged but amiable cowboys and feisty attractive women one associates with a Howard Hawks western, interestingly the spirit of the film has as much in common with the director’s seminal air pilot drama Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Brooks brings an understated yet poetic philosophical dimension to the action that not only ruminates on the unspoken code between hard-bitten but honourable men (and women) but poses potent questions such as what is it that is worth dying for and what does winning and losing really mean?
The horse race proves the vehicle by which Brooks explores his characters’ personal philosophies towards life. Throughout events, whether faced with rough terrain, grizzly bears or violent outlaws, Clayton and Matthews uphold a level of compassion and decency that not only inspires several of their competitors but ultimately reaffirms their friendship. Taciturn Gene Hackman - in a role Charles Bronson foolishly turned down - and roguish James Coburn compliment each other exceptionally well while Candice Bergen is quite marvellous as a sassy but spirited heroine in the Hawksian mould. On a more superficial note, she also looks smashing in cowgirl gear. Brooks’ punchy, eloquent storytelling is aided by an all-star cast that etch vivid characterisations, each compelling in their own way. Western veteran Ben Johnson gives a fine turn as an ageing cowpoke trying to hold onto his dignity and delivers a moving monologue that ranks along with Hackman’s heart-rending memories of the Cuban war as one of the emotional high-points of the movie.
Naturally, the horse racing provides most of the action highlights, by turns gruelling and exhilarating, captured in fine naturalistic detail. Spectacular Panavision photography by Harry Stradling Jr., another veteran of the western genre, imparts an epic sweep over those glorious desert vistas, creating a vividly authentic sense of time and place conveying the craziness of the wild west. Brooks wisely restrains his use of slow-motion for only the most dynamic instances, notably a haunting sequence where one character grapples with a dying horse in the white sand. The third act springs a surprise twist that sends the plot galloping down a different path and sets the stage for an action packed showdown with Clayton and Matthews racing a motorbike in pursuit of some outlaws before the poignant, uplifting finale. If one were forced to cite a flaw it might be that Brooks paints too broad a canvas with his panoramic view shifting focus on multiple sub-plots. Nevertheless, the themes shine through and the film inspires with its devotion to highlighting the nobility in the dogged decency and determination of hard-working heroes and horses.