July 11, 2006

Bite the Bullet (1975)
Grade: 65/100

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, James Coburn

What it's about. Set in the West, circa 1905. A world-famous endurance horse race draws a select yet diverse group of contestants, which includes experienced cowboys Gene Hackman and James Coburn, a semi-hot Candice Bergen, a professional rider, a Mexican, an Englishman, a rash show-off (Jan-Michael Vincent), and an old cowhand (Ben Johnson) that no one expects will win. But who will?

How others will see it. This slow-pokey Western adventure has a solid cast, a healthy budget, and an air of authenticity. Its moral lessons will be forgiven if not completely overlooked. In short, this is a movie that western fans, or fans of specific actors, should enjoy.

How I felt about it. Let's admit that the movie has its merits. The old cowhand with a heart attack gets a nice send-off, and it's good to know that the Englishman is just sick about having to shoot his horse. The cinematography is fine, and even the plodding pace is agreeable.

There are some character inconsistencies, though. Chief among these is Jan-Michael Vincent, who is a jerk until he buries his horse, then is a pleasant man the rest of the way. We should all go out and bury our horses. It won't be good for the horse, but apparently it will do our dispositions a world of good.

Dubious character #2 is Candice Bergen, who like Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, is a former prostitute. It turns out she's in the race not to win it (even though it's the final leg of the race) but to free her husband from a prison chain gang that just happens to coincide with the route taken by all the race contestants.

Having sacrificed so much for her hubby, though, Bergen turns on him. Even though this ensures her prison term, provided her husband doesn't shoot her first. Her desperado motivation is inconsistent with the rest of her actions in the film.

Another eye roller is our hero, Gene Hackman, whom James Coburn accurately describes as "Champion of dumb animals, ladies in distress, lost kids, and lost causes." Coburn says this with scorn, but naturally he admires the principled Hackman, as we are supposed to.

We're certainly not supposed to question Hackman's motivation. Does he enter the race to win it, or to help and/or admonish his fellow contestants? Early on, he states "The horse doesn't give a damn about who wins the race. Me neither." Yet he rides his horse nearly to its death on the final leg, to try and win it. And he won't take his friend Coburn's generous offer to throw the race. Coburn also has uncharacteristic sportsmanship, walking with Hackman instead of ruthlessly passing him. Which he would have done, if it wasn't a movie.

Then there's the morality lessons. Don't be a jerk, like Jan Michael-Vincent. Englishmen are sporting. Mexicans are cool. Prostitutes are charming. Women cowboys are courageous. Male cowboys are chivalrous. Western viewers are weary, and ask, "Give us a race and a winner." Not too much to ask for.