Where would the movies be without horses?
There have been thousands of movies with horses in them, including tons of westerns. Many fine films have also been made spotlighting a particular horse (National Velvet, The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit). Bite the Bullet stands out from most westerns - and indeed, most films - as one of its main themes is how man relates to, treats - and mistreats - horses.
Written and directed by Richard Brooks, it’s a sweeping, epic adventure tale about a grueling, 700-mile endurance horse race. The movie is full of action and incident, but it’s really a character piece. Brooks is less concerned with the race itself than he is with the kind of people who are crazy enough to take part in it.
Horse lovers reading this should be forewarned: the film doesn’t shy away from depicting the occasional cruel treatment of these fine animals by human hands (Rest assured: apparently no animals were harmed in making the film). One of the messages of the movie is how you can measure a person’s character by the way they treat their animals. The film is set around the turn-of-the-century, when a horse still held enormous value to its owner, especially out west, and its theft or injury might mean the loss of the owner's life or livelihood. Watching the epic race unfold is exciting, sure, but at all times we’re shown the toll it takes not only on man, but on the animal he rides and relies upon.
The film opens with ex-Rough Rider and cowboy Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) escorting the wealthy Parker family’s prize racehorse, Tripoli, to the rendezvous point where his anxious owner awaits. Sam is compelled to stop along the way when he sees three horses left for dead in the desert, next to an abandoned glue factory wagon. The adult horses have been hobbled, one mare still cruelly attached to the wagon by a wire through her nose, her foal milling restlessly nearby. Sam sets the other horse free, but it’s too late to do anything for the mare. Disgust and anger plain upon his face, Sam removes the wire from her nose, gathers the colt up in his arms and slings it over his saddle. In this brief scene, we learn much about Sam Clayton. He has a strong love for horses and a low tolerance for human cruelty.
Even though the detour is costing him precious time, Sam's priority is to take care of the colt. He stops off at a nearby farm, where a young boy is milking a cow. “Can you spare some milk for a hungry orphan?” he asks the boy.
The boy brings over some milk for the foal. “You like horses?” Sam asks.
The boy shyly shakes his head. “Got one of your own?" Another head shake. "You want one?" The boy's eyes light up. "Well, you got one.” Sam pushes the colt into the boy's arms. The boy hugs the colt tightly, and as Sam remounts and prepares to ride away, finally speaks.
“Do I gotta pay somethin’?”
“Yep,” Sam replies. “Don’t ever treat him bad.”
Meanwhile, the various racers assemble around the starting point. They’re an colorful bunch, all out for the $2,000 (eventually $3,000) prize, sponsored by the Western Star newspaper. There’s the gambler and adventurer Luke Matthews (James Coburn), looking to make a big score by betting 7-to-1 odds on himself to win. There’s the Englishman, Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen), who has come from thousands of miles overseas with his expensive steeplechase steed, just for the sheer sport of it. There’s the surly young hothead, Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent); the plainspoken professional rider hired by the Parker family to ride Tripoli; and an old-timer only known as Mister (Ben Johnson) who’s out for one last shot at glory. There’s also a Mexican (Mario Arteaga) with a bad toothache who needs the prize money for his family, and Miss Jones (Candice Bergen), the lone woman racer. She has the grit to hang with the men, but her precise motives are at first unclear.
Sam arrives late to the starting point, but with Parker’s horse in good condition. He's just in time to give the troublemaker Carbo a good beating, for punching a mule. Turns out Matthews is an old friend - and fellow Rough Rider - of Sam’s, and joins the fight. “You don’t know Sam Clayton?” Matthews asks the young punk. “Champion of dumb animals, ladies in distress, lost kids and lost causes.” Together, the two give Carbo and his rowdy friends a good, old-fashioned thrashing.
Humiliated, Carbo scrambles for his gun but Matthews shows some fancy gunplay skills and fires off several shots that miss him by mere inches.
Shocked, Carbo backs off. The old-timer, Mister (Johnson), steps in at the end, pistol at the ready and with some friendly advice, in case Carbo should try anything in retaliation.
“My eyes ain’t as good as his and I might miss, and then you’d be dead...and I’d be out of the race for shooting a dumb animal.”
Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman) angrily fires Sam for being late. At loose ends, and despite not thinking much of the whole endeavor, Sam decides on a whim to join the race.
The next morning the race begins, and over the next 7 days (at a 100 mile-a-day pace), the contestants combat nature, bandits, thirst, exhaustion, and themselves, gradually forging a strong respect for one another. Again and again, the behavior they demonstrate during the race is shown to be more important than who wins in the end.
As Douglass K. Daniel relates in his book, Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks:
(Brooks’) story questions the American fascination with being the best. “There are no bad guys in this story. There are only people according to their nature. I wanted to tell their story and say that we have our heritage in them, that they had a code of honor and sense of ethics that had nothing to do with winning,” (Brooks) said. “Back then there was the doing. That was what was important. And I wanted to make a picture about that.”
The characters display this code of honor throughout the film. Sam constantly shows more care for his fellow racers and their mounts than he does with his own progress in the race. Matthews is quick to come to the aid of the Englishman when he gets thrown from his horse and tumbles down a rocky hill. When the Mexican becomes too sick from his damaged tooth, both Sam and Miss Jones take hours out of their precious rest time between legs in the race to help him. Sam fashions a bullet shell as a cap for the exposed nerve, giving a literal meaning to the film's title, as well as the figurative one, of doing what needs to be done, to knuckle down and deal with hard choices.
After a night-time river crossing, Mister’s horse rides into camp without him. While Sam goes back to help the injured old cowboy, the others hang around, despite the urgency to move on and get back in the race. Only when Mister makes it back to camp do they take off again. Even young, undisciplined Carbo eventually mends his ways, coming to look up to the principled but taciturn Sam as a mentor, and beginning to learn what it means to be a real cowboy, and a real man.
Gene Hackman (45 years old at the time of filming) may not be the sort of actor one would immediately associate with westerns, but he’s terrific in the part (as he would be later as a very different sort of character in Unforgiven). It’s clearly him and not a stuntman in most of the riding scenes, and he handles horses and all the assorted paraphernalia like a pro. It’s a tightly-contained, physical yet deeply-felt performance.
Coburn is in his element as the charming, good-hearted gambler with the mile-wide grin. Typically, Ben Johnson steals every scene he’s in. Candice Bergen dials down her beauty and fits in well enough with the male-dominated cast to make a convincing cowgirl. Mario Arteaga is immediately sympathetic as the gentle Mexican, and Jan-Michael Vincent, Ian Bannen, Dabney Coleman, Sally Kirkland, and familiar character actor Robert Donner all play their roles with authenticity and skill.
Bite the Bullet marked veteran Brooks’ first western since the rousing The Professionals back in 1966. Brooks, whose eclectic resume includes such films as The Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, Lord Jim and In Cold Blood, was at this point in his career notoriously secretive.
“The actors worked from a twenty-page treatment. Often they learned their lines the night before, “ (Brooks) said. "OK, I admit they trusted me. But then, they had no choice.” (1)
The actors' faith in Brooks was well-placed, as he gave them a great script full of memorable lines and speeches. One highlight is Hackman’s monologue to Bergen about the famed charge up San Juan Hill. Questioned by Miss Jones, Sam tells her about the brave sacrifice of his dead wife, Paula, a Cuban prostitute turned insurrecto, with whom he met and fell in love during the Spanish-American War. “The people some people marry,” he finishes. “I wasn’t worth her spit.” As with The Professionals, Brooks' screenplay for Bite the Bullet is a marvel of naturalistic, tough-talking poetry.
Brooks’ secrecy in making the film even extended to the recording of Alex North’s jaunty score. Brooks wouldn’t allow North and his orchestra to see any film playback while they laid down the tracks. According to North: "He didn't want anyone to get an idea of what he was doing." (2)
The film looks great, with a variety of striking locales (including Nevada, White Sands, New Mexico and Colorado) beautifully lensed by DP Harry Stradling, Jr. It shares the naturalistic, earthy look common in so many early and mid-70s films, but seems to have one foot planted firmly back in the 60s in its upbeat tone and straightforward narrative. It’s a very different type of movie than the few grimy, downbeat and de-glamorized westerns more characteristic of that era, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Bite the Bullet wasn’t a box-office success, coming as it did after the waning of the western's popularity in the late 60s, and as a result isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. It’s truly an excellent film, a grand adventure tale replete with an ensemble of memorable characters. It also happens to be a damn good film about horses.
DVD Note: Screen captures taken from the Sony DVD release. Twilight Time have recently released the film on what is an expensive, but by all accounts pristine Blu-Ray edition.
(1) and (2) excerpted from Tough As Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks, by Douglass K. Daniel
This post is my contribution to the Horseathon, sponsored by Page at My Love of Old Hollywood. Mosey on over there for a list of the other fine blog authors taking part.
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