Richard Brooks (The Professionals, Lord Jim, In Cold Blood) has conceived and directed a highly stylized western about a 700 mile endurance horse race that takes place in America circa 1906. The movie has all the forward energy, robust sweep, and character colorations of the West itself. The viewer is caught up immediately in the pre-race excitement, the hoopla surrounding the event and the initial curiosity about the rivals in the competition. The race itself shot in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico treats us to majestic and awesome images of mountains, deserts, and green valleys. The terrain is as varied and interesting as the characters.
At the head of the line is Gene Hackman as a rugged saddle tramp with a fondness for animals, justice, and the joys of a solid friendship. His comrade from fighting days at San Juan is James Coburn, a man who has bet on himself seven-to-one to win the race. Also competing are Jan Michael-Vincent, a recognition-craving young fellow with a good heart covered up by a nasty disposition; Ben Johnson, an old cowpuncher who desperately wants to savor the sweet taste of success before he dies; Ian Bannen, a sporting British equestrian; Mario Arteaga, a poverty stricken Mexican; Candice Bergen, a whore who wants money to help her imprisoned lover; and Robert Hoy, the lackey of two rich employers. For a variety of reasons, they all want to be winners. Remember the movie is set during the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt who advocated "the strenuous life."
There's plenty of human drama here with plot twists that both startle and work convincingly. A serious probe on the ethic of winning, Bite the Bullet is quite effective. Hackman calls himself un-American: "If you're not the best, the first and the greatest, then you're not an American." His humanism (always giving a helping hand to animal or person) shines throughout the film and in our age of non-heroism seems almost unreal. Yet Hackman's performance makes it believable and commendable. The end of Bite the Bullet is a fresh twist on winning out and gives us pause to think about our way of being in the world.