Tuesday 7 October 2014

Movie Review: Bite The Bullet (1975)

A western with epic ambitions to capture the drama of a 700 mile endurance race, Bite The Bullet fails on almost all fronts. While the cinematography is admirable, the plot, characters and conflicts are routine, boring and superficial.

It's 1906, and a disparate group of cowboys gather to compete in an endurance race sponsored by a newspaper, with $2,000 in prize money and plenty of side bets to spice up the pot. Rough Riders and long-time friends Sam (Gene Hackman) and Luke (James Coburn) both enter the race, although for different reasons: while Luke has bet big that he will win the race, Sam is a humanitarian who loves animals, and wants to try and help competitors stay out of trouble and ensure that horses are not abused.

Other entrants with ambitions to win include an elderly man looking for a final shot at glory (Ben Johnson), a Mexican with a toothache (Mario Arteaga), an English gentleman (Ian Bannen), the young punk Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent), and Miss Jones (Candice Bergen), the only woman in the race. The wealthy and conniving Parker (Dabney Coleman) owns a prize horse considered the favourite, and Parker intimates that he will stop at nothing to make sure that his horse comes in first. Once the race get going, the riders face challenges from the unforgiving terrain, bandits, and each other.

While the race, inspired by a real event, provides what could have been an intriguing backdrop, the script by director Richard Brooks is far too underdeveloped to build genuine drama. Despite the presence of a stellar cast, the characters are provided with insufficient depth to become compelling people worth caring about. Some of the key central competitors, such as Luke and the Mexican, remain astoundingly vacant at the end of the 131 minutes. In contrast, the young Carbo undergoes a jarring attitudinal transformation that defies all credibility, from a cocky young gun full of bravado to a meek and respectful kid.

The film appears to have suffered a gruesome fate in the editing room, and the botched cutting may have contributed to rampant character truncation. A central premise of the film is the front-runner status of Parker's horse; the cowboy entrusted with delivering victory on this thoroughbred is not even identified as a character, and the pair conveniently but inexplicably disappear at the film's climax. The one genuinely good moment involves Ben Johnson as the unnamed Mister, recognizing that he cannot anymore compete in a young man's world and summarizing his cowboy drifter life in an affecting soliloquy.

Otherwise, Bite The Bullet provides endless scenes of horses and riders racing across the terrain, sometimes on their own, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes in artistic slow motion. The cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. makes excellent use of the varied landscape, and conveys a sense of lonely isolation as horse and rider streak across the wide western expanse. But nice imagery of panting horses is not nearly enough to sustain a long film. Bite The Bullet stumbles, falls and bites the dust.

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