The sight of a motorcycle buzzing near horses and steam engines is the first clue “Bite the Bullet” eschews western conventions.
The 1975 film, available now on Blu-ray, straddles the crevasse between standard oaters and the revisionist westerns still to come.
The devil is in the timing. The film opens in the early 1900s, a time when the Wild, Wild West was giving way to modernity.
Gene Hackman stars as Sam Clayton, a former Rough Rider competing in a 700-mile horse race along with a gaggle of what could easily be described as Western archetypes.
James Coburn is the slick veteran who never loses his cool but needs the race money badly. Candice Bergen plays an impossibly beautiful ex-whore trying to earn money in a more reputable fashion. And Jan-Michael Vincent corrals every brash cowboy cliche into one adrenalized package. It’s a one-note presentation, but Vincent manages to slip in some pathos within it.
The race itself takes up plenty of screen time, not unlike another ’70s curio, “Le Mans.” We watch endless scenes of the actors astride their horses, but the magnificent vistas and competent riding makes it fascinating to observe.
Today’s actors are applauded for performing their own dangerous stunts, but it’s still a pleasure to watch Hackman appear as comfortable on his steed as he is in any other actorly setting.
The fact that Hackman’s last screen credit might be “Welcome to Mooseport” should he hold firm on his retirement plans is a Hollywood sin of the first order.
Writer/director Richard Brooks (“The Professionals”) embraces patient story telling. So we see how the townsfolk react to the riders, watch the contestants live humbly while dreaming of glory and witness characters open themselves up in ways that feel authentic.
Hackman plays the most noble of the racers, a man who won’t cotton to people mistreating horses or people. But it’s the tiny touches that register, like the Mexican racer whose throbbing tooth threatens to take him out of the race.
Ben Johnson plays the old timer, the cagey veteran clinging to the limelight afforded to him by the competition. He’s too old to factor in the film’s waning minutes, but his reasons for saddling up are crystalized in one beautifully delivered monologue.
The Blu-ray arrives without extras of consequence, but the chance to see Hackman at the peak of his powers is special enough for most movie buffs. “Bite the Bullet” isn’t a classic western in the traditional sense – the film is too episodic, more of a smart travelogue than penetrating yarn. It’s still a sturdy addition to your western film collection.