(#3 in a 12-part series to be printed at the beginning of each month)
Bite the Bullet - This is a neo-classic Western starring Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Dabney Coleman, Jan Michael Vincent, and Ian Bannen. Recently, it has been a featured movie on the Encore Westerns Channel.
The irony of the title is a specific reference to a toothache suffered by one of the characters, a Mexican ranchero who covers an exposed nerve in his mouth with a bullet casing.
The plot is filled with directed metaphors and rousing action which are well written and filmed. This motion picture chronicles a 700-mile cross-country horse race based on actual events that took place in 1906. It also offers a parable about the treatment of horses during the Old West and in early cinema.
The familiar metaphors I refer to include:
* You sure don’t know much… You’re right, but I’m not the one who’s lost
* Whiskey for me; beer for my horse
* I rather be in hell than in Oklahoma… Well each man to his own country
The movie was directed by Richard Brooks, who previously developed the screenplays for Key Largo and Elmer Gantry. He also marvelously directed The Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, and In Cold Blood. Bite the Bullet is his forgotten gem.
Charles Bronson was originally sought for the lead. Once he turned down the role, Gene Hackman accepted the part. Though he made relatively few Westerns in his career, Hackman is given top support with a colorful cast. Several of the actors really shine particularly James Coburn, Ben Johnson, and an unknown Mario Artaega as the caballero. Johnson and Artaega steal this film every time they’re on camera. Candice Bergen also capably handles a very physical role as a contestant in the race.
Brooks takes the time to flesh out each character’s story, allowing the audience to have a rooting interest in who should win or lose the race. And unlike Sam Peckinpah Westerns of the 1960’s, the violence is not graphic. This picture could have been made decades earlier with Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea in the lead roles. The genius in the script is the way the favorite in the race is written as an insignificant character. Each of the other contestants have reasons why they should lose. Imagined or real flaws, they include cultural bigotry, age, temperment, and knowledge of the terrain. The indivdual shortcomings of each of the entrants makes the actual competition quite compelling.
There are relatively few negatives in the story.
Whether the Mexican lives or dies is not disclosed, which is a shame, since one grows to really like this character. Also, issues of a mountainous terrain are not addressed, probably since the movie was over two hours by the time the location is reached.
Dabney Coleman provides a comedic voice as the representative of the contest who has a horse in the race. His part could have been expanded with a villainous edge to add further spice to the race. Coleman is great at playing louses, yet his career in 1975 had not fully blossomed. His role is relatively small and sterotyped as a short-sighted benefactor.
Supporting Actor Spotlight
Ian Bannen was a jovial Scottish actor who began his career during Hollywood’s Golden Age as one of the founding members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also found work in theatrical dramas on Broadway, most notably in the writings of Eugene O’Neill.
Bannen had a lengthy film career that started in London in 1951. He appeared in Ghandi, Hope and Glory, and Braveheart. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1965 for his work in Flight of the Phoenix. This particular movie is one of the Forgotten Gem Reviews in my 12-part series, upcoming in Jan., 2012.
He’s very lighthearted and genial throughout Bite the Bullet. Yet, the actor is given a very emotional scene to play, which he handles well. His relationship with his horse, and his ideas of sportsmanship makes him a very likeable character.
Ian Bannen was tragically killed in a car accident just outside of Loch Ness in 1999. He was 71. Three years prior, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) gave the actor a well deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.
Bite the Bullet captures the nature of an America entering the 20th Century, while still embracing the independent spirit of a previous age. With references to Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, and a love for national imperialism, this is a cinematic throwback to our love of classic Westerns as Shane and High Noon. Hidalgo later paid homage to this jewel. And, Gene Hackman would go on to win his second Oscar for his role in the Clint Eastwood Western The Unforgiven in 1992.
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