The second of his two western efforts, Richard Brooks’ “Bite the Bullet” demonstrates the value of an ambitious director operating without a particularly innovative visual sense but a finely honed sense of what’s important in a story (think Norman Jewison). With the exception of a few intrusively gimmicky moments (involving the use of double exposure and slow motion), Brooks’ film is a peon to traditional western sensibilities and a gentle nod in recognition to their eventual fading in the march of history. Despite the action basis of the narrative and the plentiful occasions for violence, it remains a quieter western adventure- often quite meditative -than the more cynically graphic revisionist westerns which often conceded an unnecessarily harsh proclivities toward hostility as a sign of character rather than advancing the idea of a broader range of rough hewn but positive behavioral traits defining the frontier persona. Not unlike “The Professionals”, “Bite the Bullet” eloquently extends the demonstration of character equally between illustrative actions and particularly evocative dialogue; a comfortable duality with which the director-writer skillfully reveals the often surprisingly contrary, yet always logical, construction of his characters. Though a narrative driven by a particularly specific event- the running of a 700 mile contest of endurance on horseback, “Bite the Bullet” is ultimately a story enriched and given fulfillment through the of its roster of competitors, ably supported by an equally interesting and interested sideline spectators to the competition: it’s an engaging ensemble piece, though its spirited tone of purely American reckless adventure is certainly born from one person in particular, who has neither an active nor supporting role per se, yet whose continuous referencing nonetheless invests the entire story with a bracing spirit of optimistic destiny: President Theodore Roosevelt, whose recurring referencing can be handily seen as a bridging device between the representations of the disappearance of the untamed West (in actuality if not the Western ideal) and encroaching modernity. (Among other indicators of the West regarded as rich pickings for East Coast business interests is a glib comment made by a smugly wealthy business tycoon- nicely played by Dabney Coleman -who flatly states “we don’t have to know about it [the West], we own it.”)
The film introduces a group race contenders who are nevertheless easily identifiable as particularly familiar western stereotypes (the film makes no pretense toward bold originality, only in an effective and affecting method of presenting its catalog of well-traveled genre tropes): Carbo, the brash, foolhardy youth out to make a name for himself (Jan-Michael Vincent), Miss Jones,the whore with a heart of gold (Candice Bergen), Mister, the grizzled Civil War veteran (Ben Johnson), the Mexican (Mario Arteaga) whose toothache provides the film with one of most interpretations of its title, Sir Harry Norfolk, the out of his element foreigner (Ian Bannen), Luke Matthews, the slick gambler/adventurer (James Coburn) and Sam Clayton, the weathered cowboy (Gene Hackman), these last two being not only sharing a lengthy history but also fraternal membership in Colonel Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, an experience which will be vividly recounted by both men with their reference point being Clayton’s deceased Cuban wife (among the other threads binding “Bite the Bullet” and “The Professionals” are similar recollections made by Clayton and the earlier film’s Dolworth [Burt Lancaster] about the noble whore as self-sacrificing revolutionary, as well as Clayton’s characteristic defense against cruelty to horses which is certainly a reflection of the character Ehrengard, played by Robert Ryan in the 1966 film), a connection emphasizing both films’ dedication to a romantic ideal which Brooks instills even during the turbulent narrative twists of his westerners: a more roughly hewn but nevertheless coded sense of behavior which values the honor of a word given, loyalty and a peculiar sense of chivalry despite the outer trappings of random commercial promiscuity (charitably and perhaps sensibly, Brooks’ frontier prostitutes are not regarded as fallen women but as “angels of mercy” to whom when a man hands over money for their services “the man always gets the better end of the deal”; an extremely liberated concession to idea of the endurance of the range cowboy through loneliness and the value contributed through that by “the world’s oldest profession”, rather than just as insultingly decorous, fashionably provocative Hollywood window dressing).
In fact, though there is a sympathetic strain of empathy with all but the most peripheral of characters (more about this in a moment) that characterizes both of Brooks’ western adventures: regardless of which side of a conflict a character is positioned, there is a generous consideration of a person’s worth, that- despite the limitation of screen time -their existence as a part of the narrative mosaic is considered thematically contributory, essential. None of the main characters exert their personalities nor engage in action without a perceptible influence attributable to the temporary societal glue unconsciously fashioned by the collective group; it is clear that despite (or more accurately, perhaps because of) the disparate backgrounds (we are to presume as little is given for actual exposition as character in this film is defined by gesture) and isolating nature of the nomadic frontier lifestyle there exists a symbiotic understanding of a particular code of behavior between the competitors (even the young hothead once exposed to the wisdom of experience) that arises from a sympathetic acknowledgement of shared experience. Time, both in its cataloging of the passing of a life and as a harbinger of inexorable change is a major player in the film- equally as important as any character -and the film deftly chronicles the slow erosion of each character’s defensive posturing in a concession to a silently brokered camaraderie that reduces the competitive motive of the contest from a personal one to a virtual surrender to fate. Though written and directed in a deceptively simple, linear narrative fashion, Brooks creates an entirely lived-in universe (initially through words, then translated into impeccable performance from each of surprisingly diverse cast, several of whom have not displayed prior ease with their craft) where the ghosts of the past forever color the character of each of the contestants; much of this is merely suggested, some more overtly stated, but in either degree masterfully interwoven into a richly evocative tapestry of men and women engaged in a common, hard lifestyle in which shared kindnesses can be as valuable as a bag of gold nuggets.
Exceptions to the earlier observation concerning a rarity of antipathy toward characters is limited to an a pair of would-be rapists quickly dispatched without another mention and a group of convicts who emerge during the film’s one serious lapse- an extended and bewildering story thread which reveals a subversive participatory motivation for one of the major competitors (a revelation which undercuts all of the admirable sensibility characterizing this particular individual) a lengthy chain of events which- quickly revealing their irrelevance -simply might be excised from the film without notice or effect to the finale. The film ends on a surprising note, both unexpected and joyously keeping in the celebration of deeply felt friendship. The performances are universally excellent, with the real surprise being a genuine elevation in the performance level of Candice Bergen who, before this film, had yet to connect in any film with an intelligent focus in her eyes. The score by Alex North, while occasionally distractingly complex- as if the talented composer were attempting a concert fugue in the middle of a scene -generally compliments the action with atmospheric leitmotifs which manage the neat trick of emphasizing sentimentality without becoming maudlin.