GeGene Hackman (Sam Clayton), Candice Bergen (Miss Jones), James Coburn (Luke Matthews), Ben Johnson (Mister), Ian Bannen (Sir Harry Norfolk), Jan-Michael Vincent (Carbo), Mario Artaega (Pepe), Dabney Coleman (Jack Parker)
“Nothing so hard on a man as virtue.” “How would you know?”
Brooks was one of Hollywood’s most gifted writer-directors, and one who hasn’t gotten the ink others such as Chaplin, Wilder and Sturges have. He’d earlier delved into the Western with examples such as The Last Hunt and The Professionals. Learning of an actual race from Evanston, Wyoming to Denver, Colorado sponsored by the Denver Post in 1908, he started on his screenplay.
Then the most popular actor in motion pictures, Charles Bronson turned down the main role of Sam Clayton, opening the way for Hackman, who’d recently made several Westerns. Bergen had just starred in another outdoor epic, The Wind and the Lion. Coburn had a long history of Westerns in both motion pictures and television, as did former rodeo champ Johnson.
Bite the Bullet was shot over 68 days in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, Hackman later saying it was the “toughest film I ever worked on,” yet the actor enjoyed making the movie. The crew experienced weather ranging from snowstorms to pouring rain to scorching heat. While they were in New Mexico, Paul Stewart, who portrayed the elder Parker, suffered a heart attack.
Luke is a wannabe scoundrel. He has the somewhat desire for it, but not the ability. When Sam takes on Carbo and his pals for abusing an animal, Luke steps in to aid his outnumbered comrade, conversing with him all the while. When Norfolk must put down his beloved steed, Luke is there to silently give him the weapon to do it. He can win at the finish, but like Sam, realizes his horse is more important than the prize money. Like his friend, he’s a man of honor.
A true Westerner, Sam is–unknown to himself–a great man. Throughout the movie, he aids someone, whether it’s a defenseless jackass or someone he really doesn’t know. Sam’s the one who aids Pepe and comes to the defense of Jones (as does Pepe) when she’s attacked. He’s the one who goes back for the ailing Mister and waits with him until he perishes. The cowboy molds Carbo’s character over the course of the race by showing the youngster how he’s heading down the wrong path. Sam is a maker of men, and a silent hero.
Men such as Mister are those who won the West and untold numbers of them are buried in unmarked graves such as his. (When the man perishes, Sam states, “Gee Mister, I didn’t even know your name,” realizing the man’s grave won’t have a marker.) Having done so much, he’s not content. When he dies, a large portion of Western history fades. Sam realizes this is his future self, as this is the life of a cowboy. Where Mister is wrong about himself is wanting to see his name in print to be someone. With all he’s accomplished in his life, he’s been somebody for a long, long time.
Although Johnson was looked at as the ‘aw, shucks’ type actor, his death scene reminds the audience just how fine a performer he truly was. From his first appearance in the movie, we’re drawn to his character of Mister due to the simplistic manner in which he’s portrayed. As Mister expires, Johnson lets us know the man’s life, albeit a lonely one, has been a helluva time, and few others–if any–could have done the scene as well.
Bite the Bullet hits the mark on all aspects, especially with Alex North’s score. The composer rarely worked in the Western genre, but when he did, he hit the mark, and Bite the Bullet ranks among his finest, not to mention one of the best on Western film history.
Brooks’ script is marvelous, as is the cinematography by Harry Strandling, Jr. Hackman, Coburn, and Vincent, and excellent, but Johnson walks off with the picture in a performance that should have netted him his second Oscar. (He wasn’t even nominated, which was a travesty.) Showing off the beauty of the American West, Bite the Bullet is a splendid motion picture.
J.M. Harrison is the author of Ready When You Are, C.B.! 98 Epic Films You Should Watch