Bite the Bullet

dir. Richard Brooks
1975 / Columbia Pictures / 132′
written by Richard Brooks
director of photography Harry Stradling Jr.
original music by Alex North
starring Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Ben Johnson, Ian Bannen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Mario Arteaga, and Dabney Coleman
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Bite the Bullet
 is out on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and is available exclusively through and their Amazon storefront.

If ever there were a film thematically befitting the Twilight Time label, Richard Brooks’ epic ode to a dying West is it. Like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch before it 1975’s Bite the Bullet occupies a time and place of fading, in which the majesty and thrill of the old West is wrangled for cheap spectacle and circulation boosting by way of a turn of the century newspaper-financed 700 mile endurance horse race. With a $2,000 prize on the line, and substantially more bet on the side, the event brings out all types, from a aging cowboys and fresh young upstarts to a former prostitute and a pair of Teddy’s own Rough Riders, but as the miles drag on it becomes obvious that the contestant’s various personal stakes amount to a sight more than a stack of bills and a name in the paper.

Central to the story is the enigmatic Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman), a veteran of San Juan Hill who is hired as deliveryman for the paper’s champion horse, but fired from the team when his respect for the creatures leaves him late for the delivery. Initially wanting no part of a ‘gut-busting, back-twisting, man-killing goddamn race’ Clayton eventually signs on, leaving his own motivations unclear and joining the roster of fortune-hunters and glory-seekers as an independent. As the race winds on, one 100-mile stretch at a time, Clayton’s path intersects with those of the other contestants – including fellow Rough Rider Luke Matthews (James Coburn!), a gambler who has bet more than he can pay on his own chances, an Englishman (Ian Bannen) with a taste for American sport, and a Mexican (Mario Arteaga) with one mother of a tooth ache, the solution to which provides the film with its title.

Bite the Bullet‘s under-celebrated director Richard Brooks had already proven himself on such contemporary classics as Elmer Gantry, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Professionals and In Cold Blood by the time the 1970’s rolled around, and his work here is typically excellent. The events surrounding the race are purported with documentary precision, while the race itself is granted an almost mythic significance through a few deliciously calculated flourishes and a deft, spare usage of overcranking. The latter makes an indelible mark midway through the film, presenting one ambitious young rider’s futile effort to achieve his goal (to catch up to the front runner even as his own horse dies of exhaustion) with a nightmarish efficacy.

As important to his capacities as a director are Brooks’ considerable – and proven – talents as a writer (Brooks pulled double duty on the four films mentioned above, earning an Oscar nod in each instance and ultimately winning for Elmer Gantry), and his screenplay for Bite the Bullet is sharp and incisive stuff, both in its dialogue and its characterizations. From an early scene of Clayton saving a young colt to a stirring turn by Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch) as the nameless Mister, an elderly cowboy who reaches the end of his line in as eloquent a fashion as has ever been seen on film, Bite the Bullet is positively alive with poignant humanity, making it more an epic of character than of action (though there’s certainly some of that as well). The quality of the film’s writing is only made more impressive once the circumstances of it are known – as elucidated in Julie Kirgo’s typically fine essay, Brooks wrote much of the screenplay on the go, with the substantial cast initially working from a 20-page treatment. As such it was not uncommon for the actors to receive their lines just the night before shooting of a scene began!

It all works out, someway somehow, and the only real mistake of the picture – an impromptu bear attack rendered laughable by the mercifully brief appearance of a woefully inadequate man-in-suit – is a fleeting one. Amusingly, the film’s ace photographer Harry Stradling Jr. (1776, Little Big Man) would find himself embroiled in bear antics far more bizarre just a few years later, when he filmed John Frankenheimer’s oddball mutant monster picture Prophecy. While I’m unsure of how contemporary audiences received the film, it certainly played well to critics of the time. Bite the Bullet would go on to earn two Oscar nods, for its exceptional sound design and for Alex North’s (Dragonslayer) jaunty genre score, but lose on both counts to a little film called Jaws.

Don’t let the ruddy Columbia logo at the start of this one fool you, as Bite the Bullet is another worthy addition to the ever-growing pantheon of quality Sony Pictures restorations. This is a tremendous looking show, lensed in 35mm Panavision and granted a rustic, somewhat desaturated palette that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. Contrast is deep and detail strong throughout the feature, and damage is kept to a minimum – a few specks are noticeable here or there, but little else. The natural texture, a finer grain than one might find in anamorphic productions from just a decade before, is properly retained – this is another digital transfer that looks and feels like film. Sony’s restoration team have again left me with no room to complain.

The same might be said of Twilight Time, who have mastered their release to the robust specifications that have become their norm. Bite the Bullet‘s 2.35:1 1080p image receives a healthy Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps – the feature and audio are spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, occupying a hair under 40 GB all told. Artifacting is again of no concern, proving so negligible as to go unnoticed by this reviewer, and the textures of the image (both those photographed and inherent to the medium itself) are precisely rendered. This is a very strong presentation, well in advance of SD capabilities, and another fine addition to Twilight Time’s limited edition series.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the Image Magick command line tool.

If the IMDB is to be believed, then Bite the Bullet was originally a monophonic show (certainly nothing strange for a film produced in the middle seventies). Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition presents only a remixed 5.1 surround option, albeit one that sounds very good in lossless DTS-HD MA. While it’s a pity that the Academy Award-nominated original mix goes unrepresented, I’m hard pressed to complain about the results here. Effects are rich and sound of the appropriate vintage (I’d never seen the film until now, so any alterations thereof are lost on me), and Alex North’s stereo-recorded score is utterly brilliant. As expected of Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed releases, a set of optional English SDH subtitles is included.

Supplements are as expected, and nothing more. Alex North’s score is represented beautifully by way of its own isolated lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track, while an original theatrical trailer (HD) rounds out the on-disc content. This is a fully-functional disc (another new norm for Twilight Time, and welcome), complete with 11 non-generic chapter stops and an easily accessible pop-up menu. The package itself is wonderfully designed, and a major improvement over the awful generic look of Sony’s earlier (and pan-and-scanned) DVD, and is rounded off with the keen liner notes mentioned earlier in this review – the licenses to the films themselves excepted, author Julie Kirgo may well be Twilight Time’s most valuable asset.

Mark Bite the Bullet down as another film I’d likely never have taken the time to see had Twilight Time not intervened – for allowing me to see it for the first time in such a splendid edition I really can’t thank the label enough. The film is a wonderful achievement on its own terms, worth watching if only as a showcase for Richard Brooks’ superior screenwriting, and Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray does it proper justice to say the least. Both get an easy recommendation from me.