Bite the Bullet is a 1975 American Western film written, produced, and directed by Richard Brooks and starring Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, and James Coburn, with Ian Bannen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Ben Johnson, and Dabney Coleman in supporting roles.
Based on actual events of the early twentieth century, the story concerns a grueling 700-mile cross-country horse race in 1908 and the way it affects the lives of its various participants.
The colorful contestants include two former Rough Riders (Hackman and Coburn) who can't let friendship come between them if they intend to win, a lady of little virtue (Bergen), a punk kid (Vincent), an old cowhand in poor health (Johnson), an English gentleman (Bannen) who's competing just for the sheer sport of it all, and a Mexican with a toothache (Mario Arteaga) who literally needs to bite the bullet. All must race against a thoroughbred of championship pedigree owned by a wealthy man (Coleman) who has no intention of seeing his entry lose.
The film touches on the themes of sportsmanship, animal cruelty, the yellow press, racism, the end of the Old West and the bonds of marriage and friendship. As the race progresses, the conditions test not only the endurance of horses and riders but also their philosophies of life and the meaning of victory and defeat.Gene Hackman as Sam Clayton
James Coburn as Luke Matthews
Candice Bergen as Miss Jones
Ben Johnson as Mister
Ian Bannen as Sir Harry Norfolk
Jan-Michael Vincent as Carbo
Dabney Coleman as Parker
John McLiam as Gebhardt
Mario Arteaga as Mexican
Sally Kirkland as Honey
Jean Willes as Rosie
Charles Bronson turned down the lead role of Sam Clayton before Gene Hackman was eventually cast. The movie was filmed on location in New Mexico and Nevada and begins in a church in the small town of La Puente, New Mexico. There are numerous scenes of steam locomotives at work, shot along the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad narrow gauge railway between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. Other scenes were filmed at the Carson National Forest, New Mexico; Taos, New Mexico; White Sands National Monument, New Mexico; Lake Mead, Nevada; Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. The film's title comes from the creation of an improvised cap made from a hollowed bullet, which is used to relieve the toothache of one of the participants in the horse race.
Bite the Bullet was nominated for two Academy Awards including Best Sound Mixing (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Richard Tyler, Al Overton, Jr.) and Best Music, Original Score (Alex North).
According to Variety the film earned $5 million in theatrical rentals at the North American box office.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times was not impressed: "(It) is a big, expensive Western that doesn't contain one moment that might be called genuine. In spite of all the care, the money and the hardships that apparently went into its production, the movie looks prefabricated, like something assembled from other people's earlier, better inspirations." Canby did find the cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. to be "spectacularly beautiful."
However, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times liked the movie: "Brooks is a proven master of the Western on a grand scale (the 1966 classic The Professionals was his) and Bite the Bullet is a film that reexamines and reaffirms the Western myth — both as it affected our history and as it has been considered in the movies. ...Bite the Bullet finds the traditional power and integrity of the Western intact after all." Likewise, Ebert was impressed with Stradling's cinematography.