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Bite The Bullet  

Review: written 2005

A surprisingly enjoyable Western

This Western has a light touch, without ever being camp or dated. The plot surrounds a 700 mile endurance horse race, and the varied contestants that enter it. As the movie unfolds, there are themes of 'do as you would be done unto' and also that striving for the best does not have to mean sacrificing the things that are important - in this case, how you treat animals, and indeed people. Although fun, it is never a comedy, and the superb casting makes for some moments rich in pathos, such as Ben Johnsons excellent turn as the old man wanting to make his mark and become somebody, or Ian Bannen as the wide eyed Englishman who looks up to the ideal of the West and wants to be part of it. The only weaker role is Candice Bergen, in a role that seems inserted for the sake of having a woman present, and does not add a great deal to the movie. Jan Michael Vincent also does well in his role as the brash and thoughtless young cowboy who wants to be somebody and will do anything to get there - though his transformation to nice guys seems somewhat rushed at the end.

The main acting chops go to Gene Hackman and James Coburn who as ever lend genuine gravitas to what could otherwise have been too frothy a concoction. Gene Hackman’s character gets the best moments, such as his relating the story of his Cuban wife to Candice Bergen, and the times when he cares for animals or people - the eyes tell the story of him being 'simpatico' as one character puts it. The scenery is varied - sometimes confusingly so, as the riders trot from desert to green forest in a few screen minutes, and beautifully captured with excellent cinematography. The script is deft, allowing for fun to be had with zingy one liners ('Aint never known a man that can hold liquor the way a bottle can..' and as one girl asks 'Buffalo Bill - aint he the fastest gun in the West?' the brothel madam replies 'only in bed, hon').

The music by Alex North is rousing and effective, riffing frequently on Camptown Races, but not entirely memorable.

Some might find the plot similar to Hidalgo, but this is simultaneously a simpler affair, being a more straightforward Western, and a richer affair, for having the excellent ensemble cast and a deft script which only runs out of steam somewhere near the end of the movie.

Well worth a watch, to fill in a lazy Sunday afternoon! And the moment of 'biting the bullet' might put you off the dentist for a while...

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