I remember seeing this film when it first came out (probably at a drive-in) and liking it fairly well. Hindsight suggests that this reaction from the then much-younger me was possibly influenced more than it should have been by the scenes featuring the then much-younger Candice Bergen in leather riding britches, chocolate brown in color. Subsequent viewings, including a couple very recent ones on cable's Western Channel, find me not quite so enamored of the overall work, although Candice's leather-clad fanny is still pleasing to look upon.
BULLET was written and directed by the highly successful, highly regarded, and quite diverse Richard Brooks. It came later in his career, after a string of critical and commercial hits that included titles such as CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, ELMER GANTRY, THE PROFESSIONALS, and IN COLD BLOOD. It featured a big budget, an all-star cast, and was very ambitious in what it set out to do.
Inspired by a real-life series of grueling endurance horse races that took place around the turn of the last century, BULLET tells the tale of a 700-mile race from Wyoming to Denver in 1906. The Old West is phasing out and a new world of steam locomotives and automobiles (and motorcycles, one of which plays a significant role in this story) are on their way in. Yet the horse and, for the most part, the mixed bag of participants signed on for the contest seem to be stubbornly, desperately clinging to their passing era.
Gene Hackman and James Coburn play two former Rough Riders who went up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. Hackman's is clearly the starring role (reportedly turned down by Charles Bronson) with the most screen time and the most complexities to his character. Viewed now, the scene where he tells Bergen about the famous charge – first echoing the popular version, and then backing up and telling how it really was – is like an eerie premonition to his Little Bill character in UNFORGIVEN, setting the record straight on some of the popular myths of the Old West.
Coburn is given surprisingly little to do except to play the kind of laconic, somewhat cocky character he could by that point do in his sleep. Bergen fares a little better, with a couple decent scenes --- but then peters out toward the end after her character allows herself to be played for a sucker in a pointless, lackluster story development that has her attempting to aid in helping her husband escape from a chain gang doing labor on a railroad track. Ben Johnson, as an old cowpoke in frail health trying to attain one fleeting moment of glory by winning the race, has a fine, memorable scene that makes you wish his character would have lasted a lot longer.
In the end, I guess that's what I found unsatisfying about BITE THE BULLET (the ill-fitted title, by the way, related to one of the secondary racers enduring a painful toothache by fitting an empty cartridge casing over the ailing tooth and biting down on it)… it has several good, solid scenes, some stirring music and stunning cinematography, but the string that should tie it all together somehow isn't pulled tight and knotted quite sufficiently. And for every good scene, there are others (a chase with the side-car motorcycle; a rundown of one of the characters [punky Jan Michael Vincent] who has recklessly ridden his horse to death and is trying to flee the carcass with properly burying it; and the seemingly endless slow-motion conclusion as the sweating, frothing horses [with the drawn-out huff and puff of their breathing slow-played on the soundtrack] close on the finish line) that are overstated and run on for-fucking-ever. Until you want to throw something at the screen and shout, "Enough! I get the point!"
All in all, I guess I would still say that BITE THE BULLET is a watchable movie. I'd even go so far as to say it is entertaining, due to the scenes that are good being very good. But it's not a great movie, and it's not a great Western. Especially when you take into consideration Brooks' earlier (1966) THE PROFESSIONALS. The actors aren't the main problem, but nevertheless: Hackman ain't no Burt Lancaster; and Coburn ain't no Lee Marvin; and Candy, even in her leather britches, sure as hell ain't no Claudia Cardinale.