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    Number 3 with a Bullet

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Richard Brooks wrote and directed only three Westerns, but each one is a keeper, beautifully shot and expertly acted, eliciting new colors from some actors and invested with his favorite themes of regard for animals and exalting the values of decency and professionalism. His first, The Last Hunt (1958), casts Stewart Granger as a reformed buffalo slayer and Robert Taylor in a revealing and ferocious change-of-pace as a zealous hunter who takes pride and pleasure in killing whole herds in the South Dakota badlands – and any Native Americans who object to his lifestyle. The most popular of the trio is The Professionals (1966), outfitted with a majestic all-star cast (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance, Ralph Bellamy, Woody Strode and Claudia Cardinale), that endures as a brawny, critically rousing audience pleaser anchored in The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven tradition of badasses for hire taking on a larger forces for a profit-driven mission of dubious survival, only to find that some concept of greater good creeps into the equation. Movie #3 blends both these concerns. Bite the Bullet (1975), which Brooks called “his love poem to America,” arrived at a time when Westerns were fading a bit from favor. Indeed, when it opened 41 years ago today, its competition for box-office dollars was a lean, mean killing machine called Jaws, and despite being a star-stoked action adventure, Bite the Bullet’s $11-million take was a bit of a slide from The Professionals’ $20-million haul of nine years earlier. Yet this Brooks-originated (the two prior works being adaptations), turn-of-the-century-set story inspired by true-life endurance horse races across the American Southwest may endure as the Brooks oater that delves deepest into character and melds most emphatically the mythic and the real West. Coming together for a newspaper-sponsored 700-mile race across a blistering desert and treacherous mountain route (courtesy of breathtaking Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico locations lensed by the formidable Harry Stradling Jr.) are two ex-Rough Rider pals (Gene Hackman and James Coburn), an ex-prostitute (Candice Bergen), an ex-Confederate (Ben Johnson), an expat Brit (Ian Bannen) and a young hothead (Jan-Michael Vincent) prone to mistreating his mount. Indeed, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert noted in his appreciative review, the film’s “secondary subject…is its great love and respect for horses,” equal partners to their riders in the quest for victory. Ebert observed: “As if to underscore this theme, Brooks tells us in his program notes that not one horse was injured or came up lame in the film's arduous 64 days' shooting time.” The movie’s major subject is the mutual respect and camaraderie that the contestants develop over the harrowing course and punishing natural elements they face, notwithstanding the prize purse of a then-substantial $2,000. Flavorfully capturing a transitional bygone era, also featuring Dabney Coleman and Sally Kirkland, and comfortably saddled with a rousing Oscar®-nominated Alex North score (showcased on an Isolated Track), Bite the Bullet provides quite a run for your money on a beautiful Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, available here: