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Bite the Bullet
  • Composed by Alex North
  • Prometheus / 1999 / 60m

One of the last great traditional westerns, Richard Brooks’s Bite the Bullet (starring Gene Hackman, James Coburn and Candice Bergen) was certainly not seen as great at the time of its release, with most audiences being turned off by that very thing, its traditional nature – after The Wild Bunch, this kind of thing just wouldn’t do.  Time has treated it extremely well however, and this wide-reaching tale of the birth of urban America set loosely against a horse-drawn race 700 miles across the country is highly-regarded today.

Alex North didn’t do many westerns, but when he did, he was always at the top of the game.  Cheyenne Autumn and The Wonderful Country are two of the greatest western scores anyone’s ever written.  Of course, North being North, his westerns weren’t much like other people’s westerns: his steadfastly modern style did not offer the kind of jaunty view of the Old West that his contemporaries tended to serve up.  Yet his music contains the same kind of soaring spirit as those expansive efforts.  In Bite the Bullet he came the closest he ever would to that Aaron Copland sound – the witty hints at Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” which run through the score another traditionalist touch.  But this is Alex North, through and through – and it’s quite exceptional.

Alex North

Alex North

The Overture presents the busy, bustling main theme in all its glory – an upbeat piece, but presented with the kind of intricately detailed orchestration for which North was so renowned.  “The Foal” introduces the love theme, which is of tender and intelligent construction, and very moving – so delicate.  “The Race” is a vibrant action cue, exciting and colourful; and the flip side of that is presented in the lengthy “Badlands” which follows, an exquisite dissonance building a perfectly-judged feeling of unease.

“Miss Jones” is another lovely, tender piece, and just take a listen a minute or so into it for a melody that lasts but a few seconds but will be instantly recognisable to anyone who loves film music (I’m sure it is a coincidence).  “Desert Ride” is a piece of music which is orchestrationally soft, but emotionally explosive, the kind of thing North did better than anyone either before or since.  “Night Pause”, for solo guitar, is a real beauty – a lilting, exquisite piece perfectly conjuring up images of falling asleep under the moonlight on the great plain.

“Old Timer’s Horse” presents a wistful, nostalgic theme for clarinet which is enough to break your heart: North’s genius at such things is never mentioned nearly often enough.  It’s stunning music, whimsy aplenty from a master.  After this comes another little bit of North genius in “Fun Ride”, which more than lives up to its name as “Camptown Races” is shoved into a chaotic, blustery setting, the contrast between the simple melody and its violent surroundings the sort of thing only North could pull off (or even try, in all probability).  “Respite” presents another theme for solo guitar – and another opportunity for the listener to just melt away into happiness – and it also allows North to draw from one of his great loves, Mexico, a love he got to put to great use over the years by incorporating Mexican music into his scores when possible.  Another chance to do so comes immediately, at the beginning of “Carbo and Luke”, which opens with a very short dance before progressing on to a fascinating period of action with its powerful orchestral battle between high and low brass, accompanied by the composer’s trademark complex percussion set-up, so intricate.  (Later, more overt Mexican music is provided in a suite of source music which closes the disc, some arrangements of traditional music, and some originals from North.)

After one of the score’s most extroverted cues comes one of its most introverted, “Sand Dunes”, a gentle and very subtle portrait of a neverending landscape.  The score bursts back to life in the titular cue which follows, in which North perfectly, brilliantly conveys anguished suffering, cranking up the tension until it is virtually unbearable before releasing it all with an upbeat end to the cue.  “Final Lap” is a very warm piece, tinged with Mexican influences, and somewhat celebratory in nature – but still restrained and dignified.  “The Winner” is far more strained, jarring almost, in its awkward exposition of tension verging on pain – as ever, North doing anguish like no other.  “Clay and the Mexican”, by contrast, is full of warmth and friendship.  The colourful “Prisoners” is very upbeat and happy, and perhaps the only really dated part of the score; but its boundless enthusiasm makes up for that.  The beautifully measured end title piece then makes for a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful score.

From start to finish, Bite the Bullet is world class.  That ever-present tension in North’s music – the lilting melodies, the thigh-slapping folk tunes playing against ferociously complex psychological statements over the relationships which develop between the characters over the course of the film – marks this as something truly special.  As with all the great film composers, Alex North didn’t sound like anyone else, he had his own way of scoring films, and the sheer complexity of his music is surely what makes him a more acquired taste than some of his peers.  But to make the effort to acquire that taste, to study his music and become enveloped within it, is one of the great joys of film music – and once you get the bug, there’s no stopping it.  Since Prometheus released this score in 1999 (the first time it had ever been released), I can’t imagine the number of times I’ve listened to it – and every time I do, I find something new, some new little piece of brilliance.  That’s great music.  The sound isn’t quite as good as it would be if remastered again today, but it’s perfectly acceptable; Jack Smith’s liner notes confirm that he is one of the most erudite writers about film music there has ever been and it’s a shame that the labels today don’t try to entice him to do it again.  This is a stunning score.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Christian K (Reply) on Monday 28 July, 2014 at 07:11

    Here’s an interesting (and/or ironic) conundrum, James…I enjoy reading your thoughts about North’s music a lot more than North’s music itself…

  2. brandon (Reply) on Saturday 1 April, 2023 at 04:04

    The main score is SO positive and refreshingly uplifting. it puts a skip in my walk every time. BUT the foal, is so tender and soft and amazing, I listen to it over and over and it is why I love music, it grabs me and does not let me go. Laced with the beat of the main theme. It moves me.