This was writer-director Richard Brooks' (THE PROFESSIONALS) final contribution to the Western genre, which is apt because it subtly depicts the eradication of real Americana by the insidious introduction of American business and its advertising concept of "Americana." Set at the beginning of the 20th century, it pits a group of nine horsemen (including one woman, played by Candice Bergen with a bit too much school-taught enunciation to be dropping her g's) against one another in a newspaper-sponsored 700-mile race across the desert. The prize is $2,000 but everyone has a different reason for wanting it, explored in some sensitively written character study: Mister (Ben Johnson) is a veteran of the Confederate Army in the Civil War, whose medals are worth nothing to pawn and wants to be on the winning side of something that will make people acknowledge him; Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen) is a British devotée of the West who is racing to participate in a waking dream; the Mexican (Mario Arteaga) simply needs the money to survive, and becomes addicted en route to the then-legal pain reliever Heroin, which he uses to nurse a toothache; Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a tough kid full of anger and braggadocio who wants to gain a quick reputation; and then there are two former members of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders: Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman), who is doing it simply to be doing something, and Luke Matthews (James Coburn), who wants to win to get rich, and has gambled on his victory so extensively that his victory will mean enough financially that he can offer to pay a second-ran more than they would gain by winning. Both of these men, but Clayton particularly, have lessons to teach Carbo about what it means to be a man and a horseman, which he gradually learns, but it's more obvious to us than to them that they are really attempting to stave off the corruption of sensibility that is the coming century.
For some reason, even at 131 minutes, this worthwhile film suggests it could have been great if indulged with a more expansive running time. When the characters reach their great soliloquies or moments, in a few cases they feel not wholly earned, as if we haven't gone through enough with them for their words to carry the maximum weight. It may be true that this is how it is in life -- we don't always get to know people, or understand them as they would like to be understood -- but this is drama, regardless of the film's occasional pretensions to realism. It also feels chaotically edited at times, particularly during the epically mounted sequence of the race's commencement, which looks and feels believably random and confusing but might have gained more with focused storyboarding. Nevertheless, the scenery is spectacular, it expresses a rare responsibility toward animals (while at the same time abusing some of them mercilessly with wire trips, falls off cliffs, etc), and there are excellent supporting performances by Dabney Coleman, Robert Hoy, John McLiam (Herb Clutter from Brooks' masterpiece IN COLD BLOOD), Sally Kirkland, and Jean Willes as the whorehouse madam, a rare (and final) screen appearance for the actress, a staple of late 1950s/early 1960s television. There is also a rousing Alex North score, remixed in 5.1 and isolated on Twilight Time's Blu-ray disc.
Viewed on Twilight Time Blu-ray disc, limited to only 3000 copies.