The Long Riders (1980)

A western about the famous James-Younger gang, notable for casting real-life brothers as the James, Younger, Miller and Ford brothers: David, Robert and Keith Carradine play Cole, Bob and Jim Younger, James and Stacey Keach are Jesse and Frank James, Dennis and Randy Quaid are Ed and Clell Miller and Christopher and Nicholas Guest are Charley and Robert Ford. All in the Family Out West. The movie was co-written by the two Keach brothers, who also co-produced. It's a family affair ...

The Long Riders starts in medias res, when the gang is at the height of their fame, and follows them until their downfall after the raid of the bank in Northfield Minnesota goes terribly wrong. Called a revisionist western by many critics at the time, the film is surprisingly traditional in emphasizing the importance of family life. The original angle is that we're not looking at the Fordian family of righteous men threatened by renegade Indians or degenerated bandits, but at families with a criminal background (the women back home fully accepting the men's way of life) threatened by lawmen hired by the railroad company. Those blood ties keep the group together, but are also its Achilles heel: the Pinkerton agents know the boys will always return to their families and things get very personal when Jesse's retarded young brother is shot by a Pinkerton man and his mother is maimed when the family home is attacked by the Agency.  

The Long Riders is vintage Walter Hill, a post-Wild Bunch western if ever there was one. It offers some of the bloodiest shootouts in the history of film making, notably the rendition of the famous Northfield Minnesota bank raid. The gang members are literally trapped by the citizens who have barricaded both ends of the main street and were waiting for them on the rooftops. Eventually they can only escape by galloping through windows - it has to be seen to believed. Hill's editing techniques are less refined, but his slomo violence is more exploitative than Peckinpah's balletic bloodbaths in The Wild Bunch, especially in those moments when the camera almost freezes the action and weird sound effects create a nightmarish, outlandish effect, as if we have accidently wandered off into a horror movie. 

Hill manages to make the consequences of a violent life palpable. The boys live in constant fear of being killed and know they can only survive if they can trust each other completely: one of the Miller brothers is expelled from the group for panicking during a hold-up, and the Fords are rejected disdainfully when they try to insinuate themselves into the group because they seem unreliable. He also creates some poignant scenes of family life, but his narrative often feels a little discursive and - like some have mentioned (1) - lacks a definable point of view. It tries to be realistic and unsentimental, but at the same time it's deeply romantic; the often dark cinematography and the grey dusters worn by the gang members create a certain feeling of doom, but with its warm depictions of gang life and Ry Cooder's genteel score it tends to validate the old myth of Jesse James being a sort of American Robin Hood rather than demythologizing it (2).

In spite of its muddled intentions, The Long Riders is a very likable western. Lacking the large-scale pretentions of Andrew Domink's arty-farty endurance test The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Hill's movie also lacks the quirkiness of Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, made almost a decade earlier; it's more serious, and in retrospect probably also easier to enjoy. The action scenes are excessively bloody but also elegantly staged, the movie is expertly shot by Ric Waite and breathes Hill's love for the genre from all its pores.

* (2) He was named such during his lifetime, mainly by former Confederate supporters, who admired him for robbing banks and railroads, run by Easterners who were threatening their way of life. Popular sympathy for the gang was fuelled by the Pinkerton attack on the family farm, in which Jesse and Frank James's mother lost a hand. See: Philip French, Westerns, p. 170-171, and: Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns, p. 13-14

Enjoy Walter Hill's version of the Northfield Minnesota bank raid:


  1. I agree with your estimations of the other films that portray Northfield, and it's the casting of brothers that strains this one for me. When I saw it, James Keach did not seem up to what should be a much stronger performance as Jesse. If I remember right, David Carradine often carries the movie as Cole Younger. And I liked Pamela Reed's Belle Starr.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts