I’ve been working my way chronologically through as many films dealing with the James/Younger gang as possible. The last one I’m going to look at for now is Walter Hill’s The Long Riders from 1980. I feel sure that this is Hill’s best western, quite possibly it’s his best film period. All the other films that I have gone through in this little series have basically concentrated on one character, either Jesse James, Frank James or Bob Ford. The Long Riders differs in this respect since the focus is on the gang members collectively – the unique casting decisions playing a significant role here.
The movie charts the last years of the gang and provides little of the background found in other versions. There are, of course, numerous references throughout to the post-war hostility that is usually cited as the reason for the gang’s activities. But there are no images here of innocent farm boys driven, in spite of themselves, towards criminality. Instead, the opening of the film shows the gang as a bunch of seasoned pros coolly holding up a bank. That’s not to say that the characters are portrayed in an unsympathetic light – the script encourages the viewer to root for these men while also hissing at the bungling, murderous Pinkerton agents hunting them. The needless killing of a bank cashier by Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid), and his consequent expulsion from the gang, is meant to show us that these men are not just mindless sociopaths. It is also made clear that the killings of a number of Pinkerton men are forced on them only after those agents have murdered innocent members of their families. There’s also attention paid to the personal relationships of all the gang members, the most memorable being that between Cole Younger (David Carradine) and the tough and sexy Belle Starr (Pamela Reed). This affords Carradine the opportunity to deliver one of the best lines in the movie: “You’ll never be respectable Belle. You’re a whore… You’ll always be a whore…That’s why I like you.”
The film is beautifully shot and paced all the way through and this is most evident in the memorable Northfield sequence. The filming of the raid and the shootout has often been compared to the style of Sam Peckinpah, and I won’t argue with that. This brutal gun battle is the real highlight of the movie with lots of slow motion to emphasise the agonising impact of each and every bullet wound. Sure this a bloody scene but not in the pointless, voyeuristic sense that seems to plague so many modern action movies.
I don’t think the unusual casting method employed here has been attempted anywhere else – all the brothers’ roles are taken by real life brothers. James and Stacy Keach are the James brothers, the Youngers are played by David, Keith and Robert Carradine (would any Jesse James film be complete without the presence of a Carradine?), Randy and Dennis Quaid are the Millers, and Nicholas and Christopher Guest are Bob and Charlie Ford. If I were to analyse each performance I might never finish this piece, so I’ll keep it brief. I feel the acting honours are shared equally between Stacy Keach’s Frank James and David Carradine’s Cole Younger. Carradine’s swaggering and tough Cole, and Keach’s thoughtful and mature Frank are the roles that anchor the film. For the others, they’re mostly as good as their parts allow them – with one exception. James Keach’s portrayal of Jesse is about the worst that I have seen. For a man’s name to have become so deeply embedded in popular mythology Jesse James must surely have been possessed of some charisma. However, the acting of James Keach makes him so wooden and blank that you have to wonder how all those vital characters around him could have acknowledged him as their leader.
So, having gone through a number of similarly themed movies, what conclusions can I come to? Firstly, I would have to say that The Long Riders is my personal favorite of all the depictions of these colorful characters. It also happens to be the one that sticks closest to the historical facts, but I can’t say that this seriously affects my opinion of their cinematic merits. The other thing that I noticed was that the character of Frank James consistently fares best of all. I was never in any doubt that this was one tough, mean hombre but I couldn’t help feeling that he was the most recognisably human figure of the bunch – of course, this may well be a result of the quality of the actors who have played the part down through the years. For myself, I found it interesting to watch the various versions almost back to back and see how they evolved; I plan to do something similar with the Wyatt Earp movies, but not right away.
The Long Riders is available on DVD from MGM in R1 and R2 in a mediocre edition. The transfer, while it is anamorphic, is badly in need of a clean-up. It is also shameful that a film which I regard as a bona fide classic of the genre comes with no extras save for a theatrical trailer. I sincerely hope that MGM sees fit to revisit this title and show it some of the respect it most certainly deserves.