The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid


About a year ago I wrote a short series on the depiction of Jesse James in the movies. At the time, I skipped over The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) for the simple reason that I hadn’t seen the movie in years and didn’t have a copy to hand. Well I eventually got around to watching this a few days ago and thought I’d post my thoughts on it for the sake of completeness. I had recalled the film as being pretty good, but after my recent viewing I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad – it has too many interesting things going for it – but it did leave me feeling disappointed. The performances, and some of the ideas, save it but the direction is the weak point for me. I suppose I really should come clean here and say that Philip Kaufman isn’t one of my favourite directors, so that may have affected my opinion somewhat.

The whole film takes place within a fairly short space of time, concentrating on the lead up to, execution and aftermath of the bank robbery of the title. Mainly it’s a character study of Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson), with the latter getting more screen time and coming across the more sympathetic of the two. With the possibility of an amnesty for their past crimes being granted by the Missouri state legislature, Cole Younger (recuperating after a run in with Pinkerton agents) rides for Northfield with the aim of heading off Jesse before he can raid the bank. Along the way, he learns that the amnesty he was hoping for won’t be forthcoming, so a change of plan is in order. The scenes in Northfield, which make up the central part of the story, represent both the best and worst aspects of the picture. It’s here that the yokel outlaws get their first glimpse of the new technology and customs that will soon change their world forever. Some of these scenes work very well, such as the shock of being confronted by an early motorized vehicle. On the other hand, the almost interminable baseball game, replete with Keystone Kops style pratfalls, comes across as needlessly self-indulgent and slows the whole film down. The idea of including it was sound enough but Kaufman drags it out to the point where it becomes distracting. It’s worth comparing this sequence to the camel race at the start of Ride the High Country as they’re essentially making the same point; the difference, however, is that Peckinpah knew where to draw the line.

The thinker and the zealot - Robertson and Duvall as Cole Younger and Jesse James

Robertson is excellent as the thoughtful and charismatic Cole. He plays him as a man of the world and a realist, a guy who sees change coming and who is smart enough to see that dwelling on the past does no good. Duvall’s Jesse is the complete opposite – an unbalanced psychotic who cannot let go of the past and who treats all who stand in his way with a ruthless contempt. He talks in grandiose terms of having visions and excuses his excesses by referring to the guerrilla action he’s involved in. Both men give strong, believable performances that help ground the film. The supporting cast is also noteworthy with R G Armstrong playing the ill-fated Clell Miller, and old-timers Elisha Cook Jr and Royal Dano getting small but important roles. One other point I’d like to make relates to the way Frank James was portrayed; in every other movie I’ve seen, this character was shown to be a tough, smart but very human figure. In this movie, however, John Pearce plays him as a vaguely simple-minded soul who lives only to carry out his brother’s wishes. I’ve no idea if this closer to reality or not, but it’s a marked contrast to all other portrayals. I said earlier that I wasn’t all that impressed by Kaufman’s direction and, apart from the aforementioned baseball sequence, he also handles the actual robbery poorly. The scenes in the bank are fine, but as soon as the action takes to the streets it falls down. It’s difficult not to compare this to Walter Hill’s superlative filming of the same events in The Long Riders, where I found myself riveted. Kaufman has the camera swooping all over the place, yet there’s none of the intensity or power of Hill’s version. There are some nice shots of landscape and forest but the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place. I don’t know, I think if he could just have changed the emphasis here and there we could have had one of the best cinema versions of these events. As it stands, the movie seems like it’s trying too hard to be an art house representation of what is really a fairly straightforward story.

The R1 DVD from Universal is barebones, save for the inclusion of the trailer, but the picture quality is excellent. I certainly didn’t notice any significant damage and the colours, while subdued, are true. There’s a nice, tight 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and the disc is available very cheaply. In general this movie has some good ideas and fine performances, but I feel it could have been so much better. Like all other versions it’s littered with inaccuracies (for example, Jim Younger’s facial wound was sustained in Northfield, and not earlier as the film states) but that’s no big deal for me. I’m still of the opinion that The Long Riders remains the best telling of the story of the James/Younger gang, and that Kaufman’s movie is an interesting but flawed addition to the mythology surrounding these men. 



Some movies just can’t seem to decide what they want to be, and that’s pretty much the case with Breakout (1975). Charles Bronson made a string of pretty good and entertaining movies through the 70s, none of which were ever going to draw too much critical acclaim. Breakout boasts an embarrassment of talent both in front of and behind the camera, but never manages to make the best use of it. The main problem lies with the script, which lurches from near farcical comedy, to drama, then on to action, and back again without ever really succeeding at any of them. In the end, the movie tries to be too many things and just loses its way.

Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is a wealthy American who finds himself kidnapped in Chile, hauled off to Mexico to face trumped up charges in a rigged trial, and sentenced to 28 years in a prison run by Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache of The Wild Bunch). It’s never made clear exactly why Wagner needs to be subjected to this treatment; all we know is that both his powerful grandfather (John Huston) and a rogue CIA agent wish to see him safely out of the way. Only Wagner’s wife Ann (Jill Ireland) seems intent on proving his innocence or, failing that, breaking him out of jail. It is to this end that she comes to hire Nick Colton (Bronson), a less than successful charter pilot. As Wagner begins to decay physically and psychologically, a number of attempts are hatched to spring him from his incarceration. A combination of poor planning and betrayal ensures that they fail, until Colton decides to take the bull by the horns and do what no-one expects. This is another problem with the film; after the total incompetence of the first couple of botched jailbreaks, we are suddenly presented with an operation that’s planned and executed with military precision.

Charles Bronson - clearly not happy with the choice of curtains in this scene

Bronson is about the best thing in the film and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in some lighter moments. However, those moments of clowning around with Randy Quaid and Sheree North sit a little uncomfortably with the sombre tone of the prison scenes where Duvall is slowly disintegrating. Director Tom Gries and the writers didn’t seem to know whether they wanted to make a serious prison movie or a spoof caper, and ended up falling between two stools. Thus we get the startling sight of Quaid dragged up as a Mexican whore juxtaposed with scenes of Duvall breaking down and assaulting his own wife. I don’t think I’ve seen Duvall give too many bad performances and I couldn’t fault his playing here. He’s pretty convincing as a man who goes from being strong and self-confident to a character whose health and will are gradually broken. As for Jill Ireland, the less said the better. She was a fairly limited actress whose blank countenance was ill-suited to playing the kind of emotional role this film called for. John Huston has a small cameo role that’s really wasted as it goes nowhere. In fact, his character simply disappears about half way into the story and is never mentioned again. Emilio Fernandez is similarly underused, and doesn’t have much more to do than leer sadistically in his bogeyman part.

Breakout has been given a nice anamorphic transfer to DVD by Columbia. The disc in R2 is a barebones affair, but it can be picked up for next to nothing. When you get a movie with a cast like this, a score by Jerry Goldsmith and cinematography by Lucien Ballard, it’s not unreasonable to expect something more satisfying. On top of all the other issues there are some exceedingly poor effects shots; notably a man falling to his death through a tiled roof that looks suspiciously like it’s made of canvas, and the appalling demise of another guy who’s supposed to get minced by a plane propeller. I wouldn’t call Breakout a total failure, it does have a few entertaining turns and Bronson is always watchable, but it could have been a whole lot better. This one’s pretty much for Bronson completists – I guess I’m guilty on that score.