We played a rough game… and we lost.
I’ve always been a fan of director, screenwriter, and producer Walter Hill. After all, he said in an interview that “every film I’ve done has been a Western”. The Wikipedia article on him even says that he contributed “to the revival of the Western genre.” So he gets my vote. He made his first foray into the form in 1967, as second unit director on a Gunsmoke episode, and the film we are about to review today was his first feature Western and his first in command. Later, Rustler’s Rhapsody, about singing cowboy Tom Berenger, Extreme Prejudice with Texas Ranger Nick Nolte chasing drug kingpin Powers Boothe, these were more than half Western, and then we got true Westerns Geronimo: An American Legend and Wild Bill. An episode of the superb Deadwood, for which he won an Emmy, the excellent Broken Trail, and don’t forget Last Man Standing, a Western if ever I saw one, even if it is a gangster flick; it brought Yojimbo and Leone back full circle to Dashiell Hammett. No, Walter Hill is a great figure of the noble genre.
With biopics of Geronimo and Hickok, Hill has not been afraid to feature some of the great figures of Western legend, and The Long Riders in 1980 did that too, for it is a tale of the James gang, the Youngers and Belle Starr. After a surfeit of Jesse James on the screen through the 1950s and into the 60s (mostly, in the 60s, on the small screen), there had been a ‘revisionist’ Jesse in Cliff Robertson’s 1972 feature The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid but that was all for the 70s, as far as big-screen Westerns were concerned. However, in the summer of 1979 cast and crew gathered in Georgia to make a new one. Released by United Artists in May 1980, it turned out to be one of the best.
The gimmick was that brothers played brothers. Topping the bill were Youngers, not Jameses, in the shape of the Carradine clan (let’s not forget that Dad had been Robert Ford), David, Keith and Robert of that Ilk, with David as Cole, Keith as Jim and Bob as Bob. There’s a fourth Younger, John, but they cast Kevin Brophy as him, and called him a ‘cousin’ rather than a brother, probably because they ran out of Carradines.
Following hard on their hooves was a pair of Keaches as Frank and Jesse, Stacy and James, and Dennis and Randy Quaid as Ed and Clell Miller.
And of course the Ford brothers were brothers, Christopher and Nicholas Guest, Chris as Charlie and Nick as Bob. They are good. Apparently, the original idea was to cast Jeff and Beau Bridges but they were otherwise engaged. Just before he pulls the trigger, Bob Ford says, “I shot Jesse James.” This had to be Walter Hill’s nod to the 1949 Sam Fuller movie of that title.
There are other tips of the hat, such as when the James boys ride through the store window (used in both the 1939 and the 1957 pictures) or Jesse mounting the train.
In magazine ads promoting the movie photos of Joseph, Timothy and Sam Bottoms in period costume were included. Presumably the Bottomses were screen tested and considered, though they never made it onto the screen.
It was an amusing conceit and it added some verisimilitude. Plus, they are good actors as well as bros. It works also because Hill concentrates in this movie more on the relationships than on the crimes. Hill said, “What’s more logical than to have brothers playing brothers? It’s a perfect cast of form following function.”
Though they didn’t take center stage, the Keach brothers regarded The Long Riders as their pet idea and had been trying to put it together for seven years. “Studios were shy of getting involved in a Western-type project,” James Keach said.
Wikipedia tells us that “In 1971 James and Stacy Keach played the Wright brothers in a television film called The Wright Brothers (1971). This gave James the idea they should portray Jesse and Frank James in a film together. James started off by writing a play about the James brothers which Stacy financed and produced. They staged it at the Bucks County Playhouse and then toured it through schools in New Jersey.
The play was then adapted into a country musical, The Bandit Kings, and performed off-Broadway at the Bowery Lane Theatre. James Keach produced (for $10,000), directed and starred as Jesse. The Keaches then decided to turn the musical into a feature film screenplay in which both could star. The brothers rewrote the material into screenplay form and combined it with the work of Bill Bryden, who had his own Jesse James script. Stacy Keach says another writer called Steven Smith ‘came in to pull all the threads together’.”
So there you have it.
It was at one time to have been a six-hour NBC mini-series but that fell through. United Artists took it on. Stacy Keach said the USP of the brothers playing brothers got the film over the line.
This version of the story is closer to the historical truth than previous ones (if you care about that) and at last we start to see some respect for reality, although there certainly are distortions and goofs, and the events of many years are telescoped into a short time frame, as usually happened – after all, they have to get it all into the 100-minute runtime. One blatant falsehood is the movie’s plot device that the Pinkertons were in on the Northfield raid and forestalled it. But maybe it adds to the drama.
Much of the time the look of it is also authentic – the costumes and props are generally good (though you can tell this was filmed in the late 70s from the principals’ pants and haircuts). They have proper dusters, though.
Stacy Keach said, “You won’t see any Western film clichés in The Long Riders for although we have mixed some fiction with fact in telling the story of this legendary band of outlaws, none of them comes off larger than life.” Well, it’s a bit of a stretch to say there are no Western clichés, and they certainly did mix fact with fiction. But on balance it was fair to say.
The music is delightful, the best aspect of the film. The wedding dance is probably the highlight of the movie. Ry Cooder gives us his distinctive jangly steel guitar sound, which fits, and this is punctuated by period songs, well sung, such as I’m a Good Old Rebel or Jack o’ Diamonds. In this regard, The Long Riders is vastly better than that other 80s brat-pack Western Young Guns, with its overloud 80s rock music and stupid sound effects.
The movie is well photographed by Ric Waite and we get some convincing and attractive green ‘Missouri’ scenery (Georgia, mostly, with some Texas).
The shoot-out at the Northfield Bank raid is a grisly bloodbath that reminds you of the opening scenes of The Wild Bunch. Blood spurts in slo-mo. It was fashionable at the time. It’s well done, though, and you wince when they are hit. Often.
Cole Younger has a fearsome knife fight – remarkably similar to Audie’s in Kansas Raiders – with half-breed Sam Starr (James Remar) over Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) in a Texas saloon. Unfortunately Ms Reed reminds me constantly of the extra-terrestrial lady in Mars Attacks! Sorry about that. Still, she has a derringer, at least. Movies loved to have a romance between Belle and Cole, though Cole denied that one ever happened.
There are proper trains to rob (they could still afford one in 1979) and much galloping. The action is all there.
Harry Carey Jr had by then entered his old-timer phase, handling the parts Walter Brennan or Arthur Hunnicutt would have done in their time. Here he is a Confederate veteran on a stage they rob.
The film is also distinguished by having probably the best Mrs Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s mother, of all of them in the form of Fran Ryan. She captured really well the hard-as-nails Confederate woman with a bitter tongue and was no soppy quivering grandma as so many apple-pie “Ma James” figures are.
The only weakness really is in the writing (as we have learned, Bill Bryden, Steven Smith and the Keaches). Perhaps they tried to concertina too many events into too short a time but the characters never really get the chance to develop and some of the lines are pretty clunky. It’s more a series of vignettes than a story. Fortunately, the actors are usually good enough to overcome any shortcomings in that department. A special mention to James Whitmore Jr as the Pinkerton man: his steely determination counterbalances nicely the driven Jesse.
Of course the gang members (except Ed Miller) are pretty well good guys. David Carradine said he researched Cole Younger and came to the conclusion that “The times and peer pressure forced [the life of crime] onto him.” Heard that one before. Jesse beats up Ed Miller because he unnecessarily shot a bank teller but of course Jesse James had no compunctions about shooting bank tellers, or anyone else. Still, your lead stars have to be forced reluctantly into crime, if not indeed downright heroic.
Even Jesse and Zee’s baby son is a Keach, though he only has a toddle-on part. This is the Jesse Edwards James, known as Tim, who would, thirty-nine years after his daddy’s assassination, when he was a paunchy 46, play his father in the Franklin B Coates 1921 epic Jesse James under the Black Flag, which, naturally, JAW has already reviewed (click the link for that).
The movie went over its $7m budget and according to Film Comment it made $5,891,149 in the USA, in part due to “a terrible campaign that emphasized how alike all the players looked without exploiting the family theme that might have aided box office.” But it picked up. The Numbers website says it became the year’s 45th grosser, earning $15.1m in US box-office receipts, and Stacy Keach wrote in his memoirs that “I believe to this day that the movie made money even though the studio claimed it only broke even.”
Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune said, “Just when everyone thought the Western was washed up as a movie genre, along comes Walter Hill’s The Long Riders to remind us that applying such notions as ‘dead’ or ‘alive’ to types of movies is just plain silly.”
The Washington Post liked it: “The Long Riders appears to be a perfectly realized movie. An intelligent, unsentimental distillation of the decline and dissolution of the James Younger gang, it boasts beautifully modulated direction by Walter Hill, effective performances, and evocative period flavor in both externals and essentials.”
Hill himself called the movie a “strange piece”. He said, “Instead of the logical conclusion being at Northfield, it then goes on to another phase of a spiral downward, and ends with Jesse’s death. It’s very hard material to give the proper dramatic curve to. It doesn’t lay out in a classic three-act structure. It’s almost a four-act piece with Northfield and the aftermath being the culmination of the third act. The fourth act is almost epilogue: How They Went Down… There’s a line from a Jean-Luc Godard film: ‘The jokes are funny but the bullets are real.’ That’s really what this movie is about. These were big, reckless, high-spirited guys that were unaware of the ripples they caused”. OK, if you say so, Walter.
Not everyone liked it. Variety said, “What’s ultimately missing is a definable point of view which would tie together the myriad events on display and fill in the blanks which Hill has imposed on the action by sapping it of emotional or historical meaning. “ And Herb Fagen in his Encyclopedia of the Western says it is “a film that glorifies violence for its own sake and contains barely an iota of emotional content or historical significance.”
Myself, I find that harsh, and Hill commented, “I think people who object to violence shouldn’t go to the movies.” Although one has a soft spot for the 1939 Jesse James and 1940 The Return of Frank James, it must be said that The Long Riders was one of the best, perhaps the best Jesse film – till Brad Pitt came along.
There was talk of a later prequel, set in the Civil War, but that never came to fruition.