The Long Riders Review

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Mark Twain published “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, and Wyatt Earp became an assistant marshal in Dodge City. George Armstrong Custer died at Little Big Horn and Wild Bill Hickok was killed while playing cards in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Meanwhile, on September 7th at two in the afternoon, the James-Younger gang attempted to rob the town bank of Northfield, Minnesota. It was a disaster, foiled by townspeople who armed themselves against the robbers and it resulted in the death or imprisonment of most of the outlaws. Frank and Jesse James, leaders of the gang alongside Cole Younger, escaped to Tennessee. Jesse was murdered in April 1882 while Frank survived into the 20th century, dying in 1915 of natural causes at the age of 72.

The legend of the James-Younger gang is hard to separate from fact and there’s a strong sense in which such an effort would be counter-productive. It’s not only that one should “Print the Legend” but that the gang itself gloried in its own romantic mystique with Jesse in particular setting himself up in the letters column of the Kansas City Times as the last Confederate hero of the Civil War. As so often, reading the facts is a depressing business since they are tawdry and banal – the gang were fundamentally brutal and proudly racist men who thought little of killing innocent people, and played up to a ‘Robin Hood’ image while making sure that they never shared the rewards of their crimes with anyone else. But what the hell; it’s a wonderful, rich legend and it has served as the source for a host of cultural products including numerous films, French comics and songs by musicians as varied as Warren Zevon, Woody Guthrie, and Cher.

The films about the James-Younger gang tend to reflect the times in which they were made. Henry King’s 1939 Jesse James portrays the outlaw as a misunderstood man of the people standing up against capitalism. Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James from 1957 casts him as a moody young rebel with family problems. Into the 1970s, Philip Kaufman fills The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid with dubious Nixonian officialdom and endemic corruption while, coming up to date, Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a moody, slightly self-conscious but very powerful contemplation on the concepts of fame and mortality.

But for my money, the best film on the gang is Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, the first in the director’s unofficial trilogy of musings on mythic figures of the Old West which was completed in the 1990s with Geronimo and Wild Bill. Many of his other films are pseudo-Westerns - Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs., Extreme Prejudice, even The Warriors – but The Long Riders is the real thing, a lovingly made genre piece which looks beautiful and cuts deep.

It’s an unusual Western, as Hill has pointed out because it takes place in the verdant grasslands of the Missouri and Minnesota – a sort of Mid-Western if you will. The brothers who made up the James-Younger gang weren’t cowboys, they were from good farming stock and they divided their lives neatly between their outlaw activities and their roles as family men. This background is vital to the unusual feel of the film which looks absolutely stunning thanks to Ric Waite’s photography of the locations – some of which were, ironically, in the Southern state of Georgia – and lavish production values. Backed by Ry Cooder’s unforgettable music score, there’s a deeply elegiac and poetic edge to the film which reflects the mood of the times in which it is set. This is, after all, a period in American history when the scars of the Civil War were still a long way from healing and the defeated Confederate sympathisers felt immense anger towards the way they were treated by the triumphant North. Jesse James in particular, identified strongly with those who he saw being persecuted by the victors. There’s no doubt that he felt that the gang’s criminal activities were pre-emptive strikes against the corruption and brutality of the Union and a reminder to their victims of the Confederate glory that once was.

In short, it’s largely a film about loss. Not a loss of innocence, but certainly a loss of youthful hope and a gradual narrowing of vision as crime begins to exert a moral toll and eventually breaks up the gang. All the way through, there’s a sense of horrible inevitability, of a fate from which the gang cannot escape. As with most modern Westerns, the film is partly about the genre and the sense of people who will never quite manage to fulfil their dreams is a familiar one – Jesse’s dream of giving it all up and settling down to a life of farming isn’t much different to the Mexican idylls sought by Sam Peckinpah’s (anti)heroes. Peckinpah is omnipresent in this movie; the use of slow-motion, the themes of betrayal by old friends and ties of blood and land; the yearning for something better than violence and death; and the hold-up in the barn and death of a youthful admirer seem to me to be direct quotes from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

But this sense of loss is not depressing nor particularly pessimistic because the film is full of rich, wry humour, much of this comes from the character moments , particularly those involving Cole Younger and his sweetheart Belle Starr. The couple is played by David Carradine and Pamela Reed and they are so perfect together you wish they could have been teamed up again. Carradine was never better than as Younger; thoughtful, reflective and humourous but still capable of a vicious knife fight when roused. There’s also a lovely portrayal of Clell Miller by Randy Quaid, one of those actors who has an irresistible comic energy.

The big gimmick used to promote the film at the time was the casting of real life brothers to play the various brothers. So James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James while the Carradines play the Youngers and the Quaids play the Millers. It works a treat because there’s a shorthand that means we don’t need everything explained to us – we simply accept that these men have grown up with each other. It helps a lot that the actors are very well cast and James Keach, while surprisingly reserved and a bit aloof, is exactly right as the taciturn Jesse James. Only Dennis Quaid fails to connect with us and that’s no reflection on the actor but more the fact that Ed Miller is such an unsympathetic little weasel. The Guest brothers also appear as the notorious Fords and Christopher Guest gets a lot of mileage out of Robert Ford’s social insecurity.

One thing which some people find difficult about the film is that there’s very little plot. It’s very much a character and mood piece which takes us no further than from Missouri to Minnesota but that’s quite far enough for me. The dramatic tension is created by the sense that right from the start, the gang is on the verge of disaster with the Pinkerton agency on their coat-tails at the behest of local businessmen. Needless to say, while the Pinkerton agents eventually get their men, it’s not before they’ve managed to kill a lot of innocent people - it’s worth noting that James Whitmore Jr. is particularly fine in the thankless role of the Pinkerton agent Rixley.

The Long Riders is tremendously well made. Walter Hill was a promising director right from his debut but this is stunningly confident stuff, particularly in the action scenes. Hill's slow-motion rendition of the fateful Northfield Raid is brilliantly handled; very vivid blood-letting here with the whole scene reminiscent of the opening robbery in The Wild Bunch. But I think Hill's use of violence is entirely responsible and realistic; there isn't the wallowing in brutality that we get in lesser Westerns such as Soldier Blue. Hill shows you both the carnage wrought upon the innocent citizens and the soul-destroying effect it has on the Riders. It's a fine line to tread, and some of the blood-gushing bullet mayhem treads perilously close to parody, but Hill usually gets it about right. Sometimes the staging is simply thrilling, notably in the fight between Cole Younger and Sam Starr during which David Carradine and James Remar apparently came dangerously close to hurting each other.

Western fans are living in lean times nowadays and anything halfway good, like James Mangold’s mangling of 3.10 to Yuma, tends to be overpraised. Hill's two follow-ups to his story of the James-Younger gang were both commercial flops, neither of which got proper distribution in the UK and he subsequently took the genre to television with the superb Broken Trail. Fans of the genre may argue about the last classic film made in the genre – for me, it’s come alive again with the Coen Brothers’ No County For Old Men and True Grit – but there’s little doubt that The Long Riders deserves to be up their amongst the very best Westerns ever made.

The Disc

The Long Riders was given a pretty poor deal on poorly encoded DVDs. MGM’s US Blu-Ray from last year was an improvement. Second Sight’s UK Blu-Ray is better still.

The 1.78:1 MPEG-4 AVC transfer is a delight. Second Sight have done considerable clean-up work on the HD master which was supplied by MGM and the result is an image which is a lot cleaner and more vibrant than the MGM disc. Detail throughout is exceptional, bearing in mind the slightly soft edge to the photography. I particularly liked the natural colours which are very nicely defined with especially strong greens and shades of brown. The biggest improvement from the DVD edition is the crisp appearance of the night-time sequences which were formerly a mass of artifacting.

The English soundtrack is presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo. This is a slight sticking point with me because the film was recorded in mono. Given this, however, it’s a subtle and acceptable bump up which does justice to Ry Cooder’s music and keeps the dialogue crystal clear. No subtitles are provided unfortunately.

The extras are all in HD and all worthwhile. There’s no audio commentary – apparently Walter Hill doesn’t like watching his own films – but there is a splendid hour long making-of documentary entitled Outlaw Brothers and directed by the indefatigable Robert Fischer who has done a lot of great work with his Fiction Factory operation. It’s made up of insightful and funny interviews with three key players – Hill himself, Robert Carradine and James Keach – and imparts an awful lot of information. I would have liked a bit more on Bill Bryden’s original screenplay and some more about the rather odd reception of the film when it was released but it’s hard to complain when a documentary is so substantial. Some great on-set pictures are included and there’s plenty of Ry Cooder’s music. Accompanying this are two shorter pieces, one concentrating on the Northfield, Minnesota scene and another featuring Hill’s brief but affectionate thoughts on Sam Peckinpah. The former is particularly valuable for its insight into the way the scene was prepared.

Speaking of this scene, there is one thing which might be a deal-breaker for some potential buyers. The UK release is cut by 4 seconds for a horse fall, involving a trip, towards the end of the film. Fans of the film will find it quite an obvious cut and once you know it’s there it’s impossible not to notice it. As a general rule, I can’t get too worked up about such edits. There are uncut versions available elsewhere if it bothers you and the BBFC’s hands are legally tied on these matters. There are certainly occasional cases in which the cuts make a scene nonsensical – Ulzana’s Raid and The Wind and the Lion spring to mind – but that’s not the case here.

Please note that the disc is locked to Region B.

The Long Riders is one of those films which seems to get better with age and it was a pleasure to revisit it for this review. Second Sight’s disc is a joy to watch with a very nice transfer and some good extras. Definitely recommended.

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