The Long Riders Review

If one man deserves an award for "Services to the Western", it is Walter Hill. He has worked hard to keep the genre alive during times when it has been neither critically fashionable or commercially successful. Although many of his films are tinged with the Western spirit, especially Southern Comfort and Extreme Prejudice, it his unofficial trilogy of Western myths that show his love and respect for the genre. The Long Riders was the first in 1980, followed by Geronimo in 1993 and Wild Bill in 1995. Although the latter two are interesting and undervalued films, The Long Riders has emerged as a genuine classic. It has several weaknesses but the sheer passion of the moviemaking is what makes it special. In fact it's almost in the Peckinpah class, a commendation I don't throw around lightly.

Hill's film deals with the James-Younger gang, infamous outlaws in post-Civil War America. The leaders, Jesse James (James Keach) and Cole Younger (David Carradine), were accompanied by their brothers and friends. Hill's gimmick is to have the brothers in the gang played by real life brothers. So the Carradines - David, Keith and Robert - play the Youngers, the Keaches - James and Stacey - play the James brothers, the Quaids - Randy and Dennis - appear as the Millers, and the Guests - Christopher and Nicholas - are the Fords. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, there is a comradeship between the actors that you wouldn't otherwise achieve, but the problem is that some of the performances are a bit weak. Most seriously, James Keach is not up to the demanding central role of Jesse James and this creates a hole in the middle of the film which David Carradine's charismatic and good humoured performance as Cole Younger can only partially fill. Dennis Quaid has no character to play here, unfortunately, and the Guest brothers are reduced to looking treacherous.

The plot, which is curiously but engagingly rambling, deals with the ride of the gang from bank jobs in Missouri to the disastrous Northfield raid which ended in carnage. We see the men meet and marry their sweethearts, bicker and fight amongst themselves, visit the whorehouse of the infamous Belle Starr (a wonderful turn from the lovely Pamela Reed), and reflect on the tenuous possibility of retirement to respectable life. Meanwhile, the corrupt and incompetent minions of the Pinkerton Agency are tracking the gang down, managing mostly to kill their innocent relatives and ensuring that public sympathy is firmly on the side of the outlaws.

However, to some extent, the film is more about a time and a place than about the specific characters or events. The period of post-War reconstruction is beautifully evoked in Ric Waite's cinematography - some scenes are so beautiful they take the breath away, especially a couple of smokey night moments - and the production is precise and atmospheric without being too fussy, The elegaic tone of the film is set during the opening credits as the Long Riders gallop in slow motion against the expansive sky. Ry Cooder's lovely music score is an important aspect of this too.

The film is also, crucially, about the Western genre itself and particularly, I would argue, about the revisionist Westerns of Peckinpah. We get several of Sam's favourite themes; betrayal by old friends; ties of blood and land; an elegaic sense of loss; the yearning for something better than violence and death; and even specific scenes such as the young admirer dying by mistake and the hold-up in a barn (both scenes from Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, the last word on Western myth). Hill's tone is one of regret for the passing of something beautiful due to the civil war - echoing Clint Eastwood's line in Josey Wales; "I guess we all died a little in that damn war." An awareness of what has been lost is constantly present in the film, notably the scene in the whorehouse where Clell Miller forces the band to play "I'm a Good Old Rebel" rather than "Battle Cry of Freedom". There's a horrible sense of inevitability too, as if Jesse's dream of settling down to become a farmer is doomed from the start, just as Pike Bishop's Mexican retirement is fated never to be in The Wild Bunch.

The other reminder of Peckinpah is, of course, the violence. 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. Only one scene, the fight between Cole Younger and Sam Starr, strikes the wrong note, largely because it is badly paced and irrelevant without being amusing.

Western fans are living in lean times nowadays. The last 'hit' in the genre was Eastwood's excellent Unforgiven way back in 1992. 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. That's a shame because, for all their faults, both are interesting and lovingly detailed films that deserve to be seen. The Long Riders, meanwhile, is a must-see for anyone who loves the genre and, indeed, for anyone who just loves intelligent filmmaking.

The Disc

MGM seem to be going through a rather lean period in terms of quality and The Long Riders is a disappointingly unsatisfactory disc. It's not exactly a disaster, but it could have been a lot better.

The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. That is, sadly, the best thing about the image. Look at the sky during the opening credits and you'll immediately notice the grain problem that afflicts the entire film. The colours are a little muddy throughout and there's a lack of fine detail throughout. Worse still is the artifacting during some of the night scenes - in particularly, the moment when the gang come to wreak revenge on the Pinkerton agents who kill the wrong Younger looks truly horrific. This is a great disappointment and totally unsatisfactory.

The soundtrack is the original mono only. This is a lot better than the picture, being crisp - especially in the music score.

The only extra on the disc is the atmospheric theatrical trailer. The menus are static and there are a rather paltry 16 chapter stops. MGM also appear to have ceased their practice of putting booklets in with their discs. Here, we get an inlay card with a cast list, chapter list and the totally confusing explanation of widescreen.

A very good film has received an indifferent DVD release. MGM should be able to do a lot better. Considering that their upcoming slate includes a lot of films dear to my heart, including 3 De Palma titles, I hope that this isn't a downward trend.

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Last updated: 04/05/2018 00:53:33

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