The Walter Hill Collection: The Long Riders Review
The Long Riders travels well-trodden territory, the story of the James-Younger Gang. The film originated with the brothers Keach, Stacy and James, who co-wrote the script (with Bill Bryden and Steven Philip Smith and, uncredited, Walter Hill) and played the brothers James, Frank and Jesse respectively. The casting of The Long Riders certainly attracted notice, with no less than four sets of real-life brothers playing brothers on screen – the others being David, Keith and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim and Bob Younger; Dennis and Randy Quaid as Ed and Clell Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Charlie and Bob Ford.
Westerns had been out of favour at the box office for some time, so when Walter Hill was given the chance to make one, he jumped at it. He has returned to the genre since, with Geronimo and Wild Bill, not forgetting his work on the TV series Deadwood. The Long Riders has claims to be Hill's best film, an end-of-the-old-West elegy that's at once bloody and in its way beautiful. The gang are not sentimentalised, but seen as violent men in a violent time. In many respects, the Pinkerton men are no better, shooting down a fourth Younger brother in cold blood and firebombing a house and hence causing the death of a fifteen-year-old boy. The Gang's retribution is swift and quite brutal.
I've mentioned before that Hill's style was tending towards minimalism, and The Long Riders is pared to the bone, getting through a story that many other directors would require two hours to tell in an hour and a half without any loss of clarity, not to mention some expertly staged and genuinely thrilling action setpieces. By comparison, the more recent film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which overlaps considerably with The Long Riders in subject matter, is a full hour longer. The film begins not just in mid-scene but somehow in mid-shot. The unsung stars of the show are the two credited editors, Freeman Davies and David Holden, whose work is precision itself. DP Ric Waite does his best work in a long career: Hill would use him again on 48HRS.
Another significant Hill collaboration started here. Ry Cooder had appeared on film soundtracks before: you can hear his distinctive slide guitar in Performance. Cooder's talent as a guitarist had been evident from an early age, and he had worked with Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones. Cooder has been a lifelong student of regional folk music and its traditions, and this was reflected in his various solo albums. They are often eclectic to a fault, with rock tracks next door to bluegrass and Hawaiian slack-key instrumentals, which needless to say translated to critical acclaim if not much in the way of commerciality. (For anyone interested, Paradise and Lunch is a good album to start with.) The Long Riders was Cooder's first film score, and it does draw heavily on the music of the period while creating a distinct atmosphere of its own. Cooder soon found a niche doing soundtrack work – like the very different Randy Newman (for whom Cooder played on the album 12 Songs), they paid the rent in the ways his solo work couldn't. Cooder's definitive score of the 80s has to be Paris, Texas, also dominated by his slide guitar work, but several of his Hill scores aren't far short of it.
The Long Riders is, like many Hill films, an ensemble piece, and it's hard to single out individual performances. Stacy Keach gives Frank James a somewhat stolid but genuine authority. His brother James gives perhaps his best performance (though I'd also recommend Amy Jones's little-seen Love Letters from three years later) as the cold-eyed Jesse James. Keith and David Carradine are engaging presences as ever. This is a very male piece, but Pamela Reed should not be overlooked as Belle Starr: her relationship with David Carradine's Cole Younger is one between two people of equal strength. Amy Stryker, best known for her role in Robert Altman's A Wedding and who has only made two other films including this one, is affecting in a small role as Jim Younger's sweetheart Beth. James Remar, always an effective villain, gets to have a knife fight with David Carradine.
The Long Riders is an ending film. It was in production at the same time of Heaven's Gate, whose failure made for changes in Hollywood, changes that would have a far-reaching effect on many directors. Hill would prove to be no exception.
The Long Riders is reviewed as part of Optimum's six-film Walter Hill Collection. It's one of two DVDs in the box that Optimum has licensed from other distributors, in this case MGM. That means that the DVD is different to others in the set in its language options, both in soundtracks and subtitles – different in that it has them, it has to be said. This DVD is also the only one in the set which is encoded for more than just Region 2 – it's good for Region 4 as well.
Three of the films in the set were cut by the BBFC on their cinema release. Two of them have had the cuts reinstated, but The Long Riders is still cut and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Four seconds of horsefalls, illegal under British law, have been removed.
The DVD is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Waite's photography is dark-hued and uses a lot of filters, not to mention smoke, and the transfer tends to be a little on the soft side and missing fine detail. Grain is certainly present, but so unfortunately is some artefacting, especially during night scenes.
The soundtrack is mono, both in the original English and four foreign-language dubs, both at a higher than usual bitrate of 448 kbps. This is how the film was shown in the cinemas, so no real objections. The dialogue is mixed a little low, but as ever with a Hill soundtrack, a little volume is of benefit. There are several subtitle options and menu screens in each of the five soundtrack languages.
The only extra is the trailer, which is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 2:18.
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