The Keaches, Carradines, Quaids, And Guests Play The Jameses, Youngers, Millers, And Fords
DIRECTED BY WALTER HILL/1980
STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 26, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
The header above may sound like stunt casting, but director Walter Hill’s 1980 Western plays as naturally as family members sitting around and shooting the breeze.
Only these brothers also happen to shoot bank employees and their customers.
And did I say Western? Mid-Western is probably more accurate, as rural Missouri fills the screen with verdant tall grass and colorful wildflowers far removed from the dusky and sun-baked arroyos of Arizona. The James-Younger gang rode long on the prairie in the decade following the Civil War, and while they were nowhere near the Robin Hood and Merry Men band contemporary newspaper accounts sometimes made them, their legend loomed equally long across the border states, extending to points well beyond the clannish backwoods mistrustful of outsiders. Banks, trains, private detectives, and federal regulators may have been the enemy, but this band of brothers raised hell out of pure flesh and blood pride. The Long Riders gives both the history and the legend their due.
Lovingly described by one audio commentator on Kino Lorber’s deluxe 2-disc Blu-ray release as 100 minutes of “leaning off the porch and watching the fireflies”, the outlaw exploits of Jesse and Frank James; Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger; Clell and Ed Miller; and Charley and Robert Ford flicker and crackle with the unhurried grace of such an evening’s performance, effortlessly saddling viewers along for the ride until one feels like part of the family. And with James and Stacy Keach; David, Keith, and Robert Carradine; Randy and Dennis Quaid; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest filling those outlaw roles, the real-life chemistry between the characters’ interactions – caught in every glance, exchange, and reaction – definitely and screen-definitively creates the intimate atmosphere of a brothers’ gathering. Bob Younger may never have accompanied his brother Jim’s vocal performance on the twanging jew’s harp, but that the film puts aside three enchanting minutes to capture an impromptu-seeming duet between the musical Carradine brothers, the former nonchalantly puffing away on a thin cigar all the while — both riding a train they had robbed mere weeks before — says more about the on-point relations and off-hand methods of this close-knit outlaw gang than entire chapters in the history books.
Whether persuading a barroom musician to switch to “Dixie” mid-“Battle Hymn” at the end of a gun, barn-storming after a wedding, or pushing one’s sweetheart on a tree swing, The Long Riders’ more lyrical passages are expertly balanced throughout by an innocent bystander blasted out-of-frame, the coldcock of a pistol under a railguard’s jaw, or a storage barn riddled with an army’s worth of Pinkerton bullets. With side-grinning David Carradine’s Cole Younger the most self-aware of the gang – his frank and contentious interactions with prostitute Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) a film-length delight – and purse-lipped James Keach’s Jesse James the most hypocritical – his clapboard and white picket fence desire for bourgeois respectability not exactly in keeping with spurs, dusters, and shot guns – the rest of the James-Youngers fall somewhere in between.
Their individual loyalties naturally shift along familial lines, either as oddball outliers (the Fords), as uneasily estranged (the Millers), as emotional manipulators (the Jameses), or as fierce loyalists (the Youngers). The recklessness with which these sets of brothers pursue their ill-gotten gains exacts a terrible toll when they foolishly target a bank far north in – appropriately – Northfield, Minnesota, and the brutal sequence that slow-motion unfolds, bullets ripping and glass breaking, dispels the halcyon tone of the story while simultaneously breaking the bonds of friendship holding them together. After Northfield, it’s every brother for himself.
Director Walter Hill was wise in both refusing to pass judgment on the historical gang’s actions or glorifying their deeds, and his slice-of-life style, luminously captured by Ric Waite’s glowing cinematography, registers the tragedy of a way of life passing in the best Western – sorry, Mid-Western – tradition. Paying homage to both biographical films and genre offerings past, echoes of the Twentieth Century Fox Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940), Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James (1957), along with lesser known entries like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), reverberate throughout, and his emotional re-purposing of film techniques employed by gritty Western revisionists, notably Sam Peckinpah, finds a literal blast from the past when Nicholas Guest’s Robert Ford full-faces the camera for an equally literal shot climactically calling back to The Great Train Robbery (1903). Historical, cinematic, and familial accuracy is a hard trifecta to achieve, but The Long Riders is the rare film to accomplish verisimilitude in all three categories.
Approaching four decades of neglect, overshadowed the year of its release by United Artists’ simultaneous production and disastrous release of the notorious Heaven’s Gate (1980), Walter Hill’s The Long Riders finally gets long overdue recognition with this bells-and-whistle Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, which with the aforementioned commentary track, featuring film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson, and a second disc tricked out with interviews from cast members, director Walter Hill, producer Tim Zinnemann, and composer Ry Cooder, also includes a a feature-length making-of documentary and assorted odds (a closer analysis of the Northfield bank robbery scene) and ends (Walter Hill’s thoughts on Sam Peckinpah). As that long sentence may attest, it’s a lot to take in, effectively a grand repository of reminiscences of and reflection on both the complicated genesis and lingering legacy of the film, and provides an overwhelming though welcome corrective to previous bare-boned “trailers and language tracks-only” DVD releases. Ry Cooder’s magnificent period score crackles and pops along with the magnificently detailed 4K restoration of this important though sometimes overlooked film, and one can only hope that this entirely unique screen effort will finally reach the wider audience it always deserved.
The images used in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the visual quality of this Special Edition Blu-ray release.