The Long Riders is one of the last westerns to appear before the genre went into an almost terminal decline in the 1980s, a decline that it has never really come out of – the appearance of a western film these days is a noteworthy occurrence, and that’s only ever the case with a near-dead genre. There are various theories behind why westerns fell out of favour, and this isn’t the place to discuss them; but if the genre did collapse, then this is a good film for its glory days to end on.
Directed by Walter Hill, the film has a central gimmick that threatens to override everything else – namely, the casting of several sets of real-life brothers as notorious outlaws of the old West. The James-Younger gang is made up of Jesse James (James Keach), Frank James (Stacy Keach), Cole Younger (David Carradine), Jim Younger (Keith Carradine), Bob Younger (Robert Carradine), Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid), Clell Miller (Randy Quaid) and later members Charley and Robert Ford (Christopher and Nicholas Guest). But this gimmick works on the whole, because as well as the family resemblance, the various siblings have a naturalness between them that makes their characters all the more convincing.
The film tells the story of the rise and fall of the gang with a fair amount of historical accuracy, tracking them through early robberies (some ending in brutal violence) and their gradual settling down before an ill-fated attempt to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, where the locals are armed and ready and the gang are caught in a trap that effectively brings their criminal careers to an end. But along the way, they become folk heroes, thanks in part to the excessive force used by the Pinkerton Detective Agency to capture them that leaves innocent family members dead in its wake.
Seen today, The Long Riders is notable for its sedateness – a few action sequences aside, this is a film that is more contemplative than melodramatic. Very much in the 1970s tradition, it seems the sort of film that no-one would dream of making today. Hill and screenwriters Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy Keach and James Keach are more interested in the human beings behind the myth than they are in simply retelling a romanticised version of the story, though of course a film like this is always walking a fine line between humanising and glamourising a gang who were, after all, thieves and murderers. It’s a line that sometimes feels it’s been crossed – something difficult to avoid given the personalities involved (in terms of both characters and cast) but never to the extent that you forget that these guys are, in the end, dangerous criminals.
The leads are, for the most part, excellent – Robert Carradine seems a little anonymous and James Keach perhaps lacks the cold-hearted brutality that Jesse James needs, but the chemistry between everyone is palpable and keeps the film believable. There’s strong support too from Pamela Reed (as prostitute Belle Starr) and James Whitmore Jr as Rixley, leading the Pinkerton investigation. Ry Cooder’s authentic score is hugely impressive – avoiding western cliches, it nevertheless creates atmosphere. And the film looks astonishing – every frame drips with authenticity and a strange beauty.
When Hill does go for an action scene, he does so with aplomb. The final Minnesota raid has become legendary and with good reason, as it’s one of the most impressive shoot outs ever captured on film, cleverly using slow motion to add a weird non-reality and nightmarish atmosphere to the bloody battle. There are moments in the battle that will take your breath away, not least a shot of horses being ridden through glass windows. It provides an impressive and satisfying climax to the movie’s main thrust.
I’ll confess that I’m not a huge western fan, and so if a film in the genre impresses me, I generally figure it must be a pretty impressive film. The Long Riders manages to be both a low key drama, an exciting action film and a work of art, which is quite an achievement. So yes, I was impressed.