The Long Riders, 1980.
Directed by Walter Hill.
Starring David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, James Keach, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid.
Following the Youngers, the Jameses and the Millers – all notorious outlaws back in the Old West, who raided and stole from banks across the country.
The Western film craze was said to have ended with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, though there was still one director adamant at making his own. Walter Hill – whose work before The Long Riders foamed at the mouth with motifs reminiscent of quintessential Westerns – always needed to add to the genre. The Long Riders may not be a masterpiece yet it’s grounded in appreciation and understanding of the specific style, constructed fantastically well.
Being released in 1980 it was a striking and off-beat project in amongst the buddy movies, spoofs and slasher movies. However, the other Western from that year, Heaven’s Gate, became one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time, leaving The Long Riders on treacherous ground. Without looking at its abilities to thrill, Hill’s Western is poetic and beautiful. It can still amp up the action to a spectacular degree though it feels more like an elegiac hark-back to what was once the most popular genre at the multiplex.
There are a lot of truisms of the Western brazenly scattered throughout; Hill clearly loves to show and pastiche his muses. Cinephiles will notice the slow-motion shots in the chaos of gun fights, a reminder of Peckinpah, some Arthur Penn and, most importantly, Akira Kurosawa. As Hill notes in the “Slow Motion: Walter Hill on Sam Pekinpah” featurette, the effect was used to extend a certain nightmarish quality of the brutality. In this he succeeds, just one element in a bountiful display of care and craft that has gone into the direction of the film.
Hoping to really capture believability in his biopic of the gang of brothers, Hill cast actual acting siblings (the Carradines, the Quaids and the Keaches). This creates an undeniable chemistry and bond on screen, enabling empathy often absent in these types of films. Having the Carradines sharing the lead characters with the Keach’s, is far more interesting than if the Keach brothers had written the script with heavy focus on Jesse and Frank James. It’s a selfless move on their part to portray the band of outlaws and not only the most famous of the group. In fact, the James brothers are the least interesting to watch on screen (not a criticism of the acting), with each Younger having far more fascinating traits and relationships.
Cole Younger, played by David Carradine, is in an on-and-off-again relationship with a town whore played by Pamela Reed. Reed is wonderful, picking up on the headstrong, tough characteristic of the Western prostitute and having fun with the Benedict/Beatrix battle of wits with Cole. Never focused on too heavily, or causally represented, this is a core theme of the film – the group’s link with domesticity and women. Cole and Reed’s Belle are at the forefront of this arc, promoting the multifaceted nature of the script.
The downside to the film is how the story eventually dithers over a conclusion. Jesse James is always the prime suspect in the chase between the Pinkerton agency and the outlaws, though the writers continually find a way to balance out this attention until the end. The Ford brothers eventually are granted their spotlight, poorly initiated into the chronicle, especially in comparison to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Much like the Western genre, the film ends with a whimper and not a bang, sadly.
Looking and sounding superb, The Long Riders is a well-deserved Blu-ray transfer. Ry Cooder’s score melodically moves us through the years of the Youngers and Jameses whilst Ric Waite’s cinematography stunning snapshots it all. It begins looking as though it may have aged, but once the first 30 minutes pass (also getting the half hour of heavy exposition out of the way), it’s invigorating.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Piers McCarthy – Follow me on Twitter.