FORGET the Alamo. Remember The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), a gloriously uneven, crazy-quilt of a film by the chameleon writer-director Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kaufman’s episodic, end-of-the-Western yarn unfolds like someone excitedly telling you a story that he’s trying to remember as he’s go along. The tone is set right away by a rollicking harmonica-and-guitar score as narrator Paul Frees — Master of the Authoritative Voice Over, here taking an unusually folksy tone — starts rapidly firing off story points before the Universal Pictures logo has even cleared the screen. The opening-credits montage has races to keep up with Frees’ narration, and by the end of the titles we’re already three scenes into the film and hip-deep in the blood-soaked history of bank robbing, politicking, and vengeance.
Northfield infuses the pastoral stateliness of the post-classical Western with the anarchic energy and abrupt left turns of a Looney Tunes short, rushing forward at such a headlong gallop that it occasionally runs right off a cliff. The peculiarly patchwork style of low-budget film — a quickly shot succession of setup-action-reaction shots slapped together with post-dubbed dialogue — extends to the very story of Northfield, which cuts loose from all the stodgy conventions of Hollywood storytelling to swing exhilaratingly from jokes to bloodshed, voodoo to baseball. Kaufman writes and shoots as if he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next — a rare quality in a genre experiencing its last throes of vibrancy before ossifying into a sepia-toned museum piece.
But what is that genre exactly? Dramatizing the real-life ill-fated final bank robbery undertaken by the notorious Jesse James-Cole Younger gang, Northfield is immediately classifiable as a Western. Yet the film largely unfolds in Minnesota, far from the open plains of Kansas, the deserts of Arizona, the mountains of Colorado; i.e., the West. (We see some picturesque and distinctly un-Minnesotan mountains in Northfield’s backgrounds, but those are only misplaced artifacts of the film’s Oregon location-shooting. Pretend they aren’t there.) Northfield is one of those films that begs the question, What is a Western? Is the Midwest okay? Is a Western merely any movie where people ride around on horseback shooting each other while sporting cowboy hats? Or does it have to deal with the fabled western frontier? What if the settlement of physical space is ultimately less important than the exploration of the ultimate and harder to tame frontier, The Future?
LET’S GO the easy route and label this a “revisionist Western,” even though that’s the most redundant moniker in the whole cinematic lexicon; in a sense, every Western is “revisionist,” including all those old Republic oaters that revised reality into something palatable for young people. (Speaking of young people, this movie full of bloody wounds, naked asses and the word “shit” was rated amazingly PG when it came out.) The story hits on many of the genre’s classic scenes: normal person badmouths famous criminal they don’t realize they’re talking to; bloodthirsty mob lynches innocent men, etc. But at other times it explicitly ironizes the traditional Western mythology: the so-called Great raid turns out to be a disaster, the outlaws must first con the townspeople into depositing their money in the bank before they can rob it, and the civilians are more bloodthirsty than the crooks. Insert commentary on Kaufman’s oedipal conflict with John Ford here.
The story of Northfield is simple: the train-robbing, Confederate-rebel leftovers Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger, both on the verge of gaining amnesty by popular demand, are pushed into robbing “the largest bank in the west” by a combination of political machinations and their own lust for glory and gold. Much of this is real-life history; the bank still exists and the people of Northfield apparently re-enact the robbery each year. Whether the film’s characterization of James and Younger is accurate is a subject of much debate. Their duality is at the heart of the film: James a borderline psychotic obsessively reopening the scars of the past, Younger a crackerbarrel philosopher enraptured by the possibilities of the future. Robert Duvall plays James as a stuttering yet strangely charismatic madman, an unreconstructed Confederate who sees himself as an Old Testament prophet, a con-man who justifies his robberies as a series of endless guerrilla raids against the Yankees and sanctions his self-enrichment through bogus pentecostal visions. Any whiff of heroism is gone by the final act in which Duvall, disguised in women’s clothing after “assisting” the old woman who once wore them, is figuratively transformed into a wolf out of a fairy tale.
Kaufman and Duvall circumvent the romantic cliche of portraying this murderous wildman as a savage innocent, unexpectedly sensitive and too-good-for-this-world — the preferred angle of everyone from Tyrone Power to Brad Pitt. Their Jesse James represents America’s chronic inability to come to terms with what it’s done unto others and to itself. But James’s psychopathic fixations don’t become a pat explanation. When Cole and the boys discuss Jesse’s strange lack of interest in women it seems the movie is flirting a familiar bit of pop-psychology — locating criminality in physical impotence or repressed homosexuality — but then Cole’s brother points out that Jesse did like a woman once, dismissing the point entirely. There is no straight psychological line between past traumas and present behaviors in Northfield. Jesse James is just a dyed-in-the-wool asshole.
The character of Cole Younger is just the opposite side of the coin. Portrayed by Cliff Robertson with plenty of down-home soul and ambling easiness, Younger is continually astonished by the “wonderments” of ever encroaching modernity. “Ain’t that a wonderment” is Younger’s repeated awed refrain, a term he explains to a prostitute truly: “Wonderment’s a thing of wonder. Something to behold, something rare and good ‘un. Could be a beautiful picture or a pretty song or, uh, or a feeling.” He anticipates tomorrow, binding himself up in a self-made bullet-proof vest because he’s been shot 11 times already and foresees he’ll be shot again. Sure, it makes him sit too stiffly but it’s worth the protection. After all, as he says, “It ain’t hard the getting shot, it’s the getting back up.”
Cole is constantly getting side-tracked by modern inventions: a magic lantern, a wind-up boxing toy, steam-powered trucks and, most disastrously, a calliope. He’s a frustrated thinker who never got the chance to apply his mind productively, and ended up inventing the train robbery. It’s a wonder he got so far as a criminal. He’s always coming up with great schemes (so many the James brothers can use the extras as toilet paper), but he’s easily distracted by devices and eager to teach ordinary people how to handle them, for instance, by offering instruction on the mechanics and handling of shotguns. You just want to shout at him, “No, Cole! Rob the bank and then stop to fix the calliope!” This movie features so many steam-powered, gear-driven machines (the New York Times review called it “as crammed with the artifacts of 19th-century America…as an especially splendid Third Avenue Shop”) that it can lay a fair claim to being the first steampunk Western. Throw in a couple of goggles and parasols and you’re there. If Kaufman had had access to CG, Cole would have attacked the bank with the giant mechanical spider from Wild Wild West. (Thank the Lord for small budgets.)
THE FILM’S other great theme — and a quintessentially Western theme — is the nature of violence; specifically, violence as a ritual so beloved it becomes a kind of recreation. Like Cole says while watching an old-time baseball match between the St. Paul and Northfield clubs, “Our national sport, gentlemen, is shooting and always will be.” This is a violent movie, and nowhere is that violence more manifest than in a climactic baseball-game setpiece which starts with Cole trying to ingratiate himself with the locals (he’s trying to sweet-talk them into depositing their money in the soon-to-be-raided bank), turns upon him shotgun-blasting the ball out of the air, and climaxes with two bench-clearing brawls. I ask you, how many Westerns would stop their action for almost four minutes so we can watch a friendly game devolve into social anarchy?
Thank the Lord yet again for the loose-limbed and gangling New Hollywood era, and for the more “permissive” culture that allowed for such episodic tangents, because what seems like a silly diversion is arguably the heart of the film. The baseball match is orchestrated in the same register as the gunfights: shot with shaky handheld cameras and frantic zoom; edited into quick, rough cuts; unafraid to let the camera go out of focus or lose track of the main line of action. The scene appears to us in fragments, choreography and clarity less important than raw energy and the vertiginous feeling of lost control. This isn’t just about authenticity or realism, about showing that violence is messy; the baseball and gunfights scenes are linked together stylistically to remind us that in America, the crossfire of cultural conflict is fun. Baseball is possibly the nation’s savior — a way to channel our savage violence into civilized athletics. The Northfield townfolk show just as much pride in winning the game as they do later in winning a needless and mistaken gun battle with a posse from neighboring Shieldsville.
These are not the timid, put-upon reg’lar folk of High Noon or (in the satiric vein) Blazing Saddles. These are people who deal with the local town nut by throwing rocks at him. These are would-be warriors almost itching for a bank robbery so they can claim their share of outlaw blood. These are your average Americans, your “real” Americans. And we haven’t even mentioned the rogue’s gallery of colorful characters blundering through Northfield‘s criminal proceedings. There’s Frank James, Jesse’s personal yes-man and knuckleheaded religious acolyte. There’s Clell Miller, whose guilt over cheating on his wife almost (but not quite) ruins his pre-raid evening with a whore; and Charlie Pitts, a believer in superstition and witchcraft whose hunches usually turn out to be true (personifying a supernatural streak that surfaces in the film from time to time). And then there’s the gang member who conceals his blown-off upper lip with a ridiculously fake horsehair mustache.
And constantly waiting in the shadows is Allan Pinkerton, famed spy and strikebreaker, a looming threat to the life and limb of our heroes and even to democracy itself: he single-handedly derails the congressional amnesty vote by way of a graft-greased palm), all to satisfy a personal and professional vendetta against Younger and the James brothers. Pinkerton spends the entire movie riding trains and endlessly fuming about his enemies; his rage is Nixon-esque, his actions an object lesson in what government becomes in the hands of men capable of convincing themselves that covertly breaking the law can be a noble act. Kaufman was something of a young radical in the Sixties, and that era’s anti-establishment spirit runs right through Northfield. “Amnesty” is mentioned often, echoing Nixon’s famous campaign slogan while connecting Gilded Age bank robbers to Vietnam draft dodgers. The Northfield sheriff totes men to jail for being “riff raff, tramps, rabble rousers” part of “a rash of disrespect.” When a local merchant first recoils from Charlie Pitts’ pirate-like earring, then lights up at the thought of all the how much money you could make from mass-marketing such a sign of individuality, it’s a classic “square meets freak” moment.
It’s here we see the equation of criminal outlaws and political activists (or at least romantic free spirits) that made Bonnie and Clyde such a hit, only Kaufman seems to realize the identification cut both ways; you can’t identify criminals as hippies without also implying that hippies are criminals. Maybe this is why Kaufman picks the gang’s visit to a whorehouse as a tonal pivot point. There all the goofy rambunctious fun stops and the film starts to take on a cast of sadness. As Cole carries five or six whores into a bedroom we realize he’s taking on more than he can handle. It’s all fun and games until the stakes get too high, and someone loses their life.
NORTHFIELD is a film that’s both more and less than the sum of its parts. A blogger wrote something about the film that was both dead on yet mistaken: “the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place.” The film does have a cheap and tawdry feel to it, the boxed air of a TV movie, but I wonder why it didn’t occur to the blogger that this very cheapness is exactly why the film feels authentic. That a story about towns built on the cheap made towns where people lived cheaply: an ersatz existence on the edge of society, where people’s clothes don’t look nice because they aren’t nice. In a way, Northfield’s greatest strength is its cheapness, because that’s where its authenticity lies. Not the authenticity of “real history”, but the authenticity of lived environments and world-weathered people. For all the beauty of director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James (2007), the film’s sumptuous romanticism and precious Americana are tainted with an almost spiritual ugliness, guilty of rendering the death of a violent thug like a matyrdom out of the gospels. Despite its endearing, come-one-come-all narration, Northfield refuses to dress up cheap and tawdry pulp as if it were glorious history.
Kaufman stages a scene early on where a dying Cole is seemingly revived through witchcraft. Afterward, Cole is subject to strange visions. I think these are included to remind us that western outlaws are the closest thing America has to the epic romances of medieval knights, a point made explicit by Cole’s remark that their raid is “kind of like a knightly crusade or a noble quest.” The invocation of such a mythical context only heightens the ignominiousness of bleeding out your life out through a bullet hole and into a muddy ditch.
This is the movie’s strength. It may not tell the events like they happened in exacting historical detail, but it tells it like it is. Northfield refuses to make the error of striving too hard for respectability, doing too much to prove this stuff is important. The body armor so many filmmakers think protects them from criticism and condescension only stiffens them into an unnatural posture of false “dignity”. Better a loose, goofy, bloody, patchy, imperfect, uneven piece of work than bland prestige. Sure, the critics may repeat the accusation Frank James levels at Charlie Pitts’s superstition: “That don’t mean anything.” But messes like Northfield can shoot back Charlie Pitts’s rejoinder: “It’s a truth. It don’t have to mean anything.”
Elliott Kalan is a writer for “The Daily Show With John Stewart” comedian and regular host of the “Closely Watched Films” screening series at 92YTribeca.
The Great Northfield Minnesotta Raid (1972) is playing at 92YTribeca, Thursday March 1st.