Friday Editor’s Pick: The Long Riders (1980)

by on April 21, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri April 27 & Sat April 28 at Midnight at  IFC Center [Program & Tix]


Three cheers for IFC Center’s “Walter Hill at Midnight” series. We can never give this unsung genre master enough love here at Alt Screen. Although we do have to ask, where’s Southern Comfort?


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Hill’s film holds its head high in a distinguished company of movies about the Jesse James/Cole Younger gang, refusing to bother too much about historical facts or psychological motivation, instead serving up a potted commentary on the conventions of the genre itself. Concentrating on familiar rituals – the funeral, the hoe-down, the robbery (a stunning tour de force in slow motion) – Hill pays tribute to such directors as Ford, Hawks and Ray, emphasises the mythic aspects of the Western, and focuses on the subjects of kinship and the land (probably suggested by Scotsman Bill Bryden’s screenplay). This last theme is emphasised by Hill’s coup of casting real-life brothers as the members of the gang. A beautiful, laconic and unsentimental film.



Robert Hatch for The Nation:

The word for “The Long Riders” is handsome. Westerns can be depended upon to be that – they have the landscape to make them so – and Walter Hill has directed this one with an unflagging alertness to the beauty implicit in the stock materials. He understands horses as the Greeks did, massing them in friezes of contained power or streaking them like flags across the prairie. His saloons gleam in dark wood and glass and he has picked up from Sam Peckinpah the trick of killing in slow motion, extracting a cruel grace from slaughter.
We’re stuck with the Wild West, the Confederacy’s gift to Hollywood. And few films have exploited it to greater advantage than has this one by Walter Hill and his band of brothers.


Scott Tobias in his excellent Hill primer for The Onion AV Club:

Hill has stated that all of his films are Westerns, in the sense that Westerns have “a stripped-down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem.” But he’s also directed more than his share of honest-to-goodness Westerns, none better than 1980’s The Long Riders, which capitalized brilliantly on using real-life siblings (James and Stacy Keach; David, Robert, and Keith Carradine; Dennis and Randy Quaid; and Nicholas and Christopher Guest) to play members of the James-Younger gang and their various cohorts and hangers-on. Entire movies have been built around short sections of the film—like Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid or Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford—but The Long Riders doesn’t feel shallow or overly condensed by comparison. Hill just cuts right to the bone, as usual, following the James-Younger gang as it begins to unravel, starting with a needlessly bloody bank job in Missouri and culminating in a fateful ambush by Pinkerton agents and townsmen in Minnesota. The Northfield sequence is fittingly explosive, as Hill sorts through the chaos of these legendary gunmen fending off shooters on all sides, but the film gets the smaller details right, too, picking up on the lingering tensions of post-Civil War America.



Richard Schickel for TIME:

At his best, Walter Hill strips familiar movie forms of their cultural and nostalgic crustations, polishing them down to their existential bone and gristle. Like Hemingway’s, his laconic style can become mannered to the point of self-parody, as it was in The Driver. But when he is good, as he was in the prizefighting film Hard Times, or last year’s gang-war epic The Warriors, there is a hard purposefulness about his work that avoids macho sentimentality and easy moralizing. He is at the top of his form in The Long Riders.

David Carradine gets the luck of the lines. Almost everything he says has a nice dry wit about it.But acting is subservient to Hill’s vision. The story is simple on its surface, hardly more than a string of incidents, most of them violent but only occasionally (and then effectively) bloody. Nor does Hill try to cop a plea for his outlaws by introducing that familiar James-boys yarn in which the returning Civil War veterans become populist folk heroes by trying to expropriate from the expropriators. One gets the feeling that they would have found their way to crime anyway, as a suitable line for brave, hard men. The Pinkertons (led by James Whitmore Jr. in another good performance), who pursue them throughout the picture, are seen in much the same neutral light. Like the bandits, they make a number of deadly mistakes as they go along, and sincerely but briefly regret them.
None of this is ever directly stated. Hill wants the viewer to read his frames, not his dialogue; lighting, angles and cutting carry the weight of meaning. Perhaps he sends too many people to meet their maker in balletic slow-motion. But that is only a small reservation. Hill is very much in the American grain, the inheritor of the Ford-Hawks-Walsh tradition of artful, understated action film making.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The quiet ecstasy of the opening (horsemen silhouetted on a grassy hill, already in the slow-motion of legend) reveals the taciturn elation of a director at last able to visit the Western image he grew up with. John Ford is Walter Hill’s idol, though Hill has also absorbed Peckinpah and Vietnam — nostalgia is shot through upheaval, a bank is robbed and the outlaws unwind in a whorehouse, where Clell Miller (Randy Quaid) pulls a pistol on the troubadour to change “Battle Cry of Freedom” for “I’m a Good Old Rebel.” The West here is vanishing, yet there’s still room for chivalry, ritual and the importance of family, both in the characters’ lives and in the eccentric casting (James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James, David, Keith, and Robert Carradine are the Younger boys, Dennis Quaid plays Ed Miller). The trajectory is toward the Northfield raid, where the path of every bullet is traced and felt (Hill acknowledges The Wild Bunch with horses crashing through the glass window, then goes his own way) and the bandits flee with their bodies and dreams in pieces. An “action director,” yet some of Hill’s best work lies in elegiac tableaux — a stagecoach holdup finds Harry Carey, Jr. with smoking pipe and Dixie feistiness, Jim Younger pushing his beloved (Amy Striker) on a swing is a lustrous pastoral spread, Charlie and Bob Ford (Christopher and Nicholas Guest) step out of the dance floor and toward the camera as the crowd behind them melts into out-of-focus abstraction. A detailed, elegant knife fight, choreographed by a legend-fixated modernist; Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) is shrouded under layers of genre myth even while standing naked in her bathtub, Jesse James is given a final, iconic profile while adjusting a sign reading “God bless our home” (Sam Fuller’s telling of the story is evoked by name as Bob Ford aims the gun barrel at the lenses). As much of a dream-film as The Driver, in other words, a Western Nirvana followed by the Purgatory of Wild Bill and the Dantean descent of Deadwood.



Michael Kolter for Senses of Cinema:

The Long Riders is fashioned on the works of Hill’s mentor Sam Peckinpah, especially The Wild Bunch (1969). The James Gang wear long white coats just as the members of Peckinpah’s ‘wild bunch’ did, and the opening and final bank robberies are like alternate versions of The Wild Bunch‘s opening robbery. Hill also uses the quintessential Peckinpah technique of filming movement in slow motion during the action sequences and cutting back to that movement several times during the sequence, adding a mesmerising poetry to the violence. Hill even includes a sequence of horses smashing through glass windows similar to a scene in The Wild Bunch. Hill builds his myth of the James Gang on the conventions of the traditional Western (or anti-Western if you prefer), as exemplified by Peckinpah. The leads in the film are anti-heroes, outside the law and yet supported by a local Confederate community. The outlaws are presented as family men, especially the leader Jesse James whose courtship and betrothal forms a major proportion of the earlier part of the film. Jesse is shown as moral. For example, he expels a trigger-happy member from the gang. In contrast, the gang’s nemesis, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, are Yankees who kill indiscriminately, murdering a non-outlaw Younger cousin and Jesse’s 15-year-old intellectually disabled half-brother. As the violence escalates – and the James gang is not above killing several Pinkerton men – tensions in the gang surface and the gang disbands for a period. This creates a schism between the members of the gang and Jesse no longer heeds their advice leading to the disastrous Northfield raid.



David Denby for New York Magazine:

“The Long Riders,” taken scene by scene, is the best-directed American movie of the year, and some of it is almost rapturously beautiful, Like the men who have clearly influenced him the most, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, Hill transforms the scraggly American past of gangsters and prostitutes into the highest form of movie lyricism.
Se after the Civil War in rural Missouri, “The Long Riders” is a pastoral Western; except for a few extremely violent passages, most of it is quiet and luminously poetic. “The Long Riders” isn’t set in sun-drenched mountains and deserts (a landscape of moral clarity), but in dark-green fields or deep woods, where the light is diffused and mysteriously softened, and the robbers, more morally ambiguous now, are neither heroes nor villains.
In one of his letters, Keats praised the energy and grace exhibited in a street brawl even if the emotions of the brawl were base, and that split is present in Hill’s attitudes as well. He shoots the violence in the slow-motion, lyrically ecstatic style of Peckinpah, a style that mythicizes men who are brave, immensely skilled yet also savage and reckless – men who murder innocent people. For Hill, the American innocence is picturesque and terrifying. When the gang chases after a train in the grayish light, the scene has a “legendary” quality that is almost charming. Trapped in a barn, the men jump out the back and scurry down a ravine like eldercousins of Huck Finn. Yet if you had happened to be there, they would have killed you without a thought.



Richard Harland Smith with some interesting background, for TCM:

Believe it or not, The Long Riders began as a musical, the brainchild of Georgia-born actors Stacy and James Keach. At the time a celebrated stage and film performer, Stacy had gotten his industry start with guest roles on such weekly TV oaters as Sugarfoot and The Adventures of Jim Bowie and had already played Arizona’s most famous deputized dentist in Frank Perry’s Doc (1971); a few years later, younger brother James had been one of the feuding Hatfields in the ABC telefilm The Hatfields and the McCoys (1975). Also a member of The Hatfields and the McCoys ensemble was Robert Carradine, younger brother of David, who asked the Keaches if there might be room in their Jesse James project for the Carradine clan. Initially reluctant, middle Carradine brother Keith (whose career as a leading man was finally kicking into gear) eventually consented to play Jim Younger to David’s Cole, while the Keaches reached out to Randy and Dennis Quaid to fill the boots of Clell and Ed Miller. To persuade United Artists that this novelty act could be a viable feature film, a lavish party was thrown at Stacy Keach’s Malibu ranch, where Beau and Jeff Bridges came onboard to play the Ford brothers. (The Bridges boys later dropped out of the project and were replaced with Christopher and Nicholas Guest.) Apparently, all that familial enthusiasm sold United Artists, who gave The Long Riders the green light.
The Long Riders may have been adversely affected by the flood of bad press that greeted the release of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate a month or so earlier. If Hill’s Western can be said to have failed, it did so for the same reason that Blade Runner underperformed, both were clearly 70s movies that had the poor fortune to be released in the 1980s. They were too complex, too ambitious and too demanding for audiences who had seemingly had their fill of moral ambiguity, flawed heroes and downbeat finishes. The film has weathered the past two decades well and its status has been elevated, according to some film writers, to the short list of nominees for “the last great Hollywood western.”



Terrence Rafferty for Film Quarterly:

The Northfield raid in The Long Riders is a great, heart-stopping sequence, and not only because of its brilliantly edited action: it’s an explosive culmination of all the complex emotions and tensions of the film. The savagery in these few minutes of film shocks and sad-dens us because the impulses behind the violence are all, in a sense, legitimate: the community’s desire to defend itself; the desire to maintain order and harmony in the newly re-united States; the James Gang’s assertion of its family and regional identities. The structure of the situation isn’t so unlike that of The Warriors-the Coney Island gang off its home turf, in conflict both with other groups defending their own ground and a larger social authority, the police-but that film’s garish, expressionist visual style turns the other gangs into caricatures, so we don’t really have to take any of those groups’ claims very seriously. In The Long Riders, all the conflicting interests are taken seriously, so the James Gang’s assertion of group identity isn’t funny or menacing, it’s tragic: the assault on Northfield is more than a tactical error, and more than just the violent defensiveness of an embattled group– it’s an act of aggression against a community not very different from their own in Missouri, a perversion of their own deepest values. The gang’s sense of enclosure in a strange place and their violent frenzy to escape are overpowering in this sequence; what makes the situation painful and tragic is that, in a real sense, they’ve betrayed themselves, trapped themselves.



Mike Greco talks to Hill for Film Comment:

What attracted you to the Long Riders project?

Even though quite a few films have been made around the James-Younger gang, somehow I didn’t feel that it was a closed book on the subject. The tendency has always been to relate it to a traditional Western, and somehow it’s never quite worked. The Fox version in the late Thirties, with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, is a great star vehicle and was a very successful film in its time. To me, the best movie that’s been made around the subject was Fritz Lang’s sequel, The Return of Frank James. In the historical sense it was also the least accurate, but it had a real sense of character truth.
I always relate films to music. I thought Hard Times was like a folk song; The Driver was like Cage or something; The Warriors was rock ‘n’ roll; and this one is an opera. In The Long Riders you have a lot of characters, a lot of costume pageantry, and there’s room for big, declamatory scenes.
It’s a strange piece. Instead of the logical conclusion being at Northfield, it then goes on to another phase of a spiral downward, and ends with Jesse’s death. It’s very hard material to give the proper dramatic curve to. It doesn’t lay out in a classic three-act structure. It’s almost a four-act piece with Northfield and the aftermath being the culmination of the third act. The fourth act is almost epilogue: How They Went Down.
Do they serve as a metaphor for some aspect of society, some aspect of change?

There’s a line from a Jean-Luc Godard film: “The jokes are funny but the bullets arc real.” That’s really what this movie is about. These were big, reckless, high-spirited guys that were unaware of the ripples they caused.
In The Long Riders, the James-Younger gang has the Homeric virtues – a quality that other Walter Hill characters seem also to possess.

I’m just interested in certain kinds of stories. I don’t know how to explain it beyond that. The only way I ever pick anything to do is by general inclination. The quality of courage, I think, is vers’ dramatic. I’m interested in that kind of drama. They are a little out of step and a little out of fashion these days, but audiences like them. They are as old as the literature we know, and they certainly have had a large place in the history of the cinema. It’s the old story: one person’s stereotype is another’s archetype. I think it’s fairly clear what side of the line I’m on.
More than one critic has suggested that you’ve been influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai.

I’m influenced by Hard Times, The Driver, and The Warriors.



Omar Ahmed for Ellipses:

‘The Long Riders’ is arguably one of the best films Walter Hill directed, and it came at a time when the western was more or less dormant, helping to revive the critical status of an essential Hollywood genre. The key to Hill’s direction is that it is wonderfully understated in how he refuses to adhere to any kind of conventional means of fulfilling audience expectations – this is illustrated on several occasions through a rejection of narrative continuity and melodrama. Produced by James and Stacey Keach who also star as Jesse and Frank James, ‘The Long Riders’ is a handsomely shot film with a cast made up of David and Keith Carradine, and Dennis and Randy Quaid. Though the idea of casting brothers in the many roles may appear like a gimmick at first, it soon transpires that it was a smart move on Hill’s part as the sense of ease and familiarity displayed by the actors on screen is in no doubt influenced by their sense of familial recognition.
One of the decisive sequences in the film is the fatal Northfield bank raid that goes terribly wrong. The gang find out too late to make a clean get away and are forced to shoot it out with an armed town that has already been made aware of the fact that the gang may raid the local bank. An elegy to the poetic fatalism of Peckinpah’s violent universe, Hill goes on a wild rampage in terms of editing, cross cutting with slow motion images of the gang being massacred at the hands of ordinary law abiding citizens. Nowhere near a masterpiece in terms of the genre, but still a moving and sombre study of masculinity and its preoccupation with death.



Gregory Solman for Film Comment:

The Jameses, Millers, and Youngers, as well as Bob and Charlie Ford, are played by actual brothers, not to gimmick effect, but to illustrate Hill’s take on this historical chapter, that a clannish idea of blood ties was at the heart of the rebellion of former Confederates turned outlaw heroes. The original Jesse James (Henry King, ’39) is quoted by Hill in some key scenes and through the extended, poetic use of those long-coat “dusters.” Here, the coming of the railroad and the Northern robber barons they represented was the gang’s clear motive, its action impelled by the inescapable logic of 1890s melodrama.
Hill will not let his antiheroes off the hook here. Clell Miller (Randy Quaid) holds a pistol to the head of a musician singing “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (“…and no man shall be a slave…”), forcing him to sing “I’m a Good Ol’ Rebel” (“…and I don’t want no pardon for anything I’ve done…”). But Hill’s as concerned with their private lives–even their macho failures, including an innuendo of impotence–as he is the legendary exploits (only one big caper, a train robbery, goes entirely well). In a film that one would expect to feature uninterrupted Hillian action, one finds the larger part dedicated to exploring the gang’s courtships, stultified family lives, and traditional rites of funerals, dances, engagements and marriages. Like Geronimo, they’re consumed with continuing their family line, preserving their culture.
At one point Cole Younger (played by the real son of Jesse James’s Bob Ford, David Carradine) travels to Texas for a vicious knife fight with the half-breed Indian Sam Starr (James Remar) over the love of a whore (Pamela Reed’s spectacular debut as Belle Starr, who sardonically notes that the victor will win “nothing you both ain’t already had.”) This clarifies the status of rebels outside their clannish Missouri country–a defeated Indian and a defeated Johnny Reb fighting over dubious spoils. Overall, Hill’s addition to The Wild Bunch‘s codes of post-Civil War drifters or Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (referenced in the ambush of McCorkindale’s farm) is allegiance to blood oaths: Kicking one Miller, Ed (Dennis Quaid), out of the gang-setting brother against brother–hangs like a curse over their subsequent raids. “An 18-year-old,” Jim Younger (Keith Carradine) says to the Pinkerton detective who’s killed his cousin, before gunning the Pinkerton down. “Now I have to bring him home to his family dead.” Each funeral is a dirge for the dying South.

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