The Long Riders (1980)
When one wants accuracy - or close to it - one should go for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But, if one wants just plain good old cinematic entertainment, The Long Riders is the place to come. The moment I saw Walter Hill was the director was when I knew that I was in for pure entertainment and anything that happened to be of any historical accuracy was probably going to be by accident.
Of course I was right in this case as some things that happen were based on real events and others - like a shootout at the barn - were inspired by more modern events rather than the exploits of the James-Younger Gang. In fact the movie evolved from a musical about Jesse and Frank James that was written and produced by James and Stacy Keach, and they decided to bring it to the screen. The latter Keach cowrote the movie with Bill Bryden and Steven Smith and they got Hill to direct. The major hook for the movie, though, was just as they were brothers in real life, Jesse and Frank were played by James and Stacy, respectively. From there it evolved to David and Keith Carradine playing Cole and Jim Younger, Dennis and Randy Quaid playing Ed and Clell Miller and, finally, Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Charlie and Bob Ford. It's a gimmick, but the gimmick works, and gives the movie a bit more gravitas than it otherwise would have had.
After a bank robbery results in unnecessary deaths Ed Miller is cut free from the James-Younger gang, who go on to hitting trains and stagecoaches after the money from the bank heist runs out. Despite his outlaw ways Jesse is planning on settling down to home life with Annie Ralston (Shelby Leverington), while Jim Younger is thinking of doing the same with a girl named Beth (Amy Stryker), but the reality is there is always just one more job to do.
Their exploits inevitably attract national attention, and eventually the Pinkerton Agency is called into deal with them, only managing to get the wrong people killed. The gang decides to go their own way for awhile until things cool down, but eventually decided to hit a bank in Minnesota, far outside their normal stomping grounds of Missouri. Unfortunately this time the law may be one step ahead of them.
As can be expected Walter Hill delivers on the action. There is a knife fight between David Carradine and a man named Sam Star (James Remar) over a lady of negotiable affection named Belle (Pamela Reed) and the final botched robbery in Northfield, Minnesota is quite exciting. I do hope none of the horses were harmed, as this was still before some reforms happened due to animal abuse on the set of Heaven's Gate. As for the performances, the best comes from the Carradines and Stacy Keach, who plays Frank James a lot more understated than he probably was. Unfortunately James Keach seems like he's sleeping through a good portion of the film.
Despite great action set pieces the biggest problem with The Long Riders is that it doesn't really build any drama throughout the film. It does create some tension toward the end, but for a normal feature length movie of its type I don't think there was enough actual story to keep the interest. There are many subplots, like the conflict between Jim Younger and Ed Miller over Beth and Cole's pursuit of Belle, and though they are resolved it still didn't feel like it simply because they are concluded so matter-of-factly. There is still quite a lot to enjoy, especially as visual a filmmaker as Hill is, but this really needed a tighter story to tie it all together. Like James Keach's portrayal of Jesse, much of this just seems to be the characters drifting through events rather than being front and center.
I still recommend The Long Riders as one of the better of the forgotten westerns of the early 1980s, but do not expect it to have anywhere near the impact of Heaven's Gate or Barbarosa. It is one of the better movies about Jesse and Frank James, and wisely doesn't go out of its way to make heroes out of them. Their casual indifference to killing others to get their way is not glossed over, but a bit more focus would have served the movie well.
The Long Riders (1980)
Time: 100 minutes
Starring: James Keach, Stacy Keach, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid, Kevin Brophy
Director: Walter Hill