Telling the story of Jesse James, and more precisely the James-Younger gang, The Long Riders is a solid film which gathers all the ingredients to make a good western : action, love, train and bank robberies, women of easy virtue, loyalty, brotherhood, blood and betrayal. However it feels like something is missing all along the film, something that comes up only at the end: a bit of spice.
Directed by Walter Hill, The Long Riders (1980) is an unusual and accurate western. Indeed, the movie takes place somewhere in the American Midwest, where there are woods and green plains. A landscape different from the ones generally seen in westerns, but actually reflecting Walter Hill’s will to be faithful to reality as the gang operated in Missouri and Minnesota.
The director also takes an original angle to tell the story of Jesse James (James Keach). Here, he does not choose to make him stand as a hero from beginning to end, but represents him as part of a gang who don’t play just secondary roles. In fact, it sometimes feels that Cole Younger (David Carradine) is the real protagonist of the movie. He is certainly the one with more depth compared to the other characters who seem a bit insipid. However, what is definitely worth noticing is the choice of casting. Walter Hill chose brothers in real life to play the members of the gang : complicity is quite obvious and very amusing. They are all represented as likeable, almost with good morals except Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid), who, early in the film, is kicked out of the group for killing an innocent person. With this scene, Walter Hill blurs the line between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Wanton murder is certainly an act to condemn, but killing for good reasons becomes acceptable for the gang. It is true that, they are not unscrupulous, nor do they shootpeople randomly, even though their true motivations remain unknown.
Featuring an atypical soundtrack by Ry Cooder, the film is immersed in nostalgia ¬the calm before the storm. The movie opens with a tune which illuminates the slow-motion sequence of the gang riding across the green landscapes, paying tribute to both the genre and the period referred to (few years after the Civil War as the songs indicate). Using unusual and anachronistic instruments (saz, tamboura, electric guitar), Cooder brings another element of originality to the movie, which, however, sometimes feel disconcerting. There are also pieces of traditional songs, such as “The Battle Cry of Freedom” or “I’m A Good Ol’ Rebel” from the Civil War period.
Throughout the movie, the tension increases as the detective gets closer, and, though predictable, the final shootout still comes as a surprise and is particularly well-directed. The multiple camera frame rates and high-speed montage are absolutely crazy and a moving homage to Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch,The Getaway), who was Walter Hill’s mentor at the beginning of his career. Even though the end is tragic, there is a still a sense of humanity in the last scenes : whatever the outcome, brotherhood wins.
The story of Jesse James has been the subject of hundreds of films but Walter Hill definitely brought some freshness to the story and to the western genre. Nevertheless, it is frustrating and regrettable that the entire movie seems to rest only on the final shootout.
Cast : David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, James Keach, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Kevin Brophy, Christopher Guest, Nicholas Guest
Director : Walter Hill
Production : James Keach, Stacy Keach, Tim Zinnemann
Running time : 99mn