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Sunday 4 October 2009

The Long Riders (1980)

Director: Walter Hill
Stars: David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, James Keach, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid

The last movie about Jesse James that I saw certainly didn't see him as a hero. Sam Fuller's debut feature, I Shot Jesse James, concentrated more on Bob Ford, the man who killed him, but was quite happy to paint James as the criminal he was. Fuller saw him as a murderous psychopath who should have been sent to his grave far quicker than happened in real life. This 1980 version of the story, masterminded by the Keach brothers, Stacy and James, isn't as one sided in its approach, though it's not the revisionist treatment that many made it out to be. The bandits here are certainly shown as bandits, but the Pinkerton detectives chasing them are not seen as any better.

We begin with Ed Miller getting kicked out of the James/Younger gang. It's another bank job and he won't believe that there isn't a safe. When he shoots the teller, the bullets start flying and people start dying. Jesse James gets shot in the shoulder during the crossfire but makes it out alive. So out goes Miller, with his take and his life intact, but with the condemnation of the rest of the gang. Even his brother Clell won't ride with him again. It would appear that the various sets of brothers who make up this gang are honourable folks, even though they spend their time robbing banks, trains and stages. They're more than willing to kill, but they draw the line at doing so without a good reason.

Of course, the more they steal the more the law pays attention to them, until they actively come looking. When they do, they prove to be inept at best and as bad as their quarry at worst, thus explaining just why the legend came into being and why these bandits became folk heroes. It wasn't anything to do with their own actions, which weren't seen in a positive light, it was through the actions of the men who came to catch them. From this film's perspective, the local law enforcement officers give up the chase quickly, and leave it to the Pinkertons, and the Pinkertons didn't do anything that made them popular.

They're polite enough when they serve a warrant on Mrs Samuel to search her house for her sons, Frank and Jesse James, but things quickly go sour. On their next trip they throw a smoke bomb through her window to drive everyone outside but the thing explodes instead, killing her retarded fifteen year old boy, Archie. Two more Pinkertons meet Jim Younger on the trail, pretending to be cattle buyers, but when they're introduced they shoot his cousin John dead, even though he's never ridden with the gang. When they track the whole gang down hiding out in a pigshed owned by a man named McCorkindale, the ensuing gun battle doesn't take down a single member of the gang, but leaves McCorkindale dead in cold blood along with his pigs.

There's much to enjoy here and the approach is a fresh one, but unfortunately what shines brightest is the intriguing gimmick chosen by the filmmakers. The James/Younger gang was made of sets of brothers, everyone in post-Civil War Missouri apparently belonging to one of a small number of families. Perhaps because a pair of brothers, Stacy and James Keach, set the film up, not just as actors but as writers and producers too, all these sets of brothers are played by sets of brothers. The Keaches are the Jameses, James playing Jesse and Stacy playing Frank. Dennis and Randy Quaid play Ed and Clell Miller. The Youngers are played by the Carradines: David, Keith and Robert as Cole, Jim and Bob respectively. Even Bob and Charlie Ford are played by brothers, not the Bridges as originally intended but Nicholas and Christopher Guest instead.

And with so many brothers playing so many brothers, it's hard to focus on anything else. While it's always a joy to listen to Stacy Keach's voice and to watch Keith Carradine strut, the best acting here comes elsewhere, namely James Whitmore Jr as the lead Pinkerton man, the only one who can reasonably retain any semblance of credit, and Pamela Reed in her film debut as a very tough but still vulnerable Belle Starr. Three years later she'd be married to her co-star here, Dennis Quaid, on screen at least in The Right Stuff. Nobody really lets the side down but there are so many characters that few get the opportunity to shine and the same thing holds back the film as a whole.

There's some attempt to fill in some background but there are too many brothers to be able to focus in on any of them. It's capably shot with some fine setups, some good lines and some decent suspense, but it's far from consistent. There are too many gaps in the story that get explained away carelessly or not at all. So many potentially great shots are stopped by clumsy editing. The setpiece gun battle in Minnesota is the most annoying of all. We're treated to some truly astounding horse stunts, up to and including a ride through the plate glass window of a store front and out the plate glass windows at the back. It's agreeably bloody, but the blood packs are far too obvious and the editing and overuse of slow motion lets the whole thing down.

The director is Walter Hill, early in his career and only on his fourth picture, but already with two cult hits behind him: The Driver and The Warriors. He's still making films today but he's been far from prolific, averaging only around a film every other year or so. The soundtrack is by Ry Cooder and it's decent enough, but it's his debut soundtrack and not one that compares well to his subsequent work on films like Paris, Texas, Crossroads or of course Buena Vista Social Club. Like them, everyone here has done better work elsewhere, leaving this film an interesting and welcome one but something a lot less than it ought to have been.

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