An intriguing, unusual Western, The Long Riders (1980) traces the gradual decline of the notorious James-Younger Gang. It's a story that's been told and retold countless times on film but never quite like this. Actor Stacy Keach and his younger brother James produced and co-wrote it, casting themselves as Frank and Jesse James, respectively. Three other sets of actor-brothers were likewise cast: David, Keith, and Robert Carradine play Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger; Randy and Dennis Quaid are Clell and Ed Miller; and Nicholas and Christopher Guest portray Robert and Charley Ford.
Perhaps in response to the near-death of the genre by the late 1970s, The Long Riders is also unusual for its comparative fidelity to historical fact and seems to have been influential in this regard. It's far more accurate than most films about the James-Younger Gang, while the broader look of the film - from the costumes and hairstyles to the street architecture and the faces of the actors themselves - rings truer than most Westerns made up to that time. It seems to have influenced the similar approach taken in the later, underrated Tombstone (1993) which shares many of the same attributes.
The Long Riders isn't quite as satisfying as that film, but it's more innovative and daring in other respects and has many fine qualities. Working against the film's success is that it simply spreads itself too thin trying to flesh out nearly a dozen major characters over just 99 minutes. The result is a picture of interesting if scattershot vignettes that alternate between quiet, introspective moments and spurts of extreme violence.
Released by United Artists just five months before another Western, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, brought UA to its knees, The Long Riders comes to Blu-ray courtesy of current owners MGM and its home video distributor, Fox. Despite some speckling here and there this is a strong transfer with exceptionally good color and clarity, which in turn enhances the film's period flavor.
The movie picks up the gang around 1870, in Missouri, when following a botched robbery where innocent bystanders are fatally wounded, hotheaded Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid) is expelled from the gang.
Loosely strung vignettes underscore the gang's general hatred of Yankees, the Youngers having once been slave-owners (though this isn't mentioned in the film) and the James brothers and possibly others having been bushwhackers under Quantrill. It also establishes their hatred of Pinkerton agents and other lawman who, early on, murder an innocent Younger cousin who never rode with the gang at all, and firebomb the James farmhouse killing Frank and Jesse's 15-year-old retarded half-brother. (As reader Sergei Hasenecz notes, "Actually, the intent was not to firebomb the house but to smoke out the occupants. It's believed that after the smoke bomb was thrown into the house, it landed or rolled into the fireplace which caused it to explode.")
And yet the film is neither entirely sympathetic to the gang, some of whom are extremely brutal, ready to kill those whose only crime is being a Northerner, nor unsympathetic to the Pinkerton agents who, personified by James Whitmore Jr.'s Jacob Rixley, aren't entirely evil. This is summed up in an exchange between Rixley and the James's mother, Zerelda Samuel (Fran Ryan):
Jacob Rixley: I want your sons, Mrs. Samuel.
Zerelda Cole Samuel: What do you want them for?
Jacob Rixley: For robbing banks, ma'am.
Unfortunately, the film barely scratches the surface of the gang's private lives; this really needed to be a two-and-a-half-hour movie instead of an hour-and-forty-minute one. Cole Younger (David Carradine), for instance, has an ongoing affair with Belle Starr (Pamela Reed), then married to half-breed Sam (James Remar). The undervalued Reed not only looks right for the part, she's superb playing this hardened character that's been around the block yet still looking to get out. Cole likes her precisely because he thinks she's accepted, even embraced her life as a saloon whole though privately she hopes he'll make her legit. It's an Oscar-worthy performance. That relationship is contrasted with Jesse's long relationship with Zee (Savannah Smith Boucher), a romantic, "normal" relationship that's like something out of Ken Burns's Civil War documentary.
Along with Reed and Boucher, the cast is impressively, believably period. The two Keaches especially have faces that look like something out of a Matthew Brady tintype, and the authentic period mustaches, hairstyles, and wardrobe help a lot, too. The superb musical score is by Ry Cooder, a mix of traditional songs on traditional instruments that likewise lend authentic period flavor.
Though it takes a few liberties here and there, many fine details are historically accurate, such as the brutal and, by Hollywood standards, unflattering injuries the gang suffers during the infamous Northfield Raid. The emphasis on the graphic violence, with everything in grueling slow motion a la Sam Peckinpah, was probably Walter Hill's doing. The picture was considered extremely violent by 1980 standards and remains so today, though the shock value is gone.*
The Carradines and the Keaches come from famous acting families, of course. Reportedly patriarch John Carradine, himself no stranger to great Westerns, having appeared in Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance and many others, was originally going to be in the film, too, but his scene or scenes were cut. If that footage exists it wasn't included on the Blu-ray, sadly. That might have given Long Riders a multi-generational connection as well, though it's worth noting that Harry Carey, Jr. and James Whitmore, Jr. have prominent roles, too.
Video & Audio
Shot for 1.85:1 projection, The Long Riders is presented here in 1.78:1 format and generally looks very good though not exceptional. There is some speckling and a few razor-thin scratches are faintly visible here and there. But the color is strong and the results certainly don't suggest a 31-year-old movie. The DTS-HD Master Audio, English mono, is likewise fine, and the Region "A" encoded disc is supported with French mono audio and English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. On my Japanese player the disc defaulted to unlisted Japanese subtitle options.
The lone extra is a trailer, also in high-definition, which does an adequate job of selling the film, which seems to have broken even or thereabouts, but was not a hit.
Fascinating even if slightly disappointing, The Long Riders is a unique work that's an absolute must for Western fans. Highly Recommended.
* Long Riders admirer Sergei adds, "I would argue that the shock value is not necessarily gone, though it may have been muted somewhat in the intervening 31 years. I caught this in revival a few years ago. I'd seen the movie several times and knew what was coming, and I could feel the audience tense up during the raid. The scene wasn't greeted in the usual way that bloody action scenes often are now. There were no hoots of surprise or gasps from the audience, nor were there the shrieks you get in slasher movies or the like. They sat in mesmerized silence. I think it's a combination of the slow motion, Cooder's unsettling music, with the sense of a closing trap and the desperation shown by the characters balanced on the edge of massacre. The bullet hits are palpable. The depiction of the raid is excellent, the effect brutal. It is the best use of slow motion in a movie since The Wild Bunch. ... I saw the movie when it was first released. The audience reaction was much the same then, but more. And I'd swear there was a collective exhaling when the raid was finally over. My girlfriend at the time buried her face in my shoulder. She couldn't watch the scene, and I'll admit it had me on edge. ...While your criticisms are justified, I wouldn't call this even slightly disappointing. I could have wished for more, but feel no disappointment over the finished film. I would say it's a must, and not just for Western fans. It's an excellent movie, not simply an excellent Western."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.