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The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
1972 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date September 25, 2007 / 14.98
Starring Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, John Pearce, Matt Clark
Cinematography Bruce Surtees
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen, George Webb
Film Editor Douglas Stewart
Original Music Dave Grusin
Produced by Jennings Lang
Written and Directed by Philip Kaufman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

After Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch the western imploded for a few years, with grim realism supplanting 'upbeat' hits like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. John Wayne continued with his own brand of western fantasies, but a new group of affectionately named 'mud and rags' oaters hit the screens. The most extreme was a grim effort called Dirty Little Billy, but the general cynicism included movies like Doc and The Hired Hand. Universal's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is a much more entertaining mainstream debut picture written and directed by Philip Kaufman. It dismantles the Jesse James myth while striking a screwball balance between comedy and the grim facts.


Enraged at the encroachment of Yankee businessmen and railroads, former Missouri 'irregular' Confederate raider Jesse James (Robert Duvall) heads to Northfield, Minnesota to rob a bank, claiming that Cole Younger's (Cliff Robertson) plan is his own. Cole heads north with the rest of the gang to head Jesse off, as the Missouri State Legislature is about to vote them an amnesty. He's slowed down from a wounding in an ambush set up by detective Pinkerton (Herbert Nelson). Railroad money makes the amnesty disappear, so Cole opts to join Jesse in the robbery. Posing as cattle buyers, they infiltrate Northfield (and the local brothel run by Kate (Mary Robin-Redd). Cole cleverly helps the bank manager pull off a scam that encourages the locals to deposit their money in the bank. Unfortunately, Jesse thinks he's some kind of insurrectionist revolutionary still fighting the civil war. The big bank raid begins well but soon becomes a disaster.

The Jesse James story has provided a good framework for an infinite number of film interpretations. Henry King's 1939 Tyrone Power version was a muffled expression of Darryl Zanuck's liberal attitudes, and is politically sort of a sister film to, of all things, John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. Sam Fuller's I Shot Jesse James mined the story for its psychological possibilities, while Nicholas Ray's The True Story of Jesse James envisioned the outlaws as confused juvenile delinquents, reluctant rebels of the reconstruction period.

Philip Kaufman's 1960s cinematic output had been artsy oddball sort-of comedies, the well received Goldstein and the mostly unreleased oddity Fearless Frank (Frank's Great Adventure). The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid sees him in business with actor-producer Cliff Robertson, blending history with satire.

Raid has a lot in common with Kaufman's 1983 The Right Stuff, the celebrated movie about America's Mercury astronauts. Historical fact is a jumping off point in Kaufman's script; just as he assigned rather two-dimensional personalities to his NASA fliers, he extends what is known about the James & Younger gangs in a way that can be called 'colorful illumination.' The near-fanatic Jesse is introduced sitting in a two-holer outhouse with his sycophantic brother Frank (John Pearce). A clear sociopath and glory hound, Jesse continually usurps the schemes and notoriety of Cole Younger, the real brains of the outfit. When asked to account for his reckless and often irrational actions, Jesse will fly into a rage against all Yankees. As far as he's concerned, his miserable crimes are 'guerilla raids' aimed at continuing the War Between the States. Jesse is funny and often resourceful -- he inspires loyalty from a dotty old lady, paying her rent and calling her mother. Jesse also has a hard rule about not leaving live witnesses behind.

In other words, Jesse is murdering scum, a near-terrorist with delusions of political significance.

The much more practical Cole Younger has been shot at so often, he's taken to wearing heavy leather body armor. He's stuck between the loose cannon Jesse and the vindictive railroad detectives. Younger and James practically invented train robbery and Mr. Pinkerton ignores the law in his effort to exterminate them; catching America's most wanted would cement his firm's reputation.

When Younger cases the Northfield bank, he finds its shifty manager (Robert H. Harris of How to Make a Monster) in dire straits. The depositors' distrust of the uninsured banks (and their unreliable owners) is so great that everyone's keeping their savings at home. The script characterizes the business interests of Northfield as greedy and small-minded. Posing as a potential investor, Younger has no difficulty selling the bank president on starting rumors of bandit sightings, a scam to scare the locals into making deposits.

Kaufman also makes the claim that the James and Younger gangs were so well loved by their fellow Missourians that an amnesty was seriously considered -- until Pinkerton bribed the head of the legislature to rule it out of order. As a final touch, Kaufman's Cole Younger shares with Peckinpah's Cable Hogue a fascination with modern machinery. He loves steam engines and the steam calliope set up as an advertising gimmick for the bank. Unfortunately, both the calliope and a newfangled clockwork vault door get the better of him.

Viewers able to put up with the occasional crude moment will love The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid's semi-comic tone. Visiting brothels is practically the only entertainment, and a prostitute's exhibitionist come-on from a second-story window is used to bait one of several ambush attempts against Cole. Although somewhat anachronistic in a few details, we get a nice comic relief scene in a local baseball game, played in a cow pasture. Cole insists that the national sport will always be shooting, and proves it by blasting the baseball with his rifle.

Kaufman's affection for the comic book characters in his Fearless Frank rubs off on Cole and Jesse's amiable cohorts. Luke Askew and Matt Clark are Cole's brothers-in-arms, and R.G. Armstrong is a family man who deserts his wife to go riding again with the Youngers. Another cohort wears a sweater over his face, and later a fake horsehair moustache, to cover an upper lip shot off in the war. Kaufman uses the voice-of-doom narrator Paul Frees to set up basic facts about the bandits, in a fashion similar to Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

The less-than-noble townsmen are also well cast. Dana Elcar and Donald Moffat are enterprising chamber of commerce types. Standout Elisha Cook Jr. is the bank president's cohort and Royal Dano a feeble-minded bum that we just know will get in the way during the robbery.

The final raid sequence is unique, a poorly organized robbery that goes awry because Cole can't control the hotheaded Jesse. As Jesse James fans know, the citizens of Northfield either laid a trap or had time to prepare an ambush as the gangs tried to escape, and the street became a chaotic shooting gallery. Kaufman isn't seduced by the glamour of gunfire and Raid doesn't celebrate its killings a la Peckinpah, or look for beauty in ultra slow motion shots as did Walter Hill in The Long Riders. (spoilers) The aftermath drags on with several days of crazy vigilante action by the Northfield posse, and the bad luck that turns Cole Younger over to the hands of justice. When we last see Jesse, he's sneaking out of the state wearing a woman's dress, and thinking of new gang members to replace the ones he's lost ... hey, that Bob Ford's a good candidate!

Universal's DVD of The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is a handsome and colorful transfer that probably betters the look of the 1972 release prints. It brings out the beauty of the Oregon locations, with some very un-Minnesota-like mountains. If you remember the film from old TV showings, it looks as if several scenes or shots were swapped out with more audience-friendly alternates, along with a few dialogue lines, The picture has some risqué material for a "PG" rating. A beat-up trailer is included. It was only by accident that I discovered that a disc of The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid had even been released ... I've seen no announcements or fanfare for it anywhere. Western fans will love it.  1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 13, 2007


1. As a film student at UCLA in 1972, I attended a special presentation by the Universal trailer department. Two young Universal executives came and showed us a dozen attempts at trailers for two 'problem' movies, this film and Robert Aldrich's terrific Ulzana's Raid. The studio had nixed all of their cuts. They tried to sell Ulzana as an action feature and Raid as a comedy but were told to avoid western trappings "because the studio was convinced people didn't want to see westerns." We students asked, "So why did they make westerns? " and the industry-film school dialogue they were hoping for broke down. I realize now that if I had waylaid one of these guys in the parking lot and said I could be the trailer editor of their dreams, I probably would have won myself a shot at a studio job -- it was clear that whatever they were doing wasn't working. I did nothing of the sort, but the experience primed me to jump into real trailer-making much later, with no doubts that I'd at least be as good as the next guy. Trailer cutting was fun. In the middle 80s, an editor could push a good cut through just by being confident about it!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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