Hollywood has been telling and re-telling the story of Jesse James since the silent era, with each generation seemingly getting their own iteration of the legendary outlaw. Director Walter Hill's 1980 western The Long Riders tries to locate the human beings lurking within the oft-told legend, but Hill inevitably punctuates the proceedings with memorably stylized action setpieces that puncture the reality with almost abstract brutality.
Besides Hill's gut-punch violence, The Long Riders is often most remembered for the casting of four sets of real-life brothers. This was the foundational concept of James and Stacy Keach, who executive produce, co-write, and co-star in the film as Jesse and Frank James, respectively. To fill out the James-Younger gang, they got David, Keith, and Robert Carradine to play Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger respectively, plus Randy and Dennis Quaid to play gang associates Clell and Ed Miller. The Bridges boys (Jeff and Beau) were originally courted to play Charlie and Robert Ford (the latter of whom, as the title of a more recent western film makes clear, assassinated Jesse James), but Spinal Tap's Christopher Guest and his brother Nicholas eventually took the parts. This brothers-playing-brothers thing would come off as more of a gimmick, if the cast wasn't so across-the-board gifted and so damn fun to watch.
The episodic film gives us a taste of the robbers' home life, and their (mostly) ordinary attempts at romance. Keith Carradine's character loses his would-be wife (Amy Stryker) to Dennis Quaid's disgraced former gang member, and tries to woo her back. James Keach's Jesse is shown in the midst of a decade-long courtship to his cousin Zee (Savannah Smith). Meanwhile, David Carradine's Cole Younger carries on a tempestuous long-time fling with Pamela Reed's ornery lady of the night, Belle Starr. Belle wouldn't mind Cole putting a ring on it and making her respectable, but Cole is an unrepentant sonofabitch who prefers her just the way she is. This leads to one of the film's most unusual setpieces, where Carradine and James Remar duel for Belle's honor by biting either end of a scarf and slashing at each with great big hunting knives.
James Whitmore, Jr., is the head Pinkerton man sent to bring the James-Younger gang down, but he and his men are ineffective. They cause collateral damage to innocent bystanders and the gang's family members, which only helps to cement the gang's legend as ex-Rebel Robin Hoods who are sticking it to the powers that be.
Everything comes to a head during the famously failed Northfield Minnesota Raid, in which the gang were attacked full force by the Pinkertons. Hill stages the showdown as a multi-tempo ballet of bullets and bloodshed. The use of slow motion, juxtaposed with kinetic real-time footage, calls back to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and anticipates John Woo's '90s films, like Hard Boiled. Hill rarely gets mentioned in the same breath with these other beloved action filmmakers, but the craft on display in this sequence alone deserves the kind of film-school/fanboy cred bestowed upon those others.
The film was reportedly cut down significantly from a more character-driven director's cut. United Artists was struggling with Michael Cimino over the uncommercial sprawl of Heaven's Gate, and The Long Riders seems to have been pulled into the fray as well. Maybe the film would have been even better with a little more emotional heft, but I think a bit of terseness lends itself well to Hill's gruff, macho brand of storytelling. The brothers have instant backstory, an implied shorthand, that helps us viewers fill in what the UA editors might have sheared away.
It's a bit of a mixed blessing. This AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K remaster, but Kino has cut corners by encoding at a middling variable bitrate that undermines most attempts at renewed visual impressiveness. The color palette skews toward browns reminiscent of old photographs, but skin tones look realistic and the grass is reliably green. There are moments of sharpness and clarity, but overall the film is duller and softer than one would hope for such a redux. There's little in the way of dirt or film damage. I didn't see MGM's earlier Blu-ray release, but I expect there's a relative uptick in overall quality. Even so, it's a disappointment.
The old Blu-ray offered only the original DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono mix (also included here), but this new release includes a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround option that offers more oomph during the action scenes and gives Ry Cooder's excellent score a little more room to spread out. Typically, though, it's a not wildly more immersive mix than the mono. In most dialogue scenes, some effects get thrown to the other channels for ambience and that's about it. No complaints about clarity or damage, though. English subtitles are also available.
Special Features: Interview with Keith and Robert Carradine (HD, 16:14) - A new tandem interview with the brothers, where they talk about the long road from first hearing about the project to fruition. They touch upon the fact that this film was the "other" western that United Artists was making at the time that Heaven's Gate was bankrupting the studio. Robert discusses getting an illicit helicopter joyride from the transpo department. Keith reflects that the only reason to make a movie is to enjoy the process.
- A trio of film aficionados and commentary veterans discuss the film in an informal chat that is steeped in appreciation and fandom. An engaging and amusing listen, with a fair amount of info and analysis. The main drawback to these ears is it sounds like they are holding their mics in their hands, which leads to excessive rustling and rumbling as they shift around throughout the flick.
- Audio commentary by Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell & Nathaniel Thompson
Interview with Stacy and James Keach (HD, 15:55) - Boy, do they look like brothers. Even more than in the film. Wow. Anyhow, this is an engaging little chat, where they talk about the development of the project from an off-Broadway musical to a potential mini-series to the final project, which is the result of a few different James gang scripts getting cobbled together. They mourn 20 minutes that were cut from the film by the studio.
Interview with Randy Quaid (HD, 20:09) - Considering Quaid's current legal situation, it's unsurprising that this interview appears to be self-recorded on a laptop webcam. Quaid is a bit low energy, but he talks about his experiences and connection to the character lucidly. His story of a horse-related mishap at the Cannes Festival premiere of the film is particularly charming.
Interview with Nicholas Guest (HD, 12:27) - It makes sense that, since Guest and his brother were playing outsiders, this story offers a different perspective than the many of other interviews on the disc, which have a lot of overlapping details. Guest is funny and self-effacing about getting hired on the film and his experiences getting it made. A great little piece.
Interview with director Walter Hill (HD, 20:40) - Hill does a lot of talking in the later featurettes, ported over from the UK Blu-ray, so there's inevitably some repeated anecdotes. However, in this interview, he sticks to a lot of "big picture" thoughts about the film, such as approaching now-mythical characters in a psychologically believable way, his mild disappointment with having to cut the film down to 100 minutes, and coping with all those brothers.
Interview with composer Ry Cooder (HD, 14:38) - Cooder's music is one of the most memorable elements of the film, so it's nice to have him talk about it here. He discusses the different approaches he took to working on sequences, since he was totally unfamiliar with typical film scoring. Fortunately, Walter Hill wanted more textural, organic, folk music-y accompaniment to drive the film.
Interview with producer Tim Zinnemann (HD, 8:07) - Zinnemann talks a little bit about the difficulties of making the movie, but in a low-key, genial way.
Outlaw Brothers: The Making of The Long Riders (HD, 1:03:28) - A talking-head retrospective about the making of the flick, featuring Hill, James Keach, and Robert Carradine. A lot of interesting and unexpected anecdotes about casting, costuming, horsemanship, and shooting the action scenes, especially a good bit about filming the knife fight on a day when Sam Fuller came to visit the set. (Tech note: Like the next two pieces, this was ported over from the 2013 UK Blu-ray. Something might have gone mildly awry in the transfer, as these three pieces are full of interlace ghosting, which is a minor nuisance.)
The Northfield Minnesota Raid: Anatomy of a Scene (HD, 16:10) - An offshoot of the previous piece. Hill, Keach, and Carradine discuss the shooting of the climactic robbery sequence. The trio are particularly happy to have worked during the sequence with real-life bank robber turned crime writer and actor Edward Bunker (Reservoir Dogs' Mr. Blue). Hill and the actors talk about the practical effects and sound design, which give the sequence its unique, visceral impact. They also discuss the weeks-long process it took to prep stunt horses to ride through a set, smashing the windows on both sides.
Slow Motion: Walter Hill on Sam Peckinpah (HD, 6:34) - Hill talks about working with Peckinpah on The Getaway and how, after The Long Riders was released, the older filmmaker called Hill up to "test" him about the way in which his use of slow motion was different from that in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. I won't relay Hill's explanation here, but you'll be happy to know he passed the test.
Trailers - this film, plus Death Rides a Horse, The Mercenary, the forthcoming Valdez Is Coming, and The Hunting Party.
The story of the James-Younger gang has been told a few dozen ways on film, and The Long Riders is one of the best and most entertaining. The ensemble cast, anchored by four sets of real-life brothers, consistently hit the right notes of midwestern earthiness and old-timey machismo. Hill's use of slow motion violence can't help but bring to mind his former boss, Sam Peckinpah, but Hill's imagination transcends these comparisons. The flick has a handful of all-time great, visceral action sequences. Kino loads up their Blu-ray with more than enough bonus features and a new 5.1 surround audio upgrade, but they under-deliver in the video quality department. As such, this release just misses being definitive. Even so, it comes Highly Recommended.