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The Long Riders Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 24, 2011

    The Long Riders Review

    Hi, folks … and welcome to Mad Mac's Wild West Show. Another day, another Western Blu-ray rides a-rootin and a-tootin' into town. Getting branded with approval today, we have Walter Hill's claret-spurting outlaw rampage, The Long Riders.

    First getting' shot … and then gettin' married. Bad habits.”

    It is easy to say that director Walter Hill, one of the kings of the macho 80's actioner, was trying desperately to be the new Sam Peckinpah – I've alleged that myself numerous times. After penning The Getaway for the acclaimed and maverick director, Hill ventured out in the wild badlands of making his own films, but he'd learned a lot from his experience with Peckinpah. He certainly adopted the same “man's man” attitude as Bloody Sam. He made films that celebrated the old school violence of ruthless desperados, men from both sides of the law who played by their own bleak, cynical rules. Women in his pictures tended to be of easy virtue, pushed and pulled as pawns between the amoral protagonists, or used merely as sleazy set decoration or a trophy to be won after a duel to the death. He didn't make movies that pandered to the current PC vogue, or the trends of the times, unless, of course, you count the urban thriller Red Heat, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was a convenient attempt at cinematic Glasnost, albeit with nude wrestling in the snow and bus chases galore. He wanted his productions to exude blood and sweat and to paint the air blue with excessive profanity. His nihilistic approach was definitely veering into the territory that Peckinpah had made his own. Especially when you looked at his bravura and stylish action sequences – punishing set-pieces that often took in various characters engaged in their own separate confrontations, and bolstered by that famous cross-cutting, slow-motion violence that Peckinpah had christened the “longest split-second in his life” after his witnessing, and subsequent filmic emulation of a Chinese coolie he saw being felled by sniper-fire during World War II, in which he served with the marines.

    Yes, Hill is certainly aping this style. But he is also paying his respects to the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks, far more so than his one-time contemporary in such brazen bodycount flicks, John Milius who, for a time at least, was trading cinematic blows with Hill, and conducting his own study of wanton machismo.

    But one of Hill's most engaging characteristics was that he was a director with an eye for mass-appeal. He didn't have any social messages or moral warnings to make, quite unlike his hugest and most overpowering influence. He just wanted to make distinctive action-yarns that took no prisoners and were inherently and unashamedly designed to entertain the Big Boys. He made comic-book movies that were fast and frenetic and filled with characters who were mere cyphers in a playground battle brought to extravagant, gore-spattered life. With some amazing titles to his credit, such as the uber-cool The Warriors (1979), Southern Comfort (1981, and one of my all-time favourites), two sets of 48 Hrs (1981 and 1990), the awesome Extreme Prejudice (1987) and Red Heat (1988), he became one of the linchpins of a genre that was soaked in testosterone. And yet one of his best films is also one of his most underrated and forgotten. Way back in 1980, he made his most obvious Peckinpah referencing epic with this rip-roaring adaptation of the true story of the James/Younger gang and their almost mythical escapades in the grand Western, The Long Riders. He's done other Westerns, of course, the surprisingly lacklustre Geronimo: An American Legend and equally humdrum Wild Bill, and even helped to serve up the cult TV show, Deadwood. With The Long Riders, he makes some pleasing attempts to peel back the mythical veneer and penetrate the motivations and the emotions of the James/Younger Gang who robbed banks, mocked the Yankees and fought with the famous Pinkerton Agency. He examines the detail and the attitudes of the era with likeable detachment, by which I mean he doesn't attempt to deconstruct the popular folkloric elements, but rather to stand back and observe them as they unfold.

    In this way he does something quite remarkable. He makes a film that is rich and eloquent in visual authenticity, almost pastoral in tone, but also one that is structured around some barnstorming robberies and skirmishes.

    After Clint Eastwood had shovelled dirt on the clean-cut image of the American horse-opera with The Outlaw Josey Wales and brought the genuine appeal of the anti-hero to the frontier cook-out, it seemed only right to Hill that the exploits of the infamous gang should be addressed and celebrated from their viewpoint and without apology. Of course, the campaign of the James Brothers and their cohorts had been brought to the screen many times before in the romanticised versions from Henry King in 1939's Jesse James and from Samuel Fuller with I Shot Jesse James (1949), and even the The James Brothers, starring Robert Wagner and John Carradine, whose three sons would ride to notoriety for Hill's take, and Phil Kaufman's very evocative and, indeed, Peckinpah-moody The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid from 1972, and the final haunting legacy of the gang would be explored in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford much more recently, but at the start of the high-concept decade, Hill reasoned that the time had come to recreate the story in more realistic and far bloodier fashion than audiences had become accustomed to. Sure there was romance to the tale, he conceded, but these were essentially bad men who loved their women, loved their families and were addicted to the adrenaline and danger of the raid.

    Working from a screenplay written by Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith and both Stacy and James Keach, who would also produce and star in the film, Hill wraps up his characters in the long dusters that cattle-drivers wore (and made all the more famous with their striking appearance in Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West), tools them up with authentic weaponry, couches them in the convincing verbal drawl 'n' twang of the Missouri redneck and serenades them with the beautiful rustic score from the ever-evocative Ry Cooder. Before the likes of Lonesome Dove, Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp, this was the closest that the movies got with regards to total period immersion.

    Famously cast with four sets of acclaimed acting brothers to portray the sibling gang members, many thought that The Long Riders was carrying something of a gimmick that could have backfired. But between them, James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James, Randy and Dennis Quaid as Clell and Ed Miller, Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the treacherous Charlie and Bob Ford, and, best of all, David, Keith and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, pull off this blood-bonded set-up with considerable conviction. James Keach may have come from television and only made sporadic forays into Hollywood's bigger ballpark, but his quiet domination of the gang is weirdly compelling. His more famous brother, Stacy, is just as good – a little softer and subdued as the more compassionate Frank, but it is also good to see him at a more restrained and less cocksure level. The Carradines are uniformly excellent. Whilst David Carradine needs no introduction, it is clear from the outset that he is the star of the show. Certainly the camera lingers on his rush-addicted and unpredictable Cole Younger the longest, and he is also allowed more onscreen action than the others – what with a fantastic knife-fight with Hill-regular, James Remar as volatile halfbreed, Sam Starr, and a stunning mercy dash that sees him acting as a pure bullet-magnet in a bid to save his younger brother. But Carradine, bedecked in flimsy long hair and a grasshopper moustache, has a fiery glint in his eye and a tremendously casual confidence that is achingly cinematic. He's not the first person you would think of as being a credible cowboy – all that oriental stuff and Death Racing being more his forte – but he has an understated swagger and a perpetually bemused expression that extols sincere power and control. It works very well here.

    Keith Carradine, who has always been a deadringer for my brother, Steve, is certainly likeable enough as possibly the most romantic of the bunch. Like Face-man from the A-Team, he has an eye for the ladies, even flattering a damsel as he and the gang rob a passenger coach in true Robin Hood/Dick Turpin fashion. He had appeared opposite Harvey Kietel in Ridley Scott's visually inspired The Duellists, and there was a time when it seemed he could have courted proper stardom but, despite working almost continuously ever since, he has always remained deeply submerged in the shadow of his late great brother, two further outings for Hill in Southern Comfort and Wild Bill notwithstanding. It is also interesting to see the irascible Randy Quaid stealing the limelight from his brother Dennis. Both portray the ill-tempered and on-edge Millers, and both, it should be said, have a hand in the gang's downfall with their dangerously skittish behaviour and unsuppressed resentment for Northerners and “square-heads”. But Randy's more sociable Clell reveals layers of depth and humanity that makes Dennis' petulant animosity towards the gang after being ousted from its number near the start seem a little more strained and obvious. For instance, his reminiscence of being in love for the benefit of, and advice to Frank James is brilliant, reminding us of Randy Quaid's effortlessly underplayed comic timing. Dennis Quaid struts and pouts and sets his chin, but is swiftly elbowed by the fictional conviction of the Gang members and by the more confident performances of the actors portraying them.

    All the cast, however, fill the boots, the coats and the hats of the Old West with style to burn.

    Although he has made films that studied the focus of one determined man undertaking a deadly mission – Ryan O' Neil in The Driver, Michael Pare in Streets Of Fire, Bruce Willis in the Yojimbo/Fistful Of Dollars variant, Last Man Standing - Walter Hill is much more fixated with the mechanics of the male group. Practically all of his best films have dealt primarily with this – the street-gang in The Warriors, the squad of National Guardsmen in Southern Comfort, the “dead” commandos in Extreme Prejudice – and The Long Riders certainly seeks to examine the dynamics between the four sets of brothers on the one hand, and the dogged resilience of the Pinkertons assigned with bringing them down. Although he would also find much to comment on with the complications and rivalries that exist between the mismatched pair – Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs and Another 48 Hrs, Arnie and Jim Belushi in Red Heat, say – the squabblings that arise from a group of strong personalities has infinite more beats to dissect. Family bonds are naturally praised, with even the poor mother of the James Boys taking some flack from the Pinkertons under the command of James Whitmore Jnr.'s dutiful Mr. Rixely but wilfully standing her ground even after the tragic killing of her simple 15-year-old son in a botched detective raid on the family home. The script is economic and doesn't overplay any of these relationships, though. We get just enough to appreciate the years that the Gang has under its collective belt and the various petty disagreements that may have transpired.

    I mentioned the use of women in a Hill film earlier. Well, The Long Riders actually creates a character who not only embodies this whoring aside that the director likes to punctuate his action with, but also very memorably celebrates the ideal to the point where she rises above such cliché. Paula Reed's cat-house vixen, Belle Starr, may be married to the vicious, scrap-happy Indian Sam, but she is certainly not beholden to him. Thus, when Cole makes her acquaintance and proves that he is unlucky at cards, she sets about finding out whether he is luckier in love. The relationship between the two is lusty, scathing, thick with threat and mutual mockery, but it remains one of the stronger developed attachments that we see in the film, perhaps even more so than those evidenced by the traditionally married other members of the Gang. Reed may not be the best looker around, but she provides ample sensuality, and the sequence when she happily goads her husband and the wily Younger into a fight over “li'l ol' me,” the two linked by one of her stockings that they clench between their teeth, is a fitting triumph for the concerns of all three.

    Like The Wild Bunch, The Long Riders comes to its characters at the tail-end of their career. We see one immaculately staged train-heist that shows them all at the top of their game – Robert Carradine's Bob Younger making that time-honoured run and leap manoeuvre from carriage roof to carriage roof – but the world around them is changing and their ways are being displaced. Suddenly there's time-locks on safes and private detectives on their trail employing hastily sanctioned new political laws. Like the automobile that suddenly appears in Mapache's encampmant in The Wild Bunch, the gang are somewhat perplexed by a steam-engine puffing and chugging down the main street. Hill hints at progress being made and one age bleeding (profusely in this case) into the next, although he stops happily far short of making any of this into some kind of elegiac statement.

    Ahh hell … we played a rough game … and we lost.”

    But the most emphatic statement of Peckinpahian intent comes with Hill’s staggeringly directed and incredibly visceral depiction of the gang’s infamously doomed raid on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota. With both the opening and closing shoot-outs from The Wild Bunch very much in mind, Hill orchestrates such an intricate cavalcade of on-the-hoof carnage that the experience becomes quite literally a tour de force that the genre holds proud. Without a doubt, this is The Long Riders’ balls-out progenitor to Michael Mann’s shootout in Heat.

    I'm too enamoured with this sequence not to go in-depth on it here … so, if you haven't seen the film and experienced the giddy fury of this chapter, you'd best skip the next few paragraphs.

    Tempted by the takings in the vault, but defeated by some newfangled time-lock device, the gang fall prey to a famous ambush in which not only the Pinkerton agents and the local lawmen, but members of the township too, spring a lethal trap and catch them in a furious crossfire. Hill uses slow-motion and cross-cutting to bring the battle into terrifyingly sharp relief. In a marvellous touch, we hear the bullets whipping through the air like the drawn-out wail of some electrical banshee and then tearing through the flesh of their targets. Great searing chunks of meat are torn from bodies, one shot passing right through a character’s face, from cheek-to-cheek. The screaming of the horses is also captured in this slow-motion caterwaul, the effect of the shooting, the shrieking and the thundering of hooves and of bodies tumbling from roofs is stunning and intense. You simply cannot peel your eyes away from the violent tumult of stampeding outlaws and blazing gun-barrels. Hill knows that this is his centrepiece and he revels in it. The gang are cornered at both ends of the town, racing up and down it through an endless hail of lead. He also knows that, as spectacular as it all is, he needs to maintain a semblance of reality to the bloodshed - therefore bullets rarely find their mark given the speed at which the men are moving, and the resulting chaos is almost as frightening and as unstoppable as the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan, produced many years later, but certainly carrying much of that same Hill/Peckinpah “longest split-second” brutality.

    Flesh is wrenched from arms and legs, blood erupting in livid welters. Rooftop snipers are picked-off and drop with wince-inducing force through obstacles on the way down. The old rider-dragged-behind-his-horse-by-his-caught-stirrups is trotted-out, but with a real bone-crunching, body-spinning zeal. A gang-member collides with an outstretched tree-branch, the resulting impact driving the wind from our lungs, let alone his.

    And then, unbelievably, Hill ups the ante even further.

    With nowhere left to run, and with most of them bleeding from numerous bullet-hits, the gang take the only escape-route possible – they plunge, en masse, through a plate-glass storefront and charge all the way through the building and out of the window on the other side. Quite simply, this sort of eye-popping action was something that hadn’t been seen before. Yet instead of sitting there amazed at how inventive this wonderful stunt is, the epic explosion of that glass is actually heart-stopping. Again, utilising intensive slow-motion of both visuals and sound, the cumulative effect is a like a massive bludgeoning of the senses. The horses whinny with an echoing, blood-vessel-popping shockwave. The sheer physical presence of that nano-second before the gang collectively and intuitively subscribe to taking the plunge helps give weight and power to the tooth-rattling, soul-shredding crash!!!! that follows. Honestly, you watch this entire sequence and your jaw hits the floor at this point. Be sure to look out for the visible blood-squibs that are attached to David Carradine’s side as his coat swings open.

    The characters who survive leave the town like chunks of chopped meat … and the film then shifts into an understandably more subdued final act.

    The Long Riders is not without its faults, though.

    There is the ongoing impression that what we are watching is a severely shortened version of what Hill and the Keach Boys wanted to bring to the screen. I’m not talking about a stretched-out Costner-thon, a la Dances With Wolves or Wyatt Earp, but there are many indications that the story once had an aspiration or two of being much more epic in scope and time-scale. We see lots of quieter moments, with the various gang-members attaining their womenfolk and attempting to settle down in the verdant hills and valleys. Hill also allows for much indulgence of the old Blue-grass, with the in-house brothel band and the foot-stomping sequence held for Jesse's wedding. Check out what could be described as the Southern answer to Northern Soul being acted-out on the dance-floor during this infectiously toe-tapping episode. I’m sure it is Hill who truncated things of this sort, always keen to get back to the action. As it stands, we unmistakably get the complex relationships that are held wire-taut between the James’s and the Youngers, but the feeling is always that deeper emotional elements have been jettisoned to keep the momentum going and ensure that violence of some sort is only ever five minutes away.

    Be this as it may, the narrative is cleverly maintained with regards to our understanding of how the various characters get along, or don’t get along. The fragile bond between (David Carradine) and Jesse is well-developed without ever overstating the weird combination of admiration and innate rivalry that exists between the pair. Likewise the tentative friendship that exists between Frank and Clell which, despite being only fleetingly observed is warm and touching.

    Who the hell do you think you are – Jesse James?”

    But even if the arc of the gang's final fate is precisely what Hill is attempting to bring across, the denouement isn't very well done. We all know what happens to Jesse James but, somehow, it doesn't really work in this particular telling. The motivations of the Ford Brothers is conveyed all right, although not truthfully accurate, it should be said, but the climax seems tacked-on. Again, if the film-at-large was conceived as being much more comprehensive, which I suspect was the case, then this finale may have been perfectly fitting. As it stands now, it has the feel of an afterthought.

    Something else that I have seen criticised is Hill’s occasional trademark of scene-wipes to add visual flourish to transitions. Now, these may jar when it comes to the otherwise impeccable period detail – and, here, we have some cool diagonal wipes as well – but I like them. Hill used them in The Warriors and it is certainly worth the reminder that this was also something that was used in many Western serials from the Golden and Silver Age of the genre, thus Hill is, once again, paying his dues to his forebears.

    The Long Riders may well be best remembered for that incredible blood-squib orgy of a shootout, but this is still both an excellent Western and a great Walter Hill movie.

    Definitely recommended.