It’s the story of the James-Younger Gang told in stately, sweeping vistas, star charisma, cold-blooded stares and bursts of epic Peckinpah violence.
“The Long Riders” came out in 1980, in the middle of director Walter Hill’s run of genre classics — after “Hard Times,” and “The Warriors,” before “Southern Comfort” and his blockbuster buddy thriller, “48 Hrs.” He’d go on to make “Extreme Prejudice,” “Johnny Handsome,” “Geronimo” and “Wild Bill,” a former Peckinpah pupil (he did second unit work on “The Getaway”) turned reasonable facsimile of the macho master.
A passion project of the Keach brothers, James and Stacy, the film was famous when it came out for its gimmick — casting Keach, Carradine, Guest and Quaid siblings as blood-relative outlaws who rode with Jesse (James Keach) and Frank (Stacy Keach) James. And it was almost as famous for its action set-piece, the most spectacular depiction of the ill-fated Northfield, Minnesota hold-up turned epic shootout.
What stands out about it over 40 years later is not just the outlaw cool it is wrapped in — men of various degrees of sartorial vanity who don their game faces when they put on the long, duck dusters that became something of a fashion thing when the film came out. There’s a rawboned authenticity in the geography and topography, a Western legend written far from any place where sagebrush could grow, but too-often depicted on ground that just looked wrong — barren, dry and dusty.
Interviewing Christopher Guest, who with brother Nicholas played the Ford brothers, who shot Jesse James, the director and star of “Best in Show” marveled at the level of detail on the remote woodland Georgia sets. “A bunch of us would saddle up and ride up this logging road, away from all the trailers and cameras, and in an instant, you were back there,” he recalled. Locations in California and Texas were also used, all of them contributing to the jarringly authentic feel of it all.
The production’s “goofs” listed on the movie’s IMDb page, tend towards nitpicking even when they aren’t dead wrong. But an Americana tune written long after the James Gang rode into legend and the odd shotgun shell mistake can’t tarnish the picture’s touchstone authenticity.
James Keach makes Jesse a humorless, hard and yet dapper outlaw who stole to prop up his mother’s farm, and because that’s what he and his unreconstructed Confederate running mates learned how to do in the Civil War. Stacy Keach’s Frank is more rational, but not the best at tempering Jesse’s authoritarian streak.
The movie goes to some pains to show as much of the gang’s down time — rural courtship rituals, saloon drinking and whoring — as it does of their long rides, stagecoach, bank and train robberies.
Randy Quaid and Dennis Quaid play the Millers, outlaw cousins — one competent and loyal, the younger an impulsive hothead.
But it is the Youngers who make the movie for me. Keith Carradine is rational, romantic middle brother Jim, future “Revenge of the Nerds” star Robert Carradine is young braggart Bob, and David Carradine brings a malevolent scene-stealing whimsy to oldest brother Cole, a twinkly-eyed professional who never really says so out loud, but never lets us forget that he’s the one who “lets” Jesse lead the gang.
Carradine’s scenes with Pamela Reed (“The Right Stuff”) who plays legendary Old West prostitute Belle Shirley, later to become Belle Starr, are dazzling, hard-nosed brothel/bar-room flirtations of lust, avarice and calculation.
Belle’s resigned but made-her-peace-with-it air in every exchange with her sometime paying lover set “The Long Riders” apart from every other screen treatment of The James/Younger Gang legend. When is Cole going to give thought to “making a respectable woman out of me?”
“You’re a whore,” Carradine’s Younger deadpans, tactlessly yet affectionately. “You’ll never be respectable, Belle. That’s what I like about you!”
That doesn’t keep him from turning possessive, allowing Reed’s fiery Belle — who finally marries a tough hombre named Starr — to assert her independence.
“I do what I want with who I want. And don’t make no mistake about it!”
And when Cole and her husband (Hill regular James Remar) exchange words, Belle isn’t shy about egging them on.
“Now boys, there is no need to fight over lil’ ol’ me. But if you’ve got to, make it man-to-man. Hand-to-hand.” They go at it, held together by their teeth clenching opposite ends of her stocking, Bowie knife to Bowie knife.
The entertainment value of siblings bickering with real siblings and the flirtatious fire of the Reed-Carradine scenes give “The Long Riders” a life that the staid, stiff and just-as-“authentic” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), never manages. It’s a movie that left the Youngers out of the story altogether, and still somehow came in an hour longer.
Astute viewers of “The Long Riders” will see the seeds of Hill’s “Wild Bill,” and of the TV series “Deadwood,” whose pilot he consulted on, set the tone for and deftly directed. He did the acclaimed mini-series “Broken Trail” and has one last Western, “Dead for a Dollar,” in the can and in post-production.
Ry Cooder’s Roots Music score is period perfect, even if “I’m an Old Rebel” is actually a tune that dates from 1915, and not the 1870s.
And film buffs will recognize the crusty old Confederate on a stagecoach as Harry Carrey Jr. of John Ford’s repertory company and future horror icon Lin Shaye in small roles.
There have been good Westerns made since “The Long Riders” — Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” “The Sisters Brothers,” “Hostiles,” the current release “Old Henry” and a couple of watchably gritty genre exemplars from Hill himself. But for those of us who remember this classic, it’s still the yardstick against which every “True Grit” remake must measure up to. This combination of cast, story and spare film storytelling style makes it very hard to top, an essential example of all a Western can and should be.
Rating: R for strong violence, sexuality, and language (profanity)
Cast: David Carradine, James Keach, Stacy Keach, Pamela Reed, Randy Quaid, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, Dennis Quaid, Christopher Guest, Nicholas Guest, James Whitmore, Jr., James Remar and Fran Ryan
Credits: Directed by Walter Hill, scripted by Bill Bryden, Steven Smith and Stacy Keach. An MGM/UA release, streaming everywhere
Running time: 1:40