Offering a sweeping view of the Jesse James story that includes the thorny relationship between brothers Frank and Jesse James and their longtime comrades-in-arms, the Younger brothers, The Long Riders is exquisitely rendered on many levels, with crisp direction by Walter Hill, luminous photography by Ric Waite, and a plaintive score by Ry Cooder. The movie is best known for its cast, featuring four sets of real-life brothers. James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James, respectively; David, Keith, and Robert Carradine play the Youngers; Dennis and Randy Quaid play the Millers, two members of the James-Younger Gang; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest play the Fords, two unsavory wannabes whose association with the gang has tragic consequences. (At various stages in the project’s development, participation by Beau and Jeff Bridges and by Timothy Bottoms and his acting brothers was discussed.)
Except perhaps for one unnecessarily long action scene featuring David Carradine—who was the cast’s biggest star at the time of filming—the stunt casting works beautifully, because the actors bring a natural rapport that suits the narrative. Oddly, however, the film rarely lingers on scenes of the gang members interacting as a group, with the obvious exception of elaborate robbery sequences. Rather, the picture mostly spotlights two-character scenes, such as long vignettes dramatizing the doomed romance between swaggering Cole Younger (David Carradine) and tough-as-nails prostitute Belle Starr (Pamela Reed). Wasn’t the point of casting so many famous brothers to create massive, Magnificent Seven-style scenes in which everyone onscreen is famous and interesting?
In any event, The Long Riders is consistently entertaining, even though the storyline meanders in frustrating ways. Directing his first Western, Hill shows a remarkable flair for the genre, using long lenses and judiciously selected slow motion to create a poetic sense of place. Whether he’s filming a weathered barn in the middle of a forest or a dusty street running through a grubby frontier town, Hill surrounds his performers with atmosphere. He also films action with his usual consummate skill, so every bullet means something and every horse fall has bone-crunching impact. (The climactic shootout in Northfield, Minnesota, is truly spectacular.) Had the script been stronger, The Long Riders could have become a masterpiece instead of a solid attempt at mythmaking. Unfortunately, the screenplay is a hodgepodge, favoring unimportant elements over important ones.
James Keach, who has enjoyed a long career in front of and behind the camera without ever becoming a marquee name, developed the piece with an eye toward costarring with his more successful sibling, Stacy. (Both Keaches are credited as cowriters and coproducers.) Yet instead of following the obvious path, having Stacy play the starring role of Jesse, the brothers installed James in the leading role, presumably to create a star-making moment. This choice hurt the movie, because while Stacy’s charismatic intensity burns like a bright candle in the background, the less expressive James sets a reserved tone. David Carradine nearly steals the movie, since he gets most of the best lines and scenes, and some of the film’s excellent players (notably Keith Carradine and Dennis Quaid) are badly underused. Nonetheless, the many fine attributes of The Long Riders make watching the movie a rewarding experience.
The Long Riders: GROOVY