Monday, October 8, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Long Riders" (1980)

I had always taken "The Long Riders" to be an overstuffed bit of Hollywood hooey, a sensationalized account of outlaw Jesse James and his gang that, in terms of historical fidelity, landed just this side of "Young Guns."

Turns out it's actually truer to the facts than most Western tales of its ilk.

It certainly has a gimmicky feel, what with the unprecedented in Hollywood history casting of three sets of real-life brothers to play siblings and members of the James-Younger Gang -- the Keaches (James and Stacy) as the Jameses, the Carradines (David, Keith and Robert) as the Youngers and the Quaids (Randy and Dennis) as the Millers.

Actually, four: Christopher Guest and Nicholas Guest have small turns (basically three scenes) as Charlie and Bob Ford, wannabe members of the gang who eventually were allowed by Jesse to join -- after everyone else had quit, been killed or imprisoned.

The Fords, of course, were the ones who betrayed and murdered Jesse James, with Bob shooting him in the back of the head while James was unarmed and had his back turned. This scene is depicted in "The Long Riders" in a curiously flat way, with little visceral impact. It feels more like a tacked-on coda than an essential part of the story.

Narratively, the film seems smaller than its story. At a mere 99 minutes, the movie has to cover a lot of plot spread out over a number of years, with various members of the gangs romancing and marrying women in between robbing banks and trains. Each romantic relationship is essentially given one or two scenes in a fleeting attempt to lend them weight.

The only pairing of any impact is between Cole Younger (David Carradine), who puts on an air of studied nonchalance, and Belle (Pamela Reed), a worldly prostitute who wants him to make an honest woman of her. He's content to let them have their fun whenever their paths cross, and have nothing tying him down. He tells Belle he loves her specifically because she's a whore.

In one of the film's most memorable scenes, she marries a half-Indian named Sam Starr and forces the men to fight over her with cruel-looking oversized knives. Cole wins the duel but abandons Belle in disgust at having to prove himself to her.

This story thread is notable in that, as near as I can determine, it is the only part of "The Long Riders" that is a pure Hollywood concoction. Despite its highly stylized texture, the movie is actually pretty faithful to the  historical facts.

I should amend that to say it is faithful to the general narrative of recorded history, though it alters or muddies some details. For example, an 18-year-old brother of the Youngers, John, is killed in a chance meeting with some agents, and it's depicted as a terrible crime because Jim (Keith Carradine) asserts that his kid brother never rode with the gang or committed any crime. In fact, John did do some robbing with them.

Similarly, the battle with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which has been hired to track them down, escalates to tragic heights when the lawmen throw a smoke bomb into the Younger matron's house and it explodes, killing their 15-year-old half-brother. The boy was killed, but he was really only nine years old. Not depicted is that the Youngers' mother was also injured in the attack and had to have her arm amputated.

In that age, I would think that chivalrous Southern gentlemen (at least in their minds) would be more riled about their mother being attacked and maimed than anything else. These changes actually serve to make the assault seem less outrageous than it really was.

Stacy and James Keach made this film as a labor of love, producing and co-writing the screenplay along with Bill Bryden and Steven Smith. James has an intriguing take on Jesse James, playing him as a preternaturally serene leader who sees himself as smarter and more important than the members of his gang.

James Keach later segued away from acting and turned more to directing and producing. Johnny Cash and his wife June were so taken with "The Long Riders" that they befriended Keach, and asked him to produce their biopic "Walk the Line."

I hadn't seen "The Long Riders" in at least 20 years. Despite the film's storytelling flaws, I found myself still admiring it on several levels.

The performances throughout have a terse, organic authenticity -- we never feel like the actors are trying to impersonate a historical identity, but use it as a springboard to draw their own characters. For example, I enjoyed the simmering tension that exists between the Jameses and Youngers, erupting at the worst of times.

"The Jameses ride with the Youngers," one of the latter insists, annoyed by references to the Youngers being part of the Jesse James outfit.

There's also a nice quiet scene aboard a train -- for once, they are traveling inside as passengers rather than riding up on horses outside to rob it -- where Cole confides to Frank that he hopes one day to write a book about his memoirs. Frank scoffs at this idea. This is a nod to Cole's actual later life, where he spent more than 20 years in prison and started a respected newspaper for the inmates. He eventually won parole and spent his final days starring in a wild west show with Frank.

The James-Younger Gang effectively met its end with an ill-advised raid on a bank on Northfield, Minn. Why the former Civil War bushwackers, who confined nearly all their felonious activity to Missouri and surrounding states, decided to travel hundreds of miles north to knock over a bank is unclear.

Things go awry -- the film implies the townsfolk knew they were coming and set a trap for them -- and the outlaws are caught in the street and torn to pieces. Though none of the Jameses or Youngers are actually killed in the conflict, their wounds are missive. I vividly remember Keith Carrradine getting shot through the face, a bullet going in one cheek and exploding out the other. Cole famously was shot 11 times, which the prison doctor dubs a record, but one of dubious distinction.

The town of Northfield still celebrates the bloody event with an annual reenactment -- much the same way my former home of Ocklawaha, Fla., reenacts the Ma Barker shootout every year.

I think three things make "The Long Riders" a noteworthy film, or rather three people: director Walter Hill, cinematographer Ric Waite and composer Ry Cooder.

Hill's staging of the violence has a horrifying sort of loveliness. He often resorts to fetishistic slo-mo to capture the impact of bullets ripping through the characters' flesh, or bodies hurtling through the air after impact. The excellent action scenes are aided by Waite's elegiac camera work, which juxtaposes moments of cringe-inducing violence with poetic compositions.

Both filmmakers seem enraptured by the long gray duster coats the gang always wear. This, along with their lack of masks and penchant for calling each other by their real names, often and loudly, makes one wonder why it took the Pinkertons so long to find them.

Cooder's old-timey musical score, mixed with actual songs from the era performed at weddings and saloons, is positively a delight to listen to. It's more at the forefront than most music in movies.

"The Long Riders" is more or less a forgotten Western, made during the artistic valley of the genre between 1969 and 1991, when "Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid" and "The Wild Bunch" made the format seem anachronistic, and Clint Eastwood breathed it back to life with "Unforgiven."

Though hardly deserving to be counted among those films' numbers, it's certainly more memorable than its non-existent reputation suggests.

3 stars out of four

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