Walter Hill takes us to new frontiers with an authentic western classic
The western has long been celebrated as the quintessential American film genre. Westerns encouraged people to revisit a romanticized American past and escape into the world of open spaces, a boundless frontier full of possibility, where the rugged individualist could carve out a life and be his own master. Westerns were tales of moral people struggling to survive in immoral lands, of the reluctant hero who becomes the law in an age of lawlessness. One of the very first American motion pictures ever made was a western — The Great Train Robbery in 1903. In the decades that followed, thousands of westerns were made. As with any genre, some stood out as all-time classics while many others were just pale imitations. But westerns made money and made cinema icons of actors like John Wayne and directors like John Ford.
By the mid-1970s, though, the American western was all but dead. Many of the western films released in the first half of the decade, while now considered classics, were critical and box office disappointments at the time. The high-water mark of the genre for the decade was Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976, one of the few westerns of the ’70s that was received well by audiences and critics during its initial release. Though no one could know it at the time, The Outlaw Josey Wales was the last good western of the decade. In fact, the latter half of the ’70s saw hardly any westerns at all. There were significant factors working against westerns in the 1970s. Directors were interested in telling moody contemporary stories with morally ambiguous characters. In a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, westerns were seen as jingoistic and racist. Young audiences found the genre played out and offensive to Native Americans and other minorities. They felt no social or historical connection to westerns.
Box office receipts for westerns dwindled, and along with it studio interest in new projects. Fewer westerns were made, and those that did get made received a limited distribution with little hope of reaching a wide audience. Even if a western did turn a profit, it was never enough to convince studio executives to make more of them. And when the science fiction craze exploded later in the decade, some believed we might not ever see a western again. It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty for western film production that acting and producing brothers James and Stacy Keach shopped around a film about famed outlaw Jesse James and his gang. In 1971, after playing the Wright Brothers in a television film, the Keaches got the idea of doing a story in which they would play the James brothers, Jesse and Frank. They put on a stage play, then transformed the play into a musical. Yes, a musical. Cooler heads prevailed, and the musical idea was scrapped for a straight-up western story about Jesse James and his gang.
In American history, the story of Jesse James is a classic tale that is born in the South and cuts a violent swath through the Civil War and its aftermath. Sons of the slave state of Missouri, the James brothers were part of a Confederate guerrilla outfit during the war called Quantrill’s Raiders. Throughout much of the Civil War, the Raiders terrorized the townsfolk of Kansas, Missouri, and elsewhere. They executed Union sympathizers, pillaged and burned towns, and summarily executed captured Union soldiers. Many of the men who fought for the Confederacy came back from the war bitter and angry over the loss of their way of life. Rather than wallow in self-pity, though, the James brothers decided to be proactive. They got together with fellow Raiders veterans Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger and put their wartime skills to use robbing banks and stealing Yankee money.
From 1866 to 1876, the James-Younger gang robbed an estimated 12 banks, five stagecoaches, five trains, and the 1872 Kansas City Exposition ticket booth. The death toll was in the dozens, and it included the guilty, the law, and the innocent alike. There were several members of the James-Younger gang beyond the core brothers, but in the end, they all went down in flames, even if not all at once. It is this period of history that became the focus of the Keach brothers script, The Long Riders. Robert Carradine, who worked with James Keach on a TV western film in 1974, was intrigued by their idea. Carradine suggested that he and his brothers David and Keith could play Bob, Cole, and Jim Younger. And later, Randy and Dennis Quaid signed on board to play Clell and Ed Miller. And Nicholas and Christopher Guest were cast as Robert and Charles Ford. (Jeff and Beau Bridges expressed interest in playing the Ford brothers, but schedules didn’t work out.)
Some called the casting of four sets of real-life brothers just a gimmick, but nothing like this had never been done before, and it was enough to draw wider interest in The Long Riders. The film was put on the production slate at NBC Television as a six-hour miniseries, but a change in management at the network led to the death of the project. Then United Artists stepped in, eager to finance the film on the big screen. Walter Hill was tapped to direct. Fresh off his recent success with The Warriors, Hill was delighted by the idea of making a true western. He was looking to revive the genre, but recognized the challenge ahead. So many westerns had been made over the years, and the viewing public had a strong preconceived notion of what a western should be. How does a filmmaker adhere to the best parts of the genre while delivering something special to audiences?
One key distinction that makes The Long Riders unique among its peers is that it is more Midwestern than western, a point Hill likes to make whenever he talks about the film. The difference is that westerns often take place in lawless, open stretches, barren landscapes on the edge of the frontier. The Midwestern outlaw didn’t live in untamed lands. He lived in an existing society whose laws he flouted for his own reasons. In the case of the Jameses, the Youngers, the Millers, and many others, it was to rebel against the Yankees who had defeated them on the battlefield and destroyed their way of life in the process.
The Long Riders kicks aside other western tropes, as well. Gone are the tribes of hostile Indians, sagebrush, and rolling prairies, except for the one the gang rides across in the film’s opening credit sequence. Also gone is the moral clarity upon which so many westerns of the past pinned their plots. In this film, we are focused on the bad guys, plain and simple. And before the film is over, we will find ourselves rooting for them, too. The Long Riders under Hill’s direction is a deft mix of action, drama, humor, and pathos, laying out the journey of a lost generation of violent men who ultimately are doomed. They know it, and the viewer knows it, too, even if you don’t know the history of the James-Younger gang.
Hill wastes no time jumping right into the action. The film’s opening moments depict a bank robbery in Missouri in which things go awry thanks to trigger-happy Ed Miller. The gang gets away with the loot, but Jesse takes a bullet in the process. Ed is fired from the gang for his recklessness, and everybody else takes off to lay low, heal, and spend their money. The first act of the film is cleverly structured and provides a good deal of character development to set things in motion. The script, based on Keach’s original work along with contributions by Bill Bryden and Steven Smith, does a fine job of introducing us to the world of the story without drowning us in detail. In short order, in between three action set pieces that include a bank robbery, a stagecoach robbery, and a train robbery, we learn a lot about the gang, their motivations, their worldview, and their lifestyle. We are introduced to the women in their life, who seem to accept the complicated and dangerous existence they are signing up for by being attached to these outlaws. Jesse proposes to his girlfriend Zee and in the same moment tells her he is not going to change the way he lives.
Zee: It ain’t right to try and change a man. Truth is, I wouldn’t want you any other way, Jesse.
Cole: [shaking his head in a characteristically blunt fashion] First getting shot, then getting married. Bad habits.
Cole is too much his own man to be tied down to a woman, but the romantic subplot between him and prostitute Belle Shirley, played by Pamela Reed, is one of the most dynamic of the film. Belle can match Cole’s sharp tongue, and she can best him at the poker table. He is too tough to admit that he is crazy about her, even though she knows he is. When Belle finds out that Jesse is getting married, she idly suggests that Cole might want to make a respectable woman out of her someday. “You’ll never be respectable, Belle,” he tells her. “You’re a whore. You’ll always be a whore. That’s why I like you.”
The film’s first act is also a crash-course in post-Civil War history, depicting the tensions that existed in the South in the years immediately following the conflict. During the stagecoach robbery, Bob Younger asks the folks who are being held up if any of them fought for the South during the war. One man proudly admits his service, but Vernon, a particularly smarmy Northerner (there aren’t any other kind of Northerners in this film) says he was a Confederate veteran as well. His lie is immediately discovered and the gang strips him down to his underwear, humiliating him in front of his young wife. At another point, when a musician in a brothel strums a Northern spiritual song on his guitar, Clell threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t change his tune.
We see the true scope of the sectional animosity between North and South after the law comes to town to arrest the James-Younger gang. The arrival of Mr. Rixley of the Pinkerton detective agency, announcing a reward for information leading to the gang’s capture, kicks off the film’s second act. After having spent time getting to know the gang, and even be charmed by them, the viewer has little choice but to see Rixley and his crew as the true antagonists of the film. Hill does a fine job of setting up this moral flip-flop. The bank robbers are the good guys trying to eke out a living, while the forces of the law are portrayed alternately as bloodthirsty killers or bumbling clowns.
This anti-establishment tone was common in films of the 1970s when The Long Riders was first in development, but it was also indicative of the way many people of the South felt in the years following the American Civil War. They did not trust people from the North, and they did not like them. When Rixley shows up with a posse to search Jesse and Frank’s mother’s house, she tells the Yankees to go home. “I am from the North,” Rixley admits, then gestures to him, “but these men here are Southern. They fought for the Stars and Bars during the struggle.” “Then what are they after my boys for?” “Because they steal, Ma’am.” A direct and simple answer, but it doesn’t help the law’s cause. When young relatives of the Youngers and the Jameses are killed by overzealous Pinkertons, the gang takes the war to them. Two unfortunate saps get shot multiple times in a slow-motion sequence that is straight out of Sam Peckinpah. Hill wrote the screenplay for Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), and was heavily influenced by the maverick filmmaker.
As The Long Riders progresses, the action scenes became more involved, more intricate, and more violent. The robberies in the first act have elements of humor that lighten the tension and get the viewer to sympathize with the gang. Later, though, the stakes are higher, the dangers are evident, and the gang begins to realize that their once trusted ground is shrinking beneath their feet. The gravity of the situation hits home for Zee James and the other wives of the gang when Rixley shows up to search her house. “These men of yours are gonna wind up dead, or they’re gonna wind up worse,” he tells them. “And you ladies are going be left all alone just to think about it.”
The gang scatters for a while until things cool down. Cole heads off to Texas, where Belle Shirley has married an Indian named Sam Starr, played with characteristic relish by James Remar, who had most recently appeared in Hill’s The Warriors. Starr immediately takes a dislike to Cole, and at Belle’s suggestion, they decide to hash out their differences in a knife fight. Cole wins the fight by burying his blade in Starr’s thigh. But instead of claiming Belle for himself, he leaves her in Texas and returns to Missouri and his destiny.
Cole: What does the winner get?
Belle: Nothing you both ain’t already had.
The gang gets back together to take on a big bank in Northfield, Minnesota. It’s way off from their usual territory, putting them solidly in the North, where they have no friends and scant knowledge of the land. The promise of a huge payoff, however, makes the target irresistible. Jesse recruits two new members to join them. One of the men is played by Eddie Bunker, who would later go on to play Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Interesting piece of trivia here: Bunker, who was a career criminal before becoming an actor, is the only member of the cast of The Long Riders to have actually robbed a bank in real life. The Northfield bank robbery was the downfall of the James-Younger gang. The safe had a time lock and could not be opened. And when local citizens got wise to what was going on, several men quickly armed themselves to fend off the gang.
What follows is one of the most intricately staged western shootouts in the history of motion pictures. Hill leans heavily on Peckinpah here, using slow motion and enhanced sound effects to depict the shooting of outlaws and locals alike. The zipping sound of a bullet in flight and the soft squish it makes when it hits its target is absolutely cringe-worthy. Clell takes a bullet to the guts, Jim gets shot in the face, Bob gets blown right off his horse, Cole gets hit multiple times, and Frank takes one in the arm. The two new recruits are killed outright. All in painful, exquisite slow motion.
The local gunfighters remain faceless throughout the sequence, popping out from behind every dark corner to take a shot at the outlaws. With every path out of town blocked, their only escape is to ride their horses through a large glass storefront. It’s a remarkable stunt that caps off a truly balletic action sequence. This is the end of the James-Younger gang. Only Jesse has escaped without a scratch. Clell dies of his wounds, and the Younger brothers are all too shot up to continue running. Jesse convinces Frank that they must ride, and that the posse will get the rest of them to a doctor. Cole’s goodbye to Jesse is crisp. “I like it better this way, Jesse. I get to see you run.” When asked by a reporter in the prison infirmary about the reasons for his actions, Cole is similarly brief. “We played a rough game. We lost.”
The James brothers would lose, too. In the film’s final minutes, Jesse is shot in the back by Robert and Charles Ford, and Frank turns himself into Rixley so that he may be allowed to bury his brother. In real life, Frank would ultimately escape justice for his crimes, charged and acquitted of only two of the many robberies he committed. He spent the rest of his life in legitimate jobs and cashing in on his fame before dying an old man in 1915. The Long Riders strays from the historical record on a few occasions, but that is almost inevitable when making a film about real people and real events. When taking on a subject like the James-Younger gang, which covers multiple years and many people, the condensing and altering of events for the sake of dramatic license is necessary if you want an interesting and coherent motion picture. Film critics took The Long Riders to task for this and a few other things. It was accused of being too violent and an aimless action picture that was just a bunch of shootouts stitched together by plodding and directionless dramatic scenes. That’s a harsh indictment that frankly has no basis. There are several moments in the film that explore the inside story of the James-Younger gang and the rivalries that threatened to split them up more than once. Without these moments, the film would not have held together as a dramatic narrative.
I suppose you could make the argument that the film glorifies violence and lawlessness. The Pinkertons are portrayed as men who will trample all over the Constitution and civil rights to catch the gang. And they don’t get too hung up about innocent folk getting caught in the crossfire. The gang, meanwhile, avoid shooting bystanders, and are treated as Robin Hoods, even though there are never any instances of them actually giving the cash they take from their robberies to the poor. Unless you count the poker players and whores they dump money on as “the poor.” The film’s portrayal of these opposing forces echoes the sentiments people held in that region at the time. In the years immediately following the Civil War, many citizens of Missouri were none too pleased with the federal government and those who worked for it, including the Pinkerton detective agency. The James brothers, the Youngers, and the Millers, who were all Confederate veterans, were seen as heroes because they flouted the laws laid down by the North. But make no mistake. These men were not nice guys in real life. Many people died in the numerous robberies they committed. And some of those people were innocent bystanders. If the gang were saddened by this fact, they weren’t so moved as to hang up their six-shooters and retire to private life. Another fact worth contemplating is that many of those who lost their money in the robberies were the friends and supporters of the men committing the crimes. They embraced the James-Younger gang just the same.
There was a perception after the film’s release that The Long Riders was a box office dud. This is not true. It was the number one movie in the country the week it opened, and it would go on to earn almost $16 million at the box office against an $8 million budget (don’t forget, this is 1980 dollars). The Long Riders kept the western alive. Walter Hill’s superb direction, and the way he immersed the audience into the look, the music (thank you, Ry Cooder!), and the feel of the times reminded audiences how good a western could be. In the early ’80s, when The Long Riders hit cable and later VHS, it created a buzz, gaining a second life that would drive film studios to start seeking western scripts again. Hill would return to the genre again several times, though none of those films would top the scope, ambition, or sheer guts of The Long Riders.
There have been many westerns since The Long Riders that have invigorated and expanded the genre, some of which have become modern classics in their own right. Clint Eastwood’s 1992 magnum opus Unforgiven, 1993’s extravagant guilty pleasure Tombstone, and the slow-burning epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2007 rank among the top westerns in recent memory. Other films, like The Hateful Eight and the equally unconventional Bone Tomahawk, both from 2015, demonstrate the western’s flexibility as a storytelling vehicle.
#Today, the western is alive and well. Each year brings fresh stories, new directors and writers, and committed actors back to a genre that has been with American cinema since its beginning. The films are sometimes more violent, often more complex, and frequently fresher in their approach. Looking back at the low interest people had in westerns in the 1970s, and seeing how popular they are now, it is hard to imagine how any of this would have been possible without The Long Riders.