Q: “You were working in a special niche of your own in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders and Southern Comfort — lean, elegiac films which, I’m guessing, benefited from modest budgets and expectations, as well as low producer interference.”
A: “Yes, that niche no longer exists. The middle ground has largely fallen out of the studio system.”
Patrick McGilligan interviewing Walter Hill for Film International in September 1996
The Long Riders (1980)
Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Bill Bryden and Steven Phillip Smith and Stacy Keach & James Keach
Produced by Tim Zinneman
If crowd pleasers like Tombstone are pop music renditions of the Old West, The Long Riders is like vintage bluegrass. With the well earned authenticity of a musician jamming for the pure love of his craft, the first western directed by Walter Hill is a master class in how atmosphere, pacing and performance can elevate a B-movie programmer into something greater than a plot synopsis might indicate. In Missouri after the Civil War, hard put and desperate men looking to make a living under the heel of Reconstruction rob a bank. Led by the steely Jesse James (James Keach) and his brother Frank James (Stacy Keach), the gang includes the deadly Cole Younger (David Carradine), dapper Jim Younger (Keith Carradine) and dorky Bob Younger (Robert Carradine). Along for the job is Clell Miller (Randy Quaid) who’s as dependable as his brother Ed (Dennis Quaid) is unreliable.
The bandits return home to contemplate settling down. Jesse marries his sweetheart (Savannah Smith) while Jim courts a redhead (Amy Stryker) engaged to the no count Ed Miller. Cole Younger hesitates to make an honest woman out of Belle Shirley (Pamela Reed) and the vivacious whore settles in Texas, where she marries hotheaded Sam Starr (James Remar) and takes the name Belle Starr. The success of the James-Younger gang against trains of the Union Pacific Railroad puts them in the crosshairs of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, whose agents draw the wrath of the entire region when they gun down a 15-year-old Younger and firebomb the home of Jesse James’ mother (Fran Ryan). The gang meet their Waterloo in Northfield, Minnesota, forcing Jesse to recruit the oily Ford brothers Bob (Nicholas Guest) and Charlie (Christopher Guest). Their betrayal earns the Fords a spot in history alongside Jesse James.
Stacy Keach and his brother James Keach were cast as Wilbur and Orville Wright for a public television drama that aired in 1971. They kidded that after playing the Wright brothers, their next project together should focus on “the wrong brothers”. Taking their joke seriously, the Keaches arrived on outlaws Frank & Jesse James and spent nine years struggling to get The Long Riders into production, with playwright Bill Bryden, screenwriter Steven Phillip Smith and the Keaches writing scripts. The actor brothers had David, Keith & Robert Carradine set to join them as the Youngers, Randy & Dennis Quaid as the Millers and Beau & Jeff Bridges as the treacherous Fords. Cast in Hurricane, James Keach met producer Tim Zinneman, who saw a movie there and helped attach Walter Hill as director. Guitarist Ry Cooder would be entrusted by Hill to compose and arrange the music, beginning a collaboration that would span two decades.
In spite of its casting scheme, the real star of The Long Riders is Ry Cooder, who utilizes Civil War ballads and rapturous bluegrass to provide texture to the tough, contentious world of Jesse James. It’s a place where strangers become friends by sharing that they served under the Stars and Bars and conversely, playing “The Battle Cry of Freedom” can get a guitar player shot. The Long Riders makes little effort to document who James was and the film is so much better off for it. The loosely sewn narrative tested audiences at the time, yet the approach fits the material seamlessly: defeated but dangerous men drifting through the postwar South. Highlights include David Carradine and James Remar locked in an epic knife duel, while the scenes between Carradine and Pamela Reed crackle with wit and sexual energy. As action films go, this is one that genuinely loves women.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 5,017 users: 70% for The Long Riders
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A
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