American filmmaker, Walter Hill, has oft cited the western as a basis for all of his movies and it is easy to see both thematic and literal tips of the Stetson throughout his career. With a lawman and a crook teaming up to dole out bullet-laden revenge earlier this year, in Sly Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head (also out this week), he’s clearly still at it. Second Sight Films, however, are now providing a Blu-ray debut to his early explicit work in the genre with his bucolic portrayal of the James-Younger Gang in The Long Riders (1980). With its burnished cinematography, it looks to embrace the mythic gang and their fateful destruction.
Co-written and produced by Stacey and James Keach, who themselves played Frank and Jesse James, the film stars a quartet of acting siblings portraying on-screen brothers. The film opens with a robbery by the gang which includes the James’, Youngers (David, Keith and Robert Carradine), and the Millers (Randy and Dennis Quaid). The rest of the film concerns their exploits intertwined with episodic vignettes of their attempts at lives away from their pistols. On the outside and desperate to join the gang are Charlie and Robert Ford (Christopher and Nicholas Guest). Sympathetic but rarely sentimental, Hill’s film eschews aiming for more popular historical or psychological deconstruction of this much told story.
Instead, Hill uses his characters’ mythological status to play to (and remind audiences of) the similar standing of the genre. The main hook of The Long Riders is clearly in the casting, but this never feels gimmicky in a film that attempts to balance the pastoral and the brutal. It’s a noble ambition and one which works for the most part; there are occasions upon which it means a jarring switch of tone but largely the timbre remains consistently elegiac. The performances are all good with David and Keith Carradine standing out as the two foremost Younger brothers. Cole (David) in particular has a well-drawn and difficult relationship with a feisty prostitute named Belle (Pamela Reed).
Despite this, the somewhat episodic nature of the film does mean that characters are sketched rather than fully drawn. It works with the film’s ambiance but does deny audiences an emotional journey to invest in. This does not derail proceedings, though. Ambitious casting, good performances, an interesting take on the material and a folksy aesthetic – accentuated by Ry Cooder’s award-winner soundtrack – all make for a western overlooked. The Long Riders not quite be an undiscovered masterpiece but, in its beautifully remastered Blu-ray rerelease, it’s certainly worth checking out – especially for fans of the genre.