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The Long Riders
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Long Riders, The

The Long Riders

The legend of American outlaw Jesse James (1847-1882) is an enduring one, having inspired broadsheets, dime novels, literary treatises, stage plays, Broadway musicals, folk ballads, rock songs, hip-hop shout-outs, weekly TV series and films dating back to the silent era (at which time the legendary bank and train robber was played by his own adult son). Moviegoers who enjoyed Brad Pitt's smoldering turn as the doomed title character in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) might be interested to check out previous attempts at the history, particularly Henry King's Jesse James (1939) starring Tyrone Power (with brother Frank played by Henry Fonda, who rated his own Fritz Lang-directed sequel, The Return of Frank James [1940]), the 1948 Republic Pictures serial Adventures of Frank and Jesse James starring former Lone Ranger Clayton Moore, Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (1949), the short-lived ABC series The Legend of Jesse James (1965-66) featuring James Dean look-alike Christopher Jones, the Psychotronic favorite Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966), Philip Kaufman's revisionist The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), in which Robert Duvall (eight years older than Jesse was at the time of his murder) plays the part for its weight in unrepentant bastardy, and Walter Hill's The Long Riders (1980), which delves deeper than most depictions of the mythos to tie the principals (Jesse and Frank James, Cole Younger and his brothers, the Miller boys, Bob and Charlie Ford) to their extended families, going the extra step to cast brothers as brothers.

Believe it or not, The Long Riders began as a musical, the brainchild of Georgia-born actors Stacy and James Keach. At the time a celebrated stage and film performer, Stacy had gotten his industry start with guest roles on such weekly TV oaters as Sugarfoot and The Adventures of Jim Bowie and had already played Arizona's most famous deputized dentist in Frank Perry's Doc (1971); a few years later, younger brother James had been one of the feuding Hatfields in the ABC telefilm The Hatfields and the McCoys (1975). Also a member of The Hatfields and the McCoys ensemble was Robert Carradine, younger brother of David, who asked the Keaches if there might be room in their Jesse James project for the Carradine clan. Initially reluctant, middle Carradine brother Keith (whose career as a leading man was finally kicking into gear) eventually consented to play Jim Younger to David's Cole, while the Keaches reached out to Randy and Dennis Quaid to fill the boots of Clell and Ed Miller. To persuade United Artists that this novelty act could be a viable feature film, a lavish party was thrown at Stacy Keach's Malibu ranch, where Beau and Jeff Bridges came onboard to play the Ford brothers. (The Bridges boys later dropped out of the project and were replaced with Christopher and Nicholas Guest.) Apparently, all that familial enthusiasm sold United Artists, who gave The Long Riders the green light.

Director Walter Hill was an old hand at steely, action-driven fare, having by this point directed Hard Times (1975) with Charles Bronson as a Depression era bare knuckle fighter, as well as The Warriors (1979), a New York gang war film that took its cue from ancient Greek literature and went on to earn $17 million on its first run. The Long Beach, California native sought escape from childhood asthma in comic books and it was his first ambition to be a comic book artist. After graduation from Michigan State University (by way of Mexico City College, where he studied literature and history), Hill entertained notions of signing up to fight in Vietnam. Rejected by the armed forces, Hill entered the Director's Guild of America's assistant director program and worked on the set of Peter Yates' Bullitt (1968) and Martin Ritt's The Great White Hope (1970). His first screenplay was produced in 1972 as Hickey & Boggs, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as a pair of cynical Los Angeles cops.

Through the decade, Hill made a reputation for himself as a specialist in lean, mean action scripts, among them Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972), his own The Driver (1978) and an unused draft of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), which he had also helped to cast. Hill worked without additional credit to overhaul the The Long Riders screenplay, which he envisioned as a chapter of American frontier history elevated to the level of grand opera.

For the most part, critics failed to see things Hill's way. "The narrative is episodic in the extreme," carped Variety while The Chicago Reader's Dave Kehr branded the film Hill's "first outright failure." While The Long Riders did eventually do better than make its money back, movie audiences were largely in absentia in a year that also saw the release of such popular fluff as Private Benjamin, Airplane!, Caddyshack and the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.

The Long Riders may have been adversely affected by the flood of bad press that greeted the release of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate a month or so earlier. If Hill's Western can be said to have failed, it did so for the same reason that Blade Runner underperformed – both were clearly 70s movies that had the poor fortune to be released in the 1980s. They were too complex, too ambitious and too demanding for audiences who had seemingly had their fill of moral ambiguity, flawed heroes and downbeat finishes. But as Ridley Scott's grim projection of life in Los Angeles thirty years into the future inched its way to classic status by dint of unapologetic fan worship, so The Long Riders has developed its own circle of admirers, with the British periodical Time Out recently praising it as "beautiful, laconic and unsentimental." The film has weathered the past two decades well and its status has been elevated, according to some film writers, to the short list of nominees for "the last great Hollywood western."

Producer: Tim Zinnemann
Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy Keach, James Keach; Walter Hill (uncredited)
Cinematography: Ric Waite
Art Direction: Peter Romero
Music: Ry Cooder
Film Editing: Freeman Davies, David Holden
Cast: David Carradine (Cole Younger), Keith Carradine (Jim Younger), Robert Carradine (Bob Younger), James Keach (Jesse James), Stacy Keach (Frank James), Dennis Quaid (Ed Miller), Randy Quaid (Clell Miller), Kevin Brophy (John Younger), Harry Carey, Jr. (George Arthur), Christopher Guest (Charlie Ford), Shelby Leverington (Annie Ralston).
C-101m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
David Carradine interview by Tom Rainone, Psychotronic Video No. 5
Walter Hill interview by Mike Greco, Film Comment, 1980
Walter Hill biography, World Film Directors, edited by John Wakeman VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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