Westerns : Part Something or Other
The selling point of The Long Riders is that it casts brothers as brothers. The enormous importance (and dangerous insularity) of family, in the narrative, is brought out by having siblings played by siblings. And for the most part it works. Hollywood is often, and correctly, charged with nepotism but the fact remains that children of great actors often take advantage of their privileged positions to become pretty fair actors themselves. If learning a trade is about gaining experience, watching the best and practicing for the 10,000 hours required then Hollywood offspring have a flying start.There are a lot of acting brothers and sisters. In the modern era we have Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ben and Casey Affleck, Ralph and Joseph Fiennes and no end of Baldwins. In this film we have a family enclosure of Keaches, Carradines, Quaids and Guests playing (respectively) Jesse and Frank James, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Clell and Ed Miller and Charlie and Robert Ford. The strength is in the middle. All three Carradines and both Quaids are up for this, the others fall short by some distance. In the matter of the Guests it’s a quaint set of performances and a quirky thought to think that Jesse James was killed by Nigel Tufnell and his brother. In the case of the Keach brothers, too much is resting on them. James, in particular, isn’t able to carry the weight of the main role. He’s good in parts but doesn’t sustain it. Much the same charge can be made against the film script. There are some excellent lines and at times the narrative gets to grips with its biggest dilemma; how to make a bunch of murderous bandits sympathetic to the cinema audience.* It should be commended for asking the question. The answer falls a little short. Look at the bottom of the film script and there are two unnecessary names; James and Stacey Keach. They also act as producers. Presumably they played a big role in casting. The whole thing smacks of pet project and these don’t have a good history.Having said that it isn’t a bad film. There is a lot to commend it and, if you’ve got a couple of hours to spare and a copy of the dvd handy then it passes the time quite well. Happily the Keach contingent allowed Walter Hill to direct and Hill is at his best in the western genre. He knows it, pays tribute to it and borrows very heavily.
The opening shots are from the canon. A steep, grassy ridge at twilight, in this case richly coloured in greens and slate blues. And on come the silhouetted horsemen. It could be Winchester 73: it could be a whole host of movies. The cinematography is deep and gorgeous. It sets the tone. The progress of the film is between alternating interiors an exterior scenes. In the exteriors the buttons are pressed onto full (up to 11 as Christopher Guest might say) for colour and texture. Interiors are drained of colour. Faces in particular are shown in sepia. There is a hint of the now common technique (most famously introduced in Schindler’s List) of draining all the colour from a scene except on a specific item. In the case of Schindler it was a child’s red coat. I don’t know if Walter Hill and cinematographer Ric Waite were pioneering this technique. It’s certainly the earliest instance I’m aware of.Interiors and exteriors have a greater symbolism. The rich alluvial land, with fine woodland, open trails, good farms represents the heritage and freedom of the south. It is almost a second Eden. An idea undermined by the farms’ inability to yield. Farming cannot sustain the way they want to live so the the Jameses, Youngers, Millers and Fords turn to armed robbery. And it’s all done for family.
And then there is the intrusion of the biggest character in the whole western genre: The American Civil War. These boys are “Good Old Rebels” and are not content to allow any documents signed at Appomattox Court House to change their allegiance. They aren’t latter day Robin Hoods, robbing the rich to feed the poor. (Though there is an effort made to portray them that way – not least inside the film with the interesting character of the New York newspaperman collecting the story as it unfolds and re-telling it as instant legend in the East). These are a criminal gang with a highly developed set of prejudices against Yankees, Squareheads and any immigrant who hadn’t farmed Missouri for three generations.The difficulty, alluded to earlier, is how to hold the sympathy of the audience. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (there are strong echoes of George Roy Hill’s masterpiece here) it is done through the wit and charm of the main characters and the bond they have with the beautiful Katharine Ross. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid it is also done with charm and the force of personality of the main character who at all times takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. It also has friend against friend with the audience staying with the friend who didn’t sell out to big business. In the case of The Long Riders few of the gang have any great depth of likability. The Keach brothers are full of self-preservation. (There is an interesting journey from brotherly comrade to troubled leader who won’t accept criticism, or even questioning, as his judgement starts to fail. It works in principle but in practice is brought out by having James Keach stare dead faced into the mid distance while sweating in half shadows.) David Carradine is engaging but his characterisation of Coleman Younger is brutal. There are some signs of a deeper emotional well beneath the surface, but that surface is tough and of a man who cannot live without the thrill of danger. Keith Carradine brings some pastoral lyricism into play. I like Keith Carradine immensely as an actor. He can make a great deal out of a small role as he had shown in an earlier (and much better) western, MacCabe and Mrs Miller. Amidst the increasing violence his role is lost. His character’s lasting legacy to the film is a loyalty, first to the gang, and then to his brothers. My favourite character, and the best performance in the film, is Clell Miller played by moon faced Randy Quaid. There is humour in his brutality, purpose in his loyalty, a backstory in his actions and demeanour. Eight performances of this quality would have equalled a very good film. In short we never take the James/Younger gang to our hearts. I don’t think we’re meant to but herein lies the difficulty. We certainly aren’t rooting for anyone else.
Women do feature. They should feature more strongly. There is no role to compare with Claire Trevor in Stagecoach or Katharine Ross in Butch and Sundance. In the Long Riders the whore with a heart of gold has no place to live and nowhere to go: so she just disappears.I like the film for personal reasons. I was taken to see it by the people I was living with at the time of its release. They were big Ry Cooder fans and wanted me to hear the soundtrack. I wasn’t disappointed. They were fine company and the music is first rate. Cooder relies on the great songs and tunes of the Civil War era and embellishes them with gusto. This is get up and stomp music in the social scenes, folk pastoral in the countryside and always played immaculately. In the band is a very young David Mansfield. It is perfect grounding for the work he was going to do in Heaven’s Gate some years later, which in turn spawned Crazy Heart. The film’s musical legacy is strong.
I’ve watched it four times. Once in a Staffordshire cinema in 1980, with pop corn and friends, once quietly at home with an ageing and infirm father who loved westerns and used them to hold his jagged memories together, and twice recently to prepare this. In these recent ones I’ve been joined by two dogs and a sleek black cat who stalk and chase each other around the room as I watch and make notes. The film has lost a little bit of its glory with each viewing. The film will fade but the memories of watching it will remain with me as long as my own memory continues to function adequately.
As a footnote. As well as the three Carradine brothers, famous father John Carradine was also cast in the film. He had played in one of the truly great westerns, Stagecoach, where he took the role of a Southern gunslinger who had nowhere left to go after the end of the civil war. He ends up not surviving the symbolic journey to a new America. In this film he didn’t even survive the editorial scissors. His scenes never made the final cut.
- It is the film which portrays them as such. Historians differ in their thoughts.