I’ve never been a fan of Westerns, either on the big or little screens. Growing up I enjoyed films out of the World War II genre far more than cowboy fare. However, just as there are bad WWII films out there, so there are wonderful Westerns. My all-time favorite is Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (click here for my review), but coming in second just ahead of “Silverado” (click here for my review) is the little-remembered but powerful “brother flick” called “The Long Riders.” I’m reviewing that one today. Director Walter Hill used several families of actors to play members of the James-Younger gang from the post-Civil War days. It’s a creative concept for the actors and a wonderful film – even for a western. So check it out as you should find it on one of the cable movie channels.
‘The Long Riders’
(1980; 100 minutes; rated R; directed by Walter Hill and starring David Carradine, Stacy Keach and Dennis Quaid)
A VERY UNIQUE ‘FAMILY’ FILM
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some links and information as well as fixed some misspellings on Sept. 23, 2015. I then again expanded the review in the same way on Feb. 17, 2018.)
“The Long Riders” is an interesting film on two levels: It’s a very good Western with excellent characters and storytelling and it’s a wonderful “family” film about a couple of families. Of course, it’s families of criminals and played by actors who are brothers in real life – the Keaches, the Carradines, the Quaids and the Guests.
Director Walter does a compelling job with “The Long Riders” and it will surprise you with its depth and the level of performances by its actors. If you had to choose which family does best, then hands down it’s the Carradines (David, Keith and Robert). They all give performances that, put together, grade out above their co-stars and “The Long Riders” is a nice notch in their resumes.
On the trivia side, “The Long Riders” has one really ironic note: One of the supporting actors was a convicted bank robber in real life.
Hill, who was coming off “The Warriors” (click here for my review) the year before and would do the spectacular “48 Hrs.” two years later, works very well with such a big and varied cast. He doesn’t appear to shortchange any single one of them, but still manages to have a lead role that is the backbone of the film. Without such a character as a foundation, such a buddy film could all too easily have dissolved in each member vying to be that character.
Hill also gets wonderful work out of a couple of actors who you’d you normally call supporting actors, but are brothers-in-arms here.
“The Long Riders” is about the post-Civil War era of the James-Younger gang, which was ostensibly headed by legendary outlaw Jesse James. The gang opens the film with a bank robbery that turns sour when people are killed and causes a rift in the gang. The rest of the film is the gang being chased by the “Pinkertons,” who were the deadly rent-a-cops of their day.
From one robbery to the next to finally experiencing their mother’s house blown up during an attack by the Pinkertons, the gang manages to stay alive and free. After the killing of several of the Pinkerton agents, the group scatters only to regroup for another job: this time in Northfield, Minn. It all comes apart and the Youngers, all wounded, are caught while the James boys get away. Jesse is killed by another criminal at the end.
The gang’s mission to the bank in Minnesota was the focus of another film called “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” from 1972 and starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall (it isn’t as good as “The Long Riders”).
Here’s a look at the actors by their real-life relations. I’ve put their names in quotation marks because they are characters in a film as well as real people.
The James family:
- Although he’s not the headliner, James Keach gets the most screen time here as “Jesse James.” Keach plays his character as solemn and vengeful but with understated flair. He communicates his character’s underlying emotional distance with aplomb that is not easy to accomplish. James Keach was also in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” the steamy “Love Letters” with Jamie Lee Curtis and the simply awful “Moving Violations” (click here for my review).
- Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Stacy Keach plays “Frank James” as a man of few words and quiet authority. Although the obvious foundation on which “Jesse” stands, Stacy Keach knows how to use quiet dignity to the best result. Stacy Keach was “Sgt. Stedenko” in “Up in Smoke” as well as a prolific 201 credits through 2015 over a career spanning six decades. He also did a commendable job as a recurring character on TV’s “Two and a Half Men.”
The Younger family:
- Four-time Golden Globe nominee David Carradine plays “Cole Younger” as the leader of the Youngers. Carradine plays his character as ultra-cool (at least until challenged to a knife fight) and laid back. For the best actor in the film, David is equal with his brother Keith for that title and gives us a winner here. David Carradine is remembered from TV’s “Kung-Fu” and was “Bill” in the two “Kill Bill” films by Quentin Tarantino in a career spanning an incredible eight decades from his first credit in 1947. He died in 2009 at the age of 72 of accidental asphyxiation in Bangkok, Thailand.
- Oscar winner (not for this one) Keith Carradine’s effort as “Jim Younger” sneaks up on you. He as well as his character is smooth, calm and collected and oh-so-sure of himself. He can put the proper moves on a girl while a courtin’ and can also kill with impunity. Keith Carradine’s effort was worthy of at least a Golden Globe nomination. He has also been in “2 Days in the Valley” (click here for my review) as well as “Cowboys & Aliens” and plays “Penny’s” father on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” (click here for my look at that series). He won his Oscar for “Nashville.”
- Robert Carradine plays “Bob Younger” and he polishes this role off with such ease and conviction that you believe him to be the PR department for the gang. He’s the most garrulous of the group and is affable and likable and makes the most out of every second on screen. Robert Carradine was in the little-remembered but excellent “TAG: The Assassination Game” (click here for my review) and is arguably best-remembered for being “Lewis Skolnick” in “Revenge of the Nerds” (click here for my review).
The Miller family:
- Two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Dennis Quaid headlines over brother Randy here as “Ed Miller,” but he doesn’t get as much screen time and doesn’t do as much with his character as his brother manages to wring from his role. Dennis Quaid was powerful as the co-star in “The Big Easy” (click here for my review) as well as “Innerspace” (click here for my review) and was also in “The Right Stuff” (click here for my review).
- Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Randy Quaid is the hulking, menacing and scripture-quoting “Clell Miller” and it’s his idea to hit the bank in Minnesota. Randy Quaid does a good job here with such a subdued and morose character. Randy Quaid has also been in the “Vacation” franchise as “Cousin Eddie” (click here for my review of “Christmas Vacation”) as well as the abominable “Caddyshack II” (click here for my review) and another golf movie from TV called “Dead Solid Perfect.”
The Ford family:
- Nicholas Guest plays “Robert ‘Bob’ Ford” and is the man who kills Jesse James. Neither Nicholas or his brother Christopher Guest, a Primetime Emmy winner who plays “Charlie Ford” do anything with their characters although Nicholas does do a good job of getting a gleeful glint in his eye as he’s about to shoot Jesse James. Nicholas Guest has been in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” while Christopher Guest, who is Jamie Lee Curtis’ husband, has been in “This is Spinal Tap.”
The female lead in “The Long Riders” is Pamela Reed as “Belle Shirley,” a prostitute favored by David Carradine and whose real-life counterpart would become an Old West legend under her married name: Belle Starr (she begins the film unmarried but when David catches up to her in Texas she’s tied the knot with “Sam Starr”). Reed plays her eclectic character with offhand insouciance that masks both toughness and a degree of boredom with everyday life. Reed has also been in “Kindergarten Cop” and was Dennis Quaid’s wife in “The Right Stuff.”
So, while not the greatest in overall execution, the wonderful concept, nice work by the actors and Hill’s even hand on the throttle all combine to make “The Long Riders” a wonderful Western.
“The Long Riders” was the 45th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1980 with $15.7 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film was “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” with $209.3 million. After the “Star Wars” film, my favorite film of the year surely was the slapstick comedy “Airplane!” at No. 4 with $83.4 million (and don’t’ call me Shirley!). Here are some films from 1980 that I have reviewed:
- “Any Which Way You Can” (so-so Clint) – click here for my review
- “Battle Creek Brawl” (mediocre Jackie Chan) – click here for my review
- “The Big Red One” (not very good war film) – click here for my review
- “ffolkes” (awful action flick) – click here for my review
- “The Final Countdown” (OK) – click here for my review
- “Friday the 13th” (classic horror) – click here for my review
- “The Hollywood Knights” (excellent comedy) – click here for my review
- “Prom Night” (Jamie Lee horror) – click here for my review
- “Rough Cut” (nice Burt) – click here for my review
- “Seems Like Old Times” (solid comedy) – click here for my review
- “Terror Train” (Jamie Lee horror) – click here for my review
- “Used Cars” (tremendous comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- James Remar, who plays “Sam Starr” and is Reed’s husband in Texas, does a neat job in a small role – especially a knife fight with David Carradine. Remar was also in Hill’s “The Warriors” and has also been in TV’s “Dexter” as well as Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Edward Bunker who plays Chadwell in the Northfield bank robbery was actually, among many other things, a convicted bank robber.”
- Ditto in the neat job department for Amy Stryker, who plays “Beth” and is courted by Keith Carradine. Stryker, who has very expressive eyes, was also in “A Wedding” in a brief career of five roles (she left acting after being in “Impulse” four years after “The Long Riders”).
- Brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges were originally set to play the Ford brothers, but they couldn’t fit it into their schedules. Too bad, since I believe they would have done a better job than the Guests.
- The co-writer of the screenplay has a small part as the singer in the saloon in an early scene.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Although John Younger is portrayed as a cousin of the Youngers, he was a brother.”
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