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The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

Great Northfield Minnesota Raid on the Dingus PRojectTHE DINGUS PROJECT
Jesse James in Film #16

Pitched as "The West the way it really was!" this stoned-out 1970s western is anything but accurate. Dreamy and rambling, the film focuses on Cole Younger rather than Jesse James. It does capture interesting psychological portraits of Jesse and Cole, but the otherwise talented director/ writer Philip Kaufman misfires here with almost every shot.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)
Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall
91 minutes

Among the most outrageously worshipful and wacky of the Jesse James films, this reportedly "true" account might have been written by Confederate newspaper editor John Newman Edwards himself. Edwards, who largely originated the myth of the heroic James-Younger gang, turned often bungled robberies and cold-blooded killings into daring deeds of political activism against the railroads and the federal government.

Great Northfield Minnesota Raid with CLiff Robertson and Robert Duvall on the Dingus ProejctThe film opens with a voice-of-God narration by none other than Orson Welles who paints the outlaws as working-class demi-gods who carried on the battle for the common man against the evil railroads after the Civil War. "In all the world, they were the greatest outlaws…and they rode like the wind," he announces. The outlaws were "a fresh wind" who were "coming to the rescue".

An interesting opening juxtaposes the Missouri state legislature discussing amnesty for the James boys who are seen sitting in a two-holer outhouse planning their next robbery. The film promises the "true story" of the fateful Northfield raids, then launches into a mythical tale of Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) in a shoot-out at a brothel. Robert Duvall plays an over-the-hill Jesse James with a psycho-spiritual vision to rob a Minnesota bank, an idea he has stolen from Cole Younger. Although the historical details are way off target, Duvall’s presentation of James as a posturing preachers son is one of the more interesting interpretations. His self-righteous attitude, charismatic charm and sense of predestination might come closer to the real Jesse than we know.

Focused in 1876, the film shows the outlaws on the verge of a modern industrial age with steam powered tractors in the street and the rise of baseball as the national sport. (Shooting guns, Cole says, is the true American pasttime.) The bank robbers are out of step with the times, although Cole Younger (who sports an early bullet-proof vest) is fascinated by all sorts of machinery. The Minnesota bank robbery here is wildly fictitious, although the film captures the spirit of the townsfolk as they defeat the outlaws and capture the Youngers.

Dingus INdex

The movie suffers from a dose of the psychedelic era in which it was filmed, a time that brought us Going South with Jack Nicholson and a quirky Marlon Brando who insisted on wearing women’s clothing on camera. The main characters all seem stoned and their zany performances leave the viewer without a sympathetic central figure on either side of the law. The Pinkertons are introduced and then summarily dropped from the story. The film spends more time on a bizarre baseball sequence than on the crime itself.

Told largely from Cole Younger’s viewpoint, we see Jesse James as a hot-headed, egomaniacal jerk, which may be an accurate characterization. Cole, as some believe, is the brains of the operation. Arriving in Northfield ahead of Jesse and Frank, Cole works a scam on the local bankers who mistake him for a major investor and his motley gang for bank guards. Ridiculous. When the James boys arrive, Cole and Jesse argue over why they are robbing the bank while taking a Swedish sauna. Then they’re off to a local bordello for another freaky scene with giggling outlaws pontificating over the Industrial Age.

Finally on a rainy morning, the gang hits the bank. In a comedy of errors, the robbers are locked out of the safe and Cole’s plan for a bloodless robbery turns into a Saturday Night massacre. As in the historical raid on Northfield, the townspeople rise up and blast the escaping bandits in the street. The elated Northfield citizens display and photograph the bodies of the dead robbers in the street (this really happened) and gather a posse to hunt down the outlaws, shooting and lynching anyone who crosses their path. The gang hangs out at the home of a neighborly woman who Jesse kills. Jesse contends that the raid was a successful post-war attack on the Yankees. No one else agrees. Cut to the Pinkertons, who still haven’t arrived.

The locals show up and blast the gang at the house. Jesse (disguised as a woman) and Frank escape in a buggy. None of it happened. In the final scene, shot 11 times, Cole Younger is paraded through town in an open cage as the crowd cheers. Orsen Welles returns as narrator to tell us that Cole spent 25 years in jail and lived well into the 20th century. That, at least, is true. Whatever these guys were smoking, the joke does not translate onscreen, making this flick about as watchable as Jesse James Versus Frankenstein’s Daughter.

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