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The Long Riders

Long Riders on the Dingus ProjectTHE DINGUS PROJECT
Jesse James in Film #20

If you plan to watch only one film about Jesse James (out of at least 50 out there) this is not a bad choice. Although it goes awry of the true historical character, this "brotherly" film does capture the fraternal nature of the guerilla bushwackers. It was family against family in the bloody border states, where the Civil War played out like modern day Iraq and blood was thicker than water.

The Long Riders (1980)
James & Stacey Keach, Keith, David & Robert Carradine, Randi & Dennis Quaid
99 minutes

The concept here is clever. Why not have actor brothers play outlaw brothers? Film producers James and Stacey Keach portray Jesse and Frank James. Three Carradine brothers (Keith, David & Robert) play the Cole brothers. Dennis and Randi Quaid are the Miller boys, while Christopher and Nicholas Guest play Bob and Charlie Ford, who gunned down Jesse James. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of Keith Carradine as Cole Younger, there isn’t much characterization going on here. The gang members bleed into one-another, and are more distinct for their Hollywood personas, than their outlaw characters.

The Long Riders on the Dingus Project at SeacoastNH.comThe film begins in the middle of a botched robbery. The gang, as it likely often was in real life, is at each other’s throats. Jesse is wounded. Ed Miller gets kicked out of the gang. Cut to the gang courting their women – Cole with Belle Star (Pamela Reed) and Jesse with future wife Zee (Savannah Smith). But the gang can’t sit still for long and are soon robbing a stagecoach. Then theyre back to the whoring and the courting. Jesse marries Zee, but quickly returns to robbing trains with his fraternal gang.

The film employs all the fake and flashy Hollywood conventions – men leaping onto moving trains and riding horses through store windows – all of which are part of the Wild West film genre, but did not happen in the real life of the James-Younger gang. The script employs the Robin Hood myth of the gentlemen bandits promulgated by early dime novels and newspaper accounts. But here it the myth is spread thinly, not heaped on with a trowel as in many similar films. The showdown between two Pinkerton agents and two Younger brothers is accurately presented, as is the attack on the James family farm where Jesse’s 15-year old half-brother is killed and his mother loses an arm.

"The Long Riders" succeeds more than it fails as both a film and an historic document, and is definitely within the Top Five films in the Jesse James canon. The best scenes are those involving family events – a wedding, the funeral of Jesse’s little brother – wherever blood is thicker than water. The action scenes are well staged and the period music by Ry Cooder is the most successful element of the film. The soundtrack is the best of all the James’ films by far. Although the writers cherrypick from a number of actual events and then insert their own mix of fiction, melodrama and exaggeration, the arc of the historic events is well told. Shot simply and cleanly, despite a slow rambling presentation. James and Stacey Keach do an excellent job as scriptwriters. Their scholarship and sensitivity to the historical material is admirable. But their acting characterization of Jesse and Frank James is the greatest failure in the film.

Jesse James, Brad Pitt films

Unlike many, this film gets closer to the truth and more exciting as it advances toward the shoot-em-up ending outside the Northfield Bank. The Peckenpaw-style ending details the story bullet for bulllet and the film offers refreshingly little amateur psychoanalysis of the mind of Jesse James.

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