The story of Jesse James has been told many times over the years. There isn’t a medium in the world that hasn’t seen its share of tales concerning the infamous outlaw. You could find radio dramas, plays, television shows, films and even songs that recount his exploits. Some of these have been honest and brutal depictions of a lawless man and his gang of thugs who terrorized the West by robbing trains and banks, leaving corpses in their wake. Then there’s the romantic telling that picks up on the folk heroes that Jesse and his boys have become over the years. Even in his day he became somewhat of a hero to a generation of those who read about his daring deeds in the papers and pulps. Of course, they likely didn’t include those unlucky enough to have stared down the barrel of Jesse’s six-shooter. The Long Riders fits into that later category of romantic folk stories.
The film depicts the final days of the gang. It begins with a bank holdup gone wrong and the excommunication of Ed Miller from the gang for starting a shootout and killing a cooperative teller. The Pinkertons get hot on the James/Younger Gang trail, and a lot of innocent folks get killed in the crossfire. The film finally concludes with the shooting of Jesse by Robert Ford.
One of the best decisions that director Walter Hill made with this film was the decision to cast real actor brothers as the various brothers in the film. David, Keith and Robert Carradine play Cole, Jim and Bob Younger respectively. Dennis and Randy Quaid play Ed and Clell Miller. Christopher and Nicholas Guest play Charlie and Robert Ford while Stacey and James Keach play Frank and Jesse James. The Keach brothers also served as producers and writers on the production. John Carradine actually filmed a cameo that was never included in the movie.
The movie splits its time between the action of the gang’s jobs and the private lives of the boys. There are a few muddled scenes with women that never really come together. Honestly, it got hard to remember who was with who. The ladies here are, unfortunately, diversions and window dressing. The problem is that we spend time with the boys privately but don’t ever really get to know them at all. The scenes are really a series of vignettes that start and stop threads with little or no explanation or follow-up. The action scenes have so much time between them that the movie almost always appears to drag. Walter Hill has proven he’s better than the pacing he shows here. I suspect there were too many cooks in the broth which led everything in entirely too many directions.
The movie makes no secret of the fact that it takes Jesse and the gang’s side here. The Pinkertons are shown to be far more vicious and are responsible for plenty of innocent deaths in their zeal to reel the gang in. Most of the gang’s rampages appear to be only in self-defense against the Pinkertons. There’s almost a Robin Hood attitude here that is so one-sided that it makes it impossible to take the movie very seriously at all. If you want a better film about the final days of Jesse James, you could do a lot worse than the long-titled The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford with Brad Pitt turning in a more even portrayal of the bandit.
The Long Riders is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35-40 mbps. There is not really any evidence that the source print was cleaned or restored in any way. There are plenty of specks of dirt and other print artifacts to deal with here. The color is pretty bright and takes well to this high-definition image presentation. The picture is about as sharp as it’s looked, and the detail and texture beats anything previously released for this title. The detail is enough so that you can clearly see a wire pulling a shot horseman from his mount at about 36 minutes into the film. Obviously, the movie was never made to be so closely scrutinized.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is mostly a bare-bones affair giving life to the dialog. Ry Cooder delivers an exceptional score that doesn’t quite get its just treatment here. There are times that the music stands out, but there isn’t anything terribly dynamic to be found here. You get just glimpses of how good the soundtrack for this movie really was.
While I liked the performances tremendously, it was just too hard to really get into this movie. The telling is slanted to a degree that it takes away significantly from what’s happening on the screen. I didn’t like being torn in so many directions only to be quickly pulled away. You get the idea that the gang only did what they did because of doing their patriotic duty during the Civil War. “It just got to being a habit.“