Yet another reworking of one of America's favourite outlaws, Jesse James (others being Billy the Kid and Al Capone). For many Southerners with romantic yearnings for the Ol' Confederacy, Jesse James is the present-day students' equivalent of Che Guevara, and is often erroneously given the soubriquet of a 'latter-day Robin Hood' (who robbed from the Yankees to give to the oppressed Southerners o' Missouri). Other such films were Jesse James (1939), Jesse James Rides Again (1947), The Great Jesse James Raid (1953), The True Story Of Jesse James and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1971) - all with various claims of 'authenticity.'
The true story of Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang is, of course, more complex. For a start, they hailed from the Clay County region of Missouri. After Appomatox, Raleigh and Kirby Smith's and Stand Watie's surrenders, many Missourians - notably 'Bloody Bill' Anderson and Quantrill's Raiders - did not regard the war as 'over,' continuing, in the name of the Confederacy, to harrass the Union with train hold-ups and bank-robberies, then seeking refuge among their tight-knit Missouri communities. Part of the folk hero cult status thus gained was also due to Eastern newspaper columnists and dime novelists sensationalizing these actually-criminal exploits. The original James-Younger gang broke up following the disastrous attempted bank-robbery, far from their home patch, in Northfield, Minnesota (7 September, 1876).
Jesse and Frank James got away, returned to their trusted Missouri surroundings, and attempted to revive their gang with new recruits. Although there were a few more train robberies, the 'great days' were over; their chief feat was simply to remain at large year after year, still possessing a certain flamboyance and style. But times had changed. The James could no longer inspire fear or loyalty in their own confederates - captured gang-members began to give details to the Pinkertons less reluctantly. Governor Crittenden pursuaded the railroads to offer $5,000 rewards for any members of the gang, and an additional $5,000 each for Jesse and Frank James. Finally, on 3 April, 1882, it was disaffected gang-members Bob & Charlie Ford that done laid poor Jesse James in his grave; they were as Dixie as fellow Missourians the James, Youngers and Millers [ten years later Bob Ford, Jesse's killer, was himself shot to death by a James partisan].
But The Long Riders is a Walter Hill film, so it's ingenious (four sets of real-life brothers), it's stylish (those neat dusters) ... and so is its violence. Hill learned his trade from The Master: Sam Peckinpah. A tip-o'-the-hat to the latter's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is the McCorkindale barn shoot-out (with copious flying wood shavings and splinters), whilst another to The Wild Bunch's opening ambush scenes is the bungled robbery escape attempt from the alert citizenry of Northfield. Innovative are the slow-motion sequences with enhanced sound effects - no gunshots, just the flight and impacts of the bullets. Unfortunately, this is in mono; a remastering - even just for two-channel stereo - would be hugely welcomed by enthusiasts!
HISTORICAL NOTE: the wounded Youngers and Charlie Pitts were found near Madelia, west of Mankato, captured following a firefight [Pitts was killed], and brought back to Northfield in a cage. Upon entering the town Cole Younger hauled himself to his feet ... and received an ungrudging ovation from the townsfolk for achieving this feat ... despite 14 bullet wounds on/in him ...!
Walter Hill also guaranteed a great film by getting Ry Cooder to write the musical score. Cooder's trademark style adds both atmosphere and dust to the proceedings, including a neat rendition of the traditional Jesse James ballad.