Walter Hill is a workmanlike director. He makes some decent and intriguing films (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, Geronimo), and a fair amount of bad ones (Red Heat, Last Man Standing, Extreme Prejudice) and good or bad, the pictures are little more than macho shoot ’em ups where brawn and bullets win the day. Hill’s commercial pinnacle was probably 48 Hours, the buddy-cop film that vaulted Eddie Murphy into the stratosphere.
The Long Riders is his masterpiece. The story of the James-Younger (and Miller) gang, Hill cast the Keaches as Frank and Jesse James, the Carradines as the three Youngers, and the Quaids as the Millers (he also throws in the Guest brothers as the duo who eventually shoot Jesse). It comes off not in least bit gimicky. Hill comfortably alternates the mythic and the mundane about the brothers, and there is a naturalness to the interplay between the men that makes every scene easy and true. Brothers in life portray convincingly as brothers in film.
Hill also provides a rich facsimile of Peckinpah-style screen violence, while setting forth a keen depiction of rural tradition and family loyalty . His scenes in the Missouri woods, while the gang hides out, are well-crafted and authentic, his Texas bar fight by Bowie knife is inspired Western legend, and the Northfield, Minnesota bank debacle is unforgettably haunting. Hill shoots high speed escape by horse interspersed with slow-motion shots of the gang being shot up, commensurate with an eerily slow-soundtrack that purports to track the actual bullet and its impact above the slooooooow distorted sounds of hoof beats, screams, horse whinnies, and thuds. The scene is bravura, a milestone in action filmmaking.
The tensions between the gang, and the brothers, are summed up in the woods outside of Northfield, where Frank and Jesse -w who can move – and the Youngers, who are too shot up to escape, say their bitter yet still faithful farewells, most of it non-verbally.
The best feature is Pamela Reed as Belle Starr. She steals the movie from the brothers, presenting as of the time. Reed is not beautiful by a long shot, but her strength is undeniably alluring. Her exchanges with Robert Carradine are memorable, especially the second one, as she sits, dressed to the nines on her carriage in the street, uninvited to a Younger wedding.
I love this picture because it has one foot in the myth of the West and another in its grimy, brutal reality, it is at once entirely unsentimental and yet, through the understated depictions of the family, moving.