28 August 2008

THE LONG RIDERS (Dir. Walter Hill, 1980, US) - A moving and sombre study of masculinity, death and mythology

With the recent Brad Pitt western ‘Assassination of Jesse James’ attracting widespread critical acclaim for its astute exploration of the mythology surrounding such notorious historical figures as the James-Younger gang that formed such an endemic part of how we perceive the western genre, it is hard to ignore the number of times Hollywood has paid homage to the legend that is Jesse James. Alongside the recent Brad Pitt film which has become somewhat of a definitive statement on Jesse James stands Samuel Fuller’s stunning 1949 film, ‘I Shot Jesse James’ and Walter Hill’s ‘The Long Riders’, a film that turns its attention away from the overwhelming mythology surrounding Jesse James, focusing on the dynamic relationships that existed amongst the members (mainly brothers) of the gang itself.

Walter Hill directed a number of unglamorous revisionist westerns in the 80s and 90s including ‘Geronimo’ and ‘Wild Bill’, and more recently, contributing to the success of the HBO TV series, ‘Deadwood’. ‘The Long Riders’ is arguably one of the best films Walter Hill directed, and it came at a time when the western was more or less dormant, helping to revive the critical status of an essential Hollywood genre. The key to Hill’s direction is that it is wonderfully understated in how he refuses to adhere to any kind of conventional means of fulfilling audience expectations – this is illustrated on several occasions through a rejection of narrative continuity and melodrama.

Many of the Hollywood westerns post Peckinpah were somewhat tainted by the sentimental attachment to melodramatic outbursts but it took directors like Peckinpah and Leone to depict a vision of the west that was brutally ugly in how violence manifested itself in the sphere of troubled masculinity. Walter Hill borrows heavily from the slow motion lexicon of Peckinpah, revealing to us with great stylistic flourish of course, the disturbing effect of violence on the human body, creating a constant atmosphere of dread, anxiety and moral uncertainty that seems to ensnare desperate men like Jesse James.

Some critics have said that throughout his career Walter Hill has always been making westerns, and such an observation may be true of his body work that consists of commercially successful projects like ‘The Warriors’ and ’48 Hours’, which even though may be considered urban action thrillers, are still underlined by an array of visual allusions and cinematic references to a genre that has helped to shap the identity of American nationhood for a long time.

Produced by James and Stacey Keach who also star as Jesse and Frank James, ‘The Long Riders’ is a handsomely shot film with a cast made up of David and Keith Carradine, and Dennis and Randy Quaid. Though the idea of casting brothers in the many roles may appear like a gimmick at first, it soon transpires that it was a smart move on Hill’s part as the sense of ease and familiarity displayed by the actors on screen is in no doubt influenced by their sense of familial recognition. The film really seems unsure of itself in the last ten minutes, and the decision to show us the assassination of Jesse James at the hands of Robert Ford is somewhat of a directorial misstep as the moment feels hurried and uninspired sensationalist melodrama that jars quite badly with the rest of the subtly understated narrative.

One of the decisive sequences in the film is the fatal Northfield bank raid that goes terribly wrong. The gang find out too late to make a clean get away and are forced to shoot it out with an armed town that has already been made aware of the fact that the gang may raid the local bank. An elegy to the poetic fatalism of Peckinpah’s violent universe, Hill goes on a wild rampage in terms of editing, cross cutting with slow motion images of the gang being massacred at the hands of ordinary law abiding citizens. Nowhere near a masterpiece in terms of the genre, but still a moving and sombre study of masculinity and its preoccupation with death.

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