New-Release Tuesday: The Long Riders

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Walter Hill had not yet quite learned how to make “80’s films” when The Long Riders was released in 1980. He would later bring us slick, tight flicks like 48 Hrs., Brewster’s Millions, and Red Heat–but this uneven Western was much more of the kind of seat-of-the-pants affair that typified the 1970s… kind of like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which, for all its greatness, includes a great many scenes that feel like they came from a different (and very cheesy) movie.

What did, however, presage the 1980s in The Long Riders was its prodigious stunt casting. (Remember Young Guns?) Executive Producers / writers James and Stacy Keach wrote themselves the roles of Jesse and Frank James, respectively, while roping in David, Keith, and Robert Carradine as the Younger brothers, Randy and Dennis Quaid as the Miller brothers, and Nicholas and Christopher Guest as the Ford brothers.

Anyone noticing a pattern here?

Amazingly, all the of the stunt casting worked pretty well, as the Keaches’ script managed to give all these young and aging hams enough screen time to make the stunt seem justified… while also managing to (more or less) stick to the story about the James-Younger gang and its rise to folk-hero status as they robbed stage coaches, trains, and banks throughout Missouri and the surrounding territory.

Remember that the film was released before Dennis Quaid was anybody, while Randy Quaid was still relatively sane, before Robert Carradine acquired fame as a Nerd (and the oldest screen-teen in history), and when Pamela Reed was still the most famous thespian to come out of Tacoma. (Well, she still may be.) James Remar, whom Hill made awesome use of as the heavy in 48 Hrs., also makes a memorable appearance during a Texas knife fight with David Carradine’s Cole Younger.

Oh, and the film was made before on-set animal safety was a big deal. The things these horses (and stunt men) went through… Wow.

The aforementioned knife fight, the train robbery, and the failed bank robbery in Northfield Minnesota are truly difficult to take your eyes off of–and, from today’s standards, almost laughably over the top–while surrounded by all the typical things you expect from a Western: period detail, wooden male behavior, dry humor, whores, liquor, and bar fights. (What you don’t get here, because this was long before, um, HBO, is a surfeit of F-bombs and graphic sex.) So you have something that’s kind of a cross between Deadwood, Gunsmoke, and Woodstock. For 1980, about the only things it was missing were Dennis Weaver, Robert Conrad, and Slim Pickens. (Blazing Saddles got the latter, while Centennial lassoed the first two.)

Because the stunt casting works so well, though, and because of those three setpieces, it’s a Western that’s well worth seeing for fans of the genre.

For others? I can’t really tell you… because I’m a fan of the genre.

The Long Riders is now included with your Hulu subscription. You can also stream at Amazon.

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