The Long Riders (1980)


The retelling of the last years of the legendary James-Younger Gang, who made a name for themselves as the most feared bank-robbers of the 19th century.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“First getting shot, then getting married. Bad habits.”

The Long Riders was directed by Walter Hill, the man behind cult classics like The Driver (1978) and The Warriors (1979). Like those pictures, this fact-based western is impeccably crafted and very stylish. However, Hill’s bold stylistic choices aren’t just a display of technical bravado, but a way to convey feelings and ideas.

The Long Riders gained notoriety by casting real-life siblings to play the real-life outlaw brothers. James and Stacy Keach play the James brothers. David, Keith, and Robert Carradine play the Younger brothers. Dennis and Randy Quaid play the Miller brothers. Finally, Christopher and Nicholas Guest play the Ford brothers.

It’s a truly once-in-a-lifetime cast. But this isn’t just a good-looking western with a cool gimmick, The Long Riders is a fascinating production, at least in terms of style and mood. Director Hill does a remarkably good job playing with audience expectations by seamlessly blending elements of both traditional and revisionist westerns — it’s the sort of  experimental motion picture that can’t be put neatly in a category.

What is more, Hill is fully committed to realism while rendering a simultaneous subversion of it. The use of authentic locations and the folksy score (by renowned guitarist Ry Cooder) give a documentary-like flavor to the movie. On the other hand, the action set-pieces, most of them shot in slow motion, have an operatic quality to them.

The Long Riders swings back and forth between realism and Hollywood artifice with amazing ease. It really shouldn’t work, but it does. And for a movie that’s full of sound and fury, it features plenty of intimate human drama. You get to know all the characters and their motivations. I don’t know exactly how they manged to do it, but I assure you that each character comes across as a complex, three-dimensional individual.

It does help that each character was cast perfectly. David Carradine’s Cole Younger was probably my favorite. I also enjoyed Pamela Reed’s (The Clan of the Cave Bear) performance as the infamous grande dame of the Wild West, Belle Starr. The cast also includes James Whitmore Jr. (The Boys in Company C) as the man pursuing the outlaws, and Harry Carey Jr. (The Searchers) as a feisty old Confederate soldier. Lin Shaye (of Insidious franchise fame) has a tiny part as a prostitute.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Truth be told, not everyone agrees about the film’s merits. The Long Riders is often accused of being a case of “style over substance.” What the film’s detractors are missing is that, in this case, the “style IS the substance.” I personally think it is one of the best ’80s westerns (I know, there isn’t much competition). At the very least, it should be seen as a gutsy attempt to move away from genre rules. Color, 99 minutes, Rated R.

This is my contribution to Legends of Western Cinema Week 2022, hosted by Hamlette’s Soliloquy, Along the Brandywine, and Meanwhile in Rivendell.

13 responses to “The Long Riders (1980)

  1. I enjoyed this film…as we’ve seen in the decades since, westerns faded from cinema for awhile before Clint Eastwood revitalized the genre several times, and Kevin Costner as well…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “It really shouldn’t work, but it does.” That’s probably the best way to describe this film. The oscillations you mention between realism and “artifice” in this movie are like watching a drunk staggering down the street. He always looks like he’s going to fall, but he never does. And like you pointed out, it’s the cast that’s keeps you watching.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was shocked to read that Walter Hill was a “hired hand” (this was the Keach bothers’ pet project) because it’s a director’s movie through and through. It’s Hill’s audacious combination of reality and imagination that makes the movie compelling to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As a fan of westerns and Walter Hill I liked The Long Riders. I still have my DVD and watch it at least once a year. I can understand how the slow pace might not appeal to some people, but it doesn’t bother me. I like the music, I like the look of the film, and it was nice of Hill to nod to John Ford by giving Harry Carey Jr. a cameo role. Yes, I definitely will watch this one again.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I always like this one. The Kino Blu is really wonderful. A two disc set full of good stuff. I bought Ry Cooder’s soundtrack on vinyl a few years back and it is superb. Harry Carrey Jr has a track telling a story about Jesse and it oozes with atmosphere. This and Brad Pitt’s awesome Jesse movie are my favorite retellings of this tapestry of Americana.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the tip about the Kino blu-ray. It sounds like something I need to add to my collection — I’m glad to hear that Kino treated the great Long Riders with respect. Pitt’s Jesse is great as well — a masterpiece!

      Liked by 1 person

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