The Long Riders

The Long Riders is a 1980 American western film directed by Walter Hill. It was produced by James Keach, Stacy Keach and Tim Zinnemann and featured an original soundtrack by Ry Cooder. Cooder won the Best Music award in 1980 from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for this soundtrack. The film was entered into the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.[4]

The Long Riders
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWalter Hill
Produced byTim Zinnemann
Stacy Keach
James Keach
Written byBill Bryden
Steven Phillip Smith
Stacy Keach
James Keach
StarringJames Keach
Stacy Keach
David Carradine
Robert Carradine
Keith Carradine
Dennis Quaid
Randy Quaid
Christopher Guest
Nicholas Guest
Savannah Smith Boucher
Music byRy Cooder
CinematographyRic Waite
Edited byFreeman A. Davies
David Holden
Huka Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • May 16, 1980 (1980-05-16)
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8 million[1]
Box office$15,795,189[2]
241,290 admissions (France)[3]


During the years following the Civil War, banks and trains become the targets of the James-Younger gang, outlaws who terrorize the Midwestern United States. The band of robbers is led by Jesse James and Cole Younger, along with several of their brothers.

A detective, Mr. Rixley from the Pinkerton's agency, is assigned to capture the outlaws. Leading his own large team of men, Rixley doggedly remains on their trail, killing several innocent relatives of the gang in the process. By the time, at Clell Miller's suggestion, the James-Younger Gang rides far north in September 1876 to rob a bank belonging to "squareheads" in Northfield, Minnesota, word is out about them and the town has been warned by the Pinkertons.

The holdup goes wrong in every way. The bank's vault has been set on a timer and cannot be opened. A cashier and another citizen are shot and killed. While trying to escape, the gang is fired upon by the townspeople, who, setting a trap, have barricaded both ends of the main street. Two outlaws, both recently recruited by Jesse, are killed, Clell is fatally gutshot, Frank is hit in the arm, and all of the Youngers are badly wounded.

Finally escaping Northfield, the surviving gang members temporarily make camp in some woods. Clell Miller is dying. Jim Younger, sporting more than several wounds, cannot speak due to a bullet piercing his cheek. Bob Younger, flat on his back, moans pitifully, shot multiple times. Cole Younger, seeming the most mobile of his siblings, has (as later reported by a physician) been hit by no less than eleven bullets. Frank James has only one minor injury. Jesse James appears to have escaped unscathed.

Hard decisions have to be made. A posse will be soon coming for the outlaws. Miller is on his last breaths. The three Younger brothers are so injured that they are unable to continue. Only Jesse and Frank James are in any condition to ride further. Even though it is his gang, and they follow his commands, Jesse elects to leave all the badly wounded behind. Frank reluctantly agrees. Cole objects, implying that it is disloyal to abandon them, but Jesse ignores him, while Frank declares that he has to abide by his brother's decision.

The James brothers return home to Missouri. An attempt is made by Pinkerton Rixley to make the Youngers, now in a prison hospital, reveal where the Jameses can be found. Rixley states that the Youngers will face life in prison (the state of Minnesota does not have the death penalty), but he offers them a more lenient sentence if they betray the James brothers. The Youngers, despite their abandonment, refuse to inform on the Jameses.

Jesse, not terribly affected by the disastrous Northfield raid, chooses to recruit a new gang. Bob and Charlie Ford, previously spurned in their efforts to join Jesse's outfit, are now invited to Jesse's home for dinner. The expectation is that Jesse will ask the two brothers to join him in further robberies. However, having made a prior deal with Rixley for a lucrative reward, Bob and Charlie shoot an unsuspecting Jesse James in the back while he straightens a picture frame.

Upon learning of his brother's assassination, Frank James surrenders his gun and turns himself in to Rixley, but only on the condition that he can first attend his brother's funeral. Rixley suggests that he might not agree to such terms, whereupon Frank declares that he will kill him if he refuses.

A train transports a wooden coffin bearing the body of Jesse James. Frank James, handcuffed to Rixley, stands at the railcar door, looking out, noting the people beside the tracks, paying their final respects to his brother, as the train passes by.


The Long Riders is a notable film in part due to the decision to cast four sets of actor brothers as the real-life sets of brothers:

It also features an uncredited appearance by Ever Carradine, daughter of Robert Carradine and niece to David and Keith Carradine. Additionally James Keach's son, Kalen Keach, is cast as Jesse James's son Jesse E. James. Savannah Smith Boucher played Jesse James' wife, Zee.


Theatre Origins

In 1971 James and Stacy Keach played the Wright brothers in a television film called The Wright Brothers (1971). This gave James the idea they should play Jesse and Frank James in a film together. James started off by writing a play about the James brothers which Stacy financed and produced. They staged it at the Bucks County Playhouse and then toured it through schools in New Jersey.[1]

The play was then adapted into a country musical and performed off-Broadway at the Bowery Lane Theatre. James Keach produced (for $10,000), directed and starred as Jesse. The Keaches then decided to turn the musical into a feature film screenplay in which both could star.[1][5]

Film Development

In 1974 James Keach was acting opposite Robert Carradine in the television film The Hatfields and the McCoys and mentioned the project to him; Carradine suggested that he and his brothers play the Younger brothers. David Carradine said:

Bobby and Jim came to me and said, 'Do you want to do this picture?' You know, I just thought it was the kids talkin’ , but then they said, ’Well, Stacy said he’ll do it.’ And I said, 'Well, if Stacy said he'll do it. I'11 do it.' Then they went to Stacy and said, 'Well, David said he’ll do it’, and Stacy said, "Well, if he’ll do it, I'11 do it’. Then we worked on Keith, who was a hard sell, but he couldn't very well turn it down if the rest of us were doing it.[6]

The idea that all the brothers in the story would be played by real-life brothers expanded, and Randy and Dennis Quaid also became attached to the project to play the Miller brothers.[7]

James Keach later recalled, "Everyone told me, 'You can't get all these guys together; family devotion is one thing, but this is Hollywood.' We decided to prove how serious we were by having a group picture taken. We did it at midnight in a recording studio where Keith was cutting some numbers. We sent limousines for everyone; it was quite a production."[5]

The photograph helped convince NBC to finance Long Riders as a six-hour mini-series. But then Fred Silverman became president of NBC and cancelled all mini-series ordered by his predecessors.[5]

"It was all happening while I was on Bora Bora making The Hurricane (1979)," said James. "I spent a lot of time fishing with Tim Zinnemann, who was producing the picture. We became good friends and I told him about The Long Riders." Zinnemann took the project to United Artists, who were interested in funding the film if a suitable director could be found.[5] Stacey Keach said the gimmick of the brothers playing brothers got the film over the line.[8]

Walter Hill

Zinnemann showed the script to Walter Hill who agreed to direct. Hill had been working on another film which had fallen through and, as he later said, "I'd been dying to do a Western for years. I just like 'em. There's a kind of an idyllic quality that surrounds the shooting of them, it seems like a more fundamental film process, more to me what movies are about than clearing crowds off a city street."[9]

Hill called the film a "strange piece";

Instead of the logical conclusion being at Northfield, it then goes on to another phase of a spiral downward, and ends with Jesse's death. It's very hard material to give the proper dramatic curve to. It doesn't lay out in a classic three-act structure. It's almost a four-act piece with Northfield and the aftermath being the culmination of the third act. The fourth act is almost epilogue: How They Went Down... There's a line from a Jean-Luc Godard film: "The jokes are funny but the bullets are real." That's really what this movie is about. These were big, reckless, high-spirited guys that were unaware of the ripples they caused.[10]

The Ford brothers were going to be played by Beau and Jeff Bridges but by this time they had become unavailable. Jeff Bridges later said, "I couldn't do it because of a schedule conflict. And when I first read the script, I thought it was another case of where the material didn't match up with the gimmick. But then I saw the end result and I thought it was pretty good and I figured we would have had a good time doing it because we know all those other guys. Walter Hill is an extraordinary filmmaker and I think he added a specialness to it that the script lacked."[11]

Joseph Bottoms had discussed the project with James Keach but wanted himself and his brothers to play the Youngers - parts already reserved for the Carradines.[7] Eventually Nicholas and Chris Guest played the Ford brothers.[1]

"The use of all the brothers can be perceived as a gimmick but I wanted a family feeling to the movie," said Hill.[12]

In order to make the film, David Carradine forfeited his customary profit participation; the Keach brothers gave up the extra profit percentages they were entitled to as executive producers in order for the Carradine brothers to get the same amount of profits.[1]

Walter Hill later said his "code" for the film was to keep "the jokes funny and the bullets real. It is about moral choices. I think people who object to violence shouldn't go to the movies."[12]

Walter Hill later argued that the best film that had been made about the Younger-James brothers prior to this was The Return of Frank James. "In the historical sense it was also the least accurate, but it had a real sense of character truth," he said.[10]


Some of the film, especially the Northfield scene, was shot in Parrott, Georgia.[13]

"The company originally wanted to shoot in Missouri, but they found that urban sprawl just blew that out of the tub," said a publicist. "Parrott was chosen because it's almost as if time stood still there. The ravages of the years have not touched the buildings and it closely resembles Northfield, Minn., in 1876."[14]

Hill says the most difficult sequence was the one where horses jumped through glass. "We trained them for three weeks, making them do the jump without the glass. Once we conditioned them to that, we put the glass in. It's a big surprise to the horses, and they'll only do it once. We had to use a different set of horses for the second jump."[9]

Hill shot the sequence in slow motion, a technique associated with the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Hill believes "the way Sam used slow motion was almost directly opposite to mine. What Sam was doing was making individual moments more real by extending them, kind of underlining the horrible moment of being shot. The Long Riders is meant to be almost dream-like to have the reality of a nightmare, where everything is going wrong but there's no focus to it, you don't know where you are or how you got there."[9]

James Keach said the film "was very authentic, not a traditional Western with sagebursh and desert. Ours has more of a midwestern feel to it. We've high hopes for it but I just wish we had more time."[15]

When the film went over its original $7.5 million budget, the Keaches forfeited their executive producer fees. "The Long Riders has been made on faith and idealism," said Keach.[1]


The music for the film was composed, arranged, and performed by Ry Cooder. Other performers on the soundtrack were multi-instrumentalist David Lindley and percussionist Milt Holland.[16] Some of the songs were released as an album, The Long Riders. It was the first of several soundtracks Cooder would write for Walter Hill.[17]


Critical Response

Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote of the film, "Even its languid moments hold a certain fascination, what with Ric Waite's handsome photography and a cast that Noah might envy. The film is slow and only vaguely speculative, though, without much story to give it shape."[18]

Todd McCarthy of Variety stated that the film "is striking in several ways, not the least of which being the casting of actor brothers as historical outlaw kin, but narrative is episodic in the extreme and disparate artistic qualities fail to completely jell into satisfactory whole. Despite interesting try, this wouldn't appear to be the film to get Westerns off the ground again."[19]

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote that "the Western will live as long as directors make Westerns as fresh and exciting as 'The Long Riders,' which tells an oft-told story uncommonly well."[20]

Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times said, "Since 'The Long Riders'' various writers, which include James and Stacy Keach, who also play Jesse and Frank James, and its director Walter Hill, haven't anything new to reveal, their film by default becomes merely an excuse to restage that Northfield raid in as bloody a way as possible. This hollow and tedious outlaw saga may feature an unprecedented number of brothers—four sets, no less—in the leading roles, but it's no family film, that's for sure."[21]

Gary Arnold of The Washington Post declared that the film "seems a flawlessly felt and visualized western, true to the subject matter and the aspirations the filmmakers probably held for it."[22] David Ansen of Newsweek wrote: "the story seems more re-enacted than acted and one is finally more impressed than moved. Only David Carradine's cool, mangy macho as Cole Younger and Pamela Reed's jaundiced wit as Belle Starr cut through the tempered, elegiac surface. The screenplay (by Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy and James Keach) is basically an assemblage of bits and pieces that doesn't build toward any real emotional payoff. Yet 'The Long Riders' is still the best Western in many years — it has the laconic elegance of a ritual."[23]

Flim historian Leonard Maltin described this picture as "Stylish, if extremely bloody...All In the Family Out West" and gave it 3 out of a possible 4 stars in his annual Movie & Video Guide (no longer published).

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 82% based on 22 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 6.5/10.[24] On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 64 out of 100, based on 5 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".[25]

Box Office

The Long Riders was a box office disappointment upon its initial release.[8] According to Film Comment it made $5,891,149 in the USA, in part due to "a terrible campaign that emphasized how alike all the players looked without exploiting the family theme that might have aided box office."[26]

In June 1981 James Keach wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times in response to an article on the poor box office performance of Westerns. Keach claimed The Long Riders "wasn't a Star Wars at the box office" but recouped its full $9 million investment and earned United Artists a profit.[27]

Proposed Prequel

In May 1981 David Carradine said a prequel, set during the Civil War, was in development.[28]

In February 1982 Stacy Keach said the script was being written and that it would be a theatrical feature or a television mini series. He said when he was in Arkansas making a TV series "so many people came up to talk about The Long Riders which had been shown there on cable that I got enthusiastic again. I realised the Jesse James legend goes on and on. I can't wait to do the new one."[29]

In September 1982 Stacy Keach said "There's the possibility of doing something for television with it. There's a tremendous amount of history that goes on after The Long Riders. Everybody says, "Well, Jesse's dead,' but it's our contention that he didn't die in quite the way history says he died."[30] However, the project never came to fruition.


  1. Greco, Mike (21 Oct 1979). "BROTHERS 9 IN 'RIDERS': 'WE'RE FAMILY': BROTHERS NINE IN 'LONG RIDERS'". Los Angeles Times. p. n28.
  2. "The Long Riders (1980)". Box Office Mojo. 1982-01-01. Retrieved 2014-02-16.
  3. Box office figures for Walter Hill films in France at Box Office Story
  4. "Festival de Cannes: The Long Riders". Retrieved 2009-05-28.
  5. "Keach's grit is grease for film's wheels". The Globe and Mail. 17 Aug 1979. p. 13.
  6. Rainone, Tom (Spring 1990). "Drunk as Hell with David Carradine". Psychtronic Video. No. 5. p. 22.
  7. SCHREGER, CHARLES (2 July 1979). "A Brother Act a la Carradines, Keaches and Quaids". Los Angeles Times. p. e7.
  8. WHY THEY'RE SLOW ON THE DRAW Michael Blowen Boston Globe 29 June 1980: 1.
  9. Turan, Kenneth (May 25, 1980). "Hollywood's Hill -- A Long Ride Up". Washington Post.
  10. Greco, Mike (May–June 1980). "Hard Riding". Film Comment. Vol. 16.3. p. 13-19,80.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  11. INTERVIEW: JEFF BRIDGES BALTAKE, JOE. Philadelphia Daily News4 Jan 1985: 45.
  12. 'THE LONG RIDERS' IS LONG ON BROTHERS: 'THE LONG RIDERS' Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times 8 May 1980: h1.
  13. At the Movies: 'Yanks' stirs memories for its makers. Buckley, Tom. New York Times 28 Sep 1979: C14.
  14. James gang dies into Parrott, Ga. The Globe and Mail 29 Aug 1979: P.12.
  15. WATCHING BLATTY WILL A WINNER Los Angeles Times 11 Mar 1980: g6.
  16. The Long Riders, DVD, Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Studios Inc. 2001, credits
  17. Ry Cooder's Long Ride BY PATRICK ERCOLANO. The Washington Post 11 July 1980: PAGE39.
  18. Maslin, Janet (May 16, 1980). "Film: 'The Long Riders,' With Gangs of the West". The New York Times. C14.
  19. McCarthy, Todd (May 7, 1980). "Film Reviews: The Long Riders". Variety. 10.
  20. Siskel, Gene (May 16, 1980). "'The Long Riders': Bloody, but shot through with class". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 3.
  21. Thomas, Kevin (May 16, 1980). "New Westerns With Old Themes". Los Angeles Times. Part VI, p. 2.
  22. Arnold, Gary (May 16, 1980). "Easy 'Riders'". The Washington Post. D1.
  23. Ansen, David (June 2, 1980). "Back in the Saddle". Newsweek. 87.
  24. "The Long Riders (1980) – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Fandango Media. Retrieved 14 May 2019.
  25. "Critic Reviews for The Long Riders". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 14 May 2019.
  26. The Sixth Annual Grosses Gloss Meisel, Myron. Film Comment; New York Vol. 17, Iss. 2, (Mar/Apr 1981): 64-72,80.
  27. 'LONG' IN THE BLACK Keach, James. Los Angeles Times 14 June 1981: m103.
  28. CRITIC AT LARGE: CARRADINE, DEDICATED FILM MAKER Champlin, Charles. Los Angeles Times 25 May 1981: e1.
  29. TUB'S GONE--BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: TUB SCENE Los Angeles Times 9 Feb 1982: g1.
  30. "A. A self-styled amateur pianist and songwriter, L...". Boston Globe. 5 Sep 1982. p. 1.
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