About a year ago I wrote a short series on the depiction of Jesse James in the movies. At the time, I skipped over The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) for the simple reason that I hadn’t seen the movie in years and didn’t have a copy to hand. Well I eventually got around to watching this a few days ago and thought I’d post my thoughts on it for the sake of completeness. I had recalled the film as being pretty good, but after my recent viewing I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad – it has too many interesting things going for it – but it did leave me feeling disappointed. The performances, and some of the ideas, save it but the direction is the weak point for me. I suppose I really should come clean here and say that Philip Kaufman isn’t one of my favourite directors, so that may have affected my opinion somewhat.
The whole film takes place within a fairly short space of time, concentrating on the lead up to, execution and aftermath of the bank robbery of the title. Mainly it’s a character study of Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson), with the latter getting more screen time and coming across the more sympathetic of the two. With the possibility of an amnesty for their past crimes being granted by the Missouri state legislature, Cole Younger (recuperating after a run in with Pinkerton agents) rides for Northfield with the aim of heading off Jesse before he can raid the bank. Along the way, he learns that the amnesty he was hoping for won’t be forthcoming, so a change of plan is in order. The scenes in Northfield, which make up the central part of the story, represent both the best and worst aspects of the picture. It’s here that the yokel outlaws get their first glimpse of the new technology and customs that will soon change their world forever. Some of these scenes work very well, such as the shock of being confronted by an early motorized vehicle. On the other hand, the almost interminable baseball game, replete with Keystone Kops style pratfalls, comes across as needlessly self-indulgent and slows the whole film down. The idea of including it was sound enough but Kaufman drags it out to the point where it becomes distracting. It’s worth comparing this sequence to the camel race at the start of Ride the High Country as they’re essentially making the same point; the difference, however, is that Peckinpah knew where to draw the line.
Robertson is excellent as the thoughtful and charismatic Cole. He plays him as a man of the world and a realist, a guy who sees change coming and who is smart enough to see that dwelling on the past does no good. Duvall’s Jesse is the complete opposite – an unbalanced psychotic who cannot let go of the past and who treats all who stand in his way with a ruthless contempt. He talks in grandiose terms of having visions and excuses his excesses by referring to the guerrilla action he’s involved in. Both men give strong, believable performances that help ground the film. The supporting cast is also noteworthy with R G Armstrong playing the ill-fated Clell Miller, and old-timers Elisha Cook Jr and Royal Dano getting small but important roles. One other point I’d like to make relates to the way Frank James was portrayed; in every other movie I’ve seen, this character was shown to be a tough, smart but very human figure. In this movie, however, John Pearce plays him as a vaguely simple-minded soul who lives only to carry out his brother’s wishes. I’ve no idea if this closer to reality or not, but it’s a marked contrast to all other portrayals. I said earlier that I wasn’t all that impressed by Kaufman’s direction and, apart from the aforementioned baseball sequence, he also handles the actual robbery poorly. The scenes in the bank are fine, but as soon as the action takes to the streets it falls down. It’s difficult not to compare this to Walter Hill’s superlative filming of the same events in The Long Riders, where I found myself riveted. Kaufman has the camera swooping all over the place, yet there’s none of the intensity or power of Hill’s version. There are some nice shots of landscape and forest but the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place. I don’t know, I think if he could just have changed the emphasis here and there we could have had one of the best cinema versions of these events. As it stands, the movie seems like it’s trying too hard to be an art house representation of what is really a fairly straightforward story.
The R1 DVD from Universal is barebones, save for the inclusion of the trailer, but the picture quality is excellent. I certainly didn’t notice any significant damage and the colours, while subdued, are true. There’s a nice, tight 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and the disc is available very cheaply. In general this movie has some good ideas and fine performances, but I feel it could have been so much better. Like all other versions it’s littered with inaccuracies (for example, Jim Younger’s facial wound was sustained in Northfield, and not earlier as the film states) but that’s no big deal for me. I’m still of the opinion that The Long Riders remains the best telling of the story of the James/Younger gang, and that Kaufman’s movie is an interesting but flawed addition to the mythology surrounding these men.