The Western has long been the dominion of The Bro. Bros like movies about bros, so War flicks, Horror movies and Westerns tend to get a lot of play within the Bro Community, the Bromunity. Historically, in the traditional Western setting, you’d have a pretty serious bro - like a Johnny Wayne, The Duke Bro - and he’d bro-down with some others over a bad bro’s deal and then they’d have a shootout. Some bros would live. Some would not. As Westerns became more sophisticated, so did the stories of their bros and the conflicts therein. Bros would turn on other bros. Bros would be expendable. Bros would be invested. Eventually, we would see the bro nature of the Western become so evolved that a bro could truly love another bro, the ol’ BRO’keback. These days it runs the gamut.
One of the great bro directors, brorectors, Walter Hill, put his stink on the sub-genre of Bro Western with The Long Riders. A sort of spiritual successor to The Wild Bunch, Hill’s 1980 Western fits firmly in the ditch dug by Peckinpah’s 1969 masterpiece, along with Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and the work of other insane hard-asses like Milius, Friedkin and Eastwood. At the tail end of the New Hollywood movement, the American New Wave, Hill’s unsentimental, sensical take on the James gang’s legend took the Bro Western from a place of unbridled, disconnected machismo and made it literal. The movie is actually about brothers, and yet those brothers are not always bros.
By the end of the ‘70s, Walter Hill had solidified a position as a true tough guy. His work included screenplays for bros like Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway) and Stuart Rosenberg (The Drowning Pool). He’d produced a pretty scary alien movie that pushed boundaries with everything but its title, Alien, and made a couple intense films himself, like Hard Times, The Driver and The Warriors. The resurgence of Westerns in the ‘60s and ‘70s had waned by the end of the latter decade, and it would be naive to think the weight he’d put on as a filmmaker with a decade of wins under his belt didn’t help get the movie made. Furthermore, its inception was as the pet project of James and Stacy Keach, two actor brothers who had played the Wrights in a film and fell for the idea of portraying the ultimate sibling outlaws, Frank and Jesse James. With Hollywood being a small town, it wasn’t long before bros recognized bros and the Keach boys connected with the Carradine clan, three brothers who were stars each in their own rights, to play the James’ partners, the Youngers.
The Keach siblings and the Carradines connected with the Bridges boys (Jeff and Beau) to play a third set of bros, the Millers, who were also part of the historic gang, but Lloyd’s kids were soon replaced with the Quaids. Spoiler alerts aside, the final set of bros, the Fords, who would be the downfall of Jesse James himself, were fleshed out by none other than young comedian Chris Guest and his real life brother, Nicholas. That’s no fewer than four sets of true bros playing bros, if you’re keeping score. With such a passion project filled with testosterone and the petulance of haughty masculinity, there was only one legitimate place to go for financing and distribution of the film, United Artists. U.A. was still the most bohemian of the major studios, at the time hot off films like Rocky II, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now and some nerdy comedies by a short, entitled, bespectacled New York Jew. The film would be made just before the debacle of another epic Alternative Western, Heaven’s Gate, which would bankrupt United Artists.
With so many films of the era being more interesting in production than execution, The Long Riders works on a cinematic level beyond its Palm d’Or competition and literal pedigree of its cast. There is, without doubt, an honesty and empathy because its players are genuine bros being bros. It could be argued that the blood bros and the movie bros, all colleagues who surely competed for roles and women and attention, had the exact dynamic needed to tell the story beyond a great script and masterful direction. Those aspects do not supplant what is truly a well-made film. For all of his manly men, Hill spends an incredible amount of time on the interpersonal relationships between his bros and their gals, the women they lose and fight for, the conflict in leaving the girls they love to go bro down over crimes. He follows almost perfectly in step with Peckinpah’s work in violence, beautifully-executed slow-motion, gunfights, blood and horseplay. The final shootout gives The Wild Bunch a run for its money.
The stunts with the horses alone, falling, crashing through an entire town while shooting, dragging and galloping, are unparalleled. Like other Westerns of the era, the film speaks to modernity, to disenfranchisement. As a group of failed Southerners, right after the Civil War, they are bros who fought against bros, only to come out on the losing side. As the Yankee Pinkertons, the squares, close in on their fun, you can’t help but root for the family, as wrong as they are. That’s another tenet of the Western that Hill and the gang shone through, the fluidity of morals, a question of who the bad guys truly are. Still commenting on the futility of Vietnam, the death of Counter Culture, these historic Rebels find themselves cheered on by us contemporary ones, who otherwise would have nothing in common with them. Before the climax, we’re treated to the gang’s confusion at a bank’s time-lock, a steam-powered automobile, all the signs that the world has passed them by and the only thing they can depend on is the loyalty of the bro next to them.
“I’ve got to stick with my brother”, says a Carradine to a Keach, the end of the hot bro-on-bro action. The next and final chapter is the famous two-bros-on-one shot in back from the Fords to Jesse James himself. It ends with one last act of brotherhood, Frank giving himself up to ensure Jesse gets a proper burial. For anyone familiar with Westerns, the scenes have played out many times in cinema, and the realism, the actual kinship onscreen only adds to Hill’s piece. He makes many conventional choices, especially considering his capability within Action and Western grammar he would continue to mine from 48 Hours through to his work on Deadwood. He understands the importance of not revising the story, but telling it with the tools at his disposal, which by 1980 and with his cast, were more evolved than what had come before. The score by Ry Cooder, another traditionalist in the modern era, buttresses Hill’s choice to make an orthodox Western with unique angles. The Long Riders plays on the sympathies and expectations we have come to expect from a Bro Western, elaborating on them with every tool at its disposal. The result is an understanding and longing for loyalty, rebellion, the outlaw spirit. Watch it with a loved one, a bro of your own, and hold them close, for brotherhood is fleeting and fragile, even with a sixgun in your hand.