The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (Second review)
We just watched one of the revisionist westerns of the early ‘70s, The Culpepper Cattle Company, which we liked. This one came out in the same year and is even better. It is the fact-based story of the last robbery attempted by the James-Younger gang. Jesse and his brother Frank went on to make more robberies (or as Jesse called them, “guerilla raids”) but it was the end of criminal activity for Cole Younger.
Jesse is played by Robert Duvall in a terrific performance, imagining him as a near-mystical, fanatical Confederate diehard. It is 1876, more than a decade after the end of the Civil War, but Jesse yearns for the days riding with Quantrill’s Raiders, and still wants to take the war to the Yankees.
Cole is played by Cliff Robertson, in an even better performance. He is shown as the shrewd, level-headed brains of the operation, and basically a good man.
Neither of these characterizations is really historically accurate. But the events shown are pretty much as they happened. The gang of eight rides far north to a land populated by immigrants from Sweden and Norway and Germany. When Charley Pitts first hears them talking Swedish, he says “Hell, they ain’t even Americans!” There is rumored to be a big, rich bank up there. And there is, but it is not as lightly defended as they had hoped. When the robbery goes awry, the townsfolk are ready to fight. Two of the gang are killed immediately, and in a shoot-out later, another one of them is killed. Jesse and Frank escape.
I have been unable to verify if it is true, as Cole says, that he had been shot fifteen times, and in the shootout he is hit eleven more times … but I believe it. The incredible thing is, he survived, pled guilty, and was sentenced to life in prison. But he was paroled in 1901, lived until 1915, and even starred in a Wild West Show!
The appeal of this film, to me, is not how accurate it may or may not be, but in the imagining of what these guys might have been. The writing, by Philip Kaufmann, who also directed, is vivid, and the acting tremendous. Jesse looks like a real lying murdering scumbag, and Cole is funny as hell. Who cares if they were really like that? They are legends now, and to me you can play around with legends all you want to.
The other tremendous thing is the time and place, when the pioneer days are giving way to mechanization. We see steam tractors, which Cole calls a “wonderment,” like many other things he encounters. He is very interested in the new technology. The setting is not the West we are used to. It’s cold and rainy and muddy. The Swedes and others are completely caught up in this new game, “baseball.” The way they play it, it is definitely a contact sport, and very funny. The final score is something like 46 to 47.
It was filmed in Jacksonville, Oregon, which is down near Medford. They constructed some false fronts for some of the buildings (which can still be seen today) and spread mud all over the main street. It really looks great. This is not for everybody, I guess—there are no raves at the IMDb, and several who hated it—but I’ve always seen it as a really nice sleeper.