The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
This is not only one of my favorite western movies, it’s one of my favorites of all time. Certainly on my Top 100. There was a lot of experimenting going on in the western genre in the early ‘70s, when what was probably the most popular form of action movie in the early days of cinema and right up into the ‘50s was virtually dead. Singing cowboys in white hats, or just white hats and black hats in general, were no longer good enough for the more sophisticated audiences. So writers and directors began going back to the roots of the form, early movies made by cowboy stars like William S. Hart, whose films were gritty and fairly realistic compared with the formulas to come. So we got these revisionist westerns, which can still show up as late as 2010 with True Grit. These pictures tried to show what the West might really have looked like, and white hats and smart palominos and silver bullets and spurs weren’t in it.
This one tells the story of the last robbery by the James Gang, far north of their usual territory, in a community of Swedes and Norwegians that were very strange to these Missourians. (“Why, they’s all foreigners!”) Now, the broad facts of the story are all true, but as usual in a story like this, many liberties have been taken with the details, and the personalities. Sometimes in a movie that purports to be history I am bothered by inaccuracies, but not this time. Cole Younger and Jesse James and their brothers have long passed beyond history and into the realm of legend, so I think it’s okay to take them and use them in a way that may rewrite the myth. I do know I’ve always liked Cole Younger a lot better than Jesse James, so this movie fulfilled my expectations and prejudices by portraying Cole (Cliff Robertson, in one of his best roles) as an amiable, smart, likeable man, and Jesse (Robert Duvall, also great) as a mean-spirited killer, more than half crazy.
The look of the movie is wonderful. It was filmed in Jacksonville, Oregon, in country that probably resembles Minnesota. They trucked in a lot of dirt to cover the pavement. Among the delights are a wild and primitive baseball game as it was probably played in 1876, in a cow pasture complete with cow flop; a steam calliope on Main Street; steam tractors (“Looks like that railroad engine jumped the tracks!”); and a sauna! It was written and directed by Philip Kaufman, whose best-known movie is The Right Stuff.
Hard to believe but true: Cole Younger was absolutely perforated by bullets in the final shootout in Minnesota. But he lived, was sentenced to life in prison, and was an exemplary inmate. He was paroled in 1901, and lived until 1916, to see a very different world filled with the inventions he is so fascinated by in this movie, a world full of “wonderments.” In his last days he toured with Frank James, lecturing and performing in the Cole Younger and Frank James Wild West Company.