I was thinking about my all-time favorite western films the other day when, to my surprise, I happened to catch “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” which came out in 1971 and starred Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall as Cole Younger and Jesse James, respectively.
No doubt, I among only a few who saw this movie when it came out. But I really liked it at the time because of the performances by Robertson and Duvall and the gritty depiction of the other members of the infamous James-Younger Gang who wandered to the north country to rob a bank in Northfield, only to be shot to pieces.
Frank and Jesse James escaped unharmed but the three Younger brothers– Cole, Jim and Bob– were severely wounded and captured. Three other outlaws were killed.
The Youngers were sent to Stillwater prison in Minnesota where Bob died of TB. Cole and Jim were released after 25 years. Jim later committed suicide.
Cole Younger lived his last days back in Missouri where he wrote about his exploits and became a borna-again Christian. My wife’s grandfather grew up in the town where Younger lived. As a young man at the turn of the century, he was accosted on the street by a wild-eyed Younger who lapsed into an impromptu sermon on sin and repentance.
I always liked that story and I’ve always liked the story of the James-Younger Gang. But this movie does not crack the top 10 list of great westerns. It’s good. It’s interesting. But it’s also unevenly edited and includes a ludicrous and especially long interval of an 1876 baseball game.
Here’s the top 10.
1. “Outlaw Josey Wales” 1976. Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George. An epic and Eastwood’s best.
2. “Lonely Are The Brave” 1962. Kirk Douglas, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy. Based on the Edward Abbey novel, “The Brave Cowboy” this film has had a lasting impression on me. I’ve seen it many, many times and never tire of it. It’s a modern western about encroaching civilization and the loss of freedom. Not a traditional shoot -em up.
3. “Lonesome Dove” Robert Duvall and others. A TV mini-series, but it has to rank high on list. Absolutely the best thing Duvall ever did. He was the glue that held this masterpiece together.
4. “High Noon” 1950. Gary Cooper.
5. “Ulzanna’s Raid” 1972. Burt Lancaster and others. Scary Indian flick and in that way, not altogether politically correct. Lancaster plays a wizened Indian scout.
6. “Tom Horn” 1980. Steve McQueen. One of McQueen’s last movies before he died. Plays real-life character who was hanged for a murder he may not have committeed.
7. “Stage Coach” 1939. Fabulous John Ford western and the film that put John Wayne on the map.
8. “Culpepper Cattle Company,” 1972. Cast of virtual unknowns, but many of the actors appeared in other westerns of that era, including the aforementioned Great Northfield Raid. This movie about an ill-fated cattle drive ranks ahead of “Red River” and right alongside “Lonesome Dove” in realism, but it’s rather hin on plot. Only real western fans know this movie. I own the DVD.
9. “Will Penny” 1968. Charlton Heston, Donald Pleasence, Bruce Dern and others. Best acting turn by far that Heston ever did. Dern is great in one of his many roles as a psycho outlaw.
10. “The Long Riders” 1980. This Walter Hill directed flick also depicted the ill-fated Northfield raid and was the better film. The novelty was that four sets of real-life acting brothers were in it– The Keach Brothers, the Carradines, the Quaids and the Guests. Great sound track by Ry Cooder. I have the vinyl stashed somewhere in my attic.
I’ve got a load of them, but here are a few– “The Wild Bunch,” “High Plains Drifter” “The Professionals” (really close to making the top 10) “Ballad of Cable Hogue.” Also “Shane,” but only because of the fantastic performance by Jack Palance who set the standard for sociopathic black-hatted bad guys.
BAD OR JUST PLAIN OVERRATED :
“The Magnificent Seven” Wow, some 50 years later this is really embarrassing.
“3:10 to Yuma.” Russell Crowe nightmare. The New York Times film critic loved it. Say no more.
“Dances With Wolves.” Pure tripe. A profile in Kevin Costner narcissism. Horrible. Costner made another western with Duvall, the name of which I thankfully forgot until somebody reminded me it was “Open Range.” Even Duvall, who tried valiantly to reprise his Gus persona from :”Lonesome Dove,” must have cringed.
But there was one good thing in it– a flood scene in which a dog is swept up in a torrent and saved by Costner. That made me like Costner for a minute.
COULDA BEEN A CONTENDER:
“The Missouri Breaks” 1976, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid and Marlon Brando. This film was written by one of the great western writers, Thomas McGuane. An overweight, over-indulged Brando ruined this movie with his hambone performance. He committed a creative felony of hamminess. Just ruined it.
Brando was an ass and that’s all there is to it.