The eccentric, little-known, tremendously enjoyable 1970s Western The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid has, interestingly enough, been playing around New York City a lot lately. This might be a cue from the universe telling all us Western fans to get acquainted. Tonight it screens at MoMA as part of a film series dedicated to the work of its writer & director, Philip Kaufman, who is probably best known for The Right Stuff, which he made a decade later. What those two films have in common is their exploration of male comraderie and conflict, resentment and jealousy in the face of fame, and how these positive and negative emotions can so often be intertwined.
In The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Kaufman looks at the Old West outlaw James/Younger gang, who have been examined and demythologized in films as diverse as Jesse James (1939), The Long Riders (1980), and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007).
Cliff Robertson, who helped produce the film, is charming and intense in one of his career-best roles as Cole Younger, the perpetually underrated cohort of Jesse James. If you only know and love Cliff Robertson from his role as Uncle Ben in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, you’ll be elated at what a good ol’ shitkicking badass he is in this movie. Robertson’s innate likability also centers the film, and gives it what melancholy it has, as the more notorious and much more vicious Jesse James chafes under Cole Younger’s leadership to the point that it eventually splits the gang.
In The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Jesse James is played by none other than ROBERT DUVALL! Here, Duvall was already more than a decade into his legendary career and at this point, rapidly accelerating in the widespread esteem that he’s enjoyed ever since — this was the first of his movies to be released after The Godfather (also in 1972). The point of fame is a pertinent one because it factors into the tension between the two lead characters, James and Younger, just as much as their bank-robbing methodology does. Cliff Robertson may even have been the bigger star at the time, but Duvall’s Jesse James is more showy, more attention-grabbing, more impudent. For modern audiences, Duvall is probably the more recognizable, which works even more to the proper effect. While we relate to and care more for Cliff Robertson’s portrayal, we also understand why Jesse James is the more famous name. But it’s quite clear why Cole Younger lived the longer life.
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid has plenty more to recommend it: The cinematography is by the late, great Bruce Surtees (Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, White Dog). There are some terrifically edited shoot-outs, a naked lady, a man with no mouth (the great, recently-departed Luke Askew), and, in a fascinating digression, an entire old-fashioned baseball game.
This is an entertaining, poppy, tonally-fascinating Western, and a compelling deconstruction of myth and legend on the part of Philip Kaufman — particularly considering that he was only four years away from writing The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of the greatest, most savage deconstructionist Westerns ever made. Not a bad warm-up at all.
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