Walter Hill directed a number of unglamorous revisionist westerns in the 80s and 90s including ‘Geronimo’ and ‘Wild Bill’, and more recently, contributing to the success of the HBO TV series, ‘Deadwood’. ‘The Long Riders’ is arguably one of the best films Walter Hill directed, and it came at a time when the western was more or less dormant, helping to revive the critical status of an essential Hollywood genre. The key to Hill’s direction is that it is wonderfully understated in how he refuses to adhere to any kind of conventional means of fulfilling audience expectations – this is illustrated on several occasions through a rejection of narrative continuity and melodrama.
Many of the Hollywood westerns post Peckinpah were somewhat tainted by the sentimental attachment to melodramatic outbursts but it took directors like Peckinpah and Leone to depict a vision of the west that was brutally ugly in how violence manifested itself in the sphere of troubled masculinity. Walter Hill borrows heavily from the slow motion lexicon of Peckinpah, revealing to us with great stylistic flourish of course, the disturbing effect of violence on the human body, creating a constant atmosphere of dread, anxiety and moral uncertainty that seems to ensnare desperate men like Jesse James.
Some critics have said that throughout his career Walter Hill has always been making westerns, and such an observation may be true of his body work that consists of commercially successful projects like ‘The Warriors’ and ’48 Hours’, which even though may be considered urban action thrillers, are still underlined by an array of visual allusions and cinematic references to a genre that has helped to shap the identity of American nationhood for a long time.
One of the decisive sequences in the film is the fatal Northfield bank raid that goes terribly wrong. The gang find out too late to make a clean get away and are forced to shoot it out with an armed town that has already been made aware of the fact that the gang may raid the local bank. An elegy to the poetic fatalism of Peckinpah’s violent universe, Hill goes on a wild rampage in terms of editing, cross cutting with slow motion images of the gang being massacred at the hands of ordinary law abiding citizens. Nowhere near a masterpiece in terms of the genre, but still a moving and sombre study of masculinity and its preoccupation with death.