During the years following the Civil War, banks and trains become the targets of the James-Younger gang, outlaws who terrorize the Midwestern United States. The band of robbers is led by Jesse James and Cole Younger, along with several of their brothers.
A detective, Mr. Rixley from the Pinkerton's agency, is assigned to capture the outlaws. Leading his own large team of men, Rixley doggedly remains on their trail, killing several innocent relatives of the gang in the process. By the time, at Clell Miller's suggestion, the James-Younger Gang rides far north in September 1876 to rob a bank belonging to "squareheads" in Northfield, Minnesota, word is out about them and the town has been warned by the Pinkertons.
The holdup goes wrong in every way. The bank's vault has been set on a timer and cannot be opened. A cashier and another citizen are shot and killed. While trying to escape, the gang is fired upon by the townspeople, who, setting a trap, have barricaded both ends of the main street. Two outlaws, both recently recruited by Jesse, are killed, Clell is fatally gutshot, Frank is hit in the arm, and all of the Youngers are badly wounded.
Finally escaping Northfield, the surviving gang members temporarily make camp in some woods. Clell Miller is dying. Jim Younger, sporting more than several wounds, cannot speak due to a bullet piercing his cheek. Bob Younger, flat on his back, moans pitifully, shot multiple times. Cole Younger, seeming the most mobile of his siblings, has (as later reported by a physician) been hit by no less than eleven bullets. Frank James has only one minor injury. Jesse James appears to have escaped unscathed.
Hard decisions have to be made. A posse will be soon coming for the outlaws. Miller is on his last breaths. The three Younger brothers are so injured that they are unable to continue. Only Jesse and Frank James are in any condition to ride further. Even though it is his gang, and they follow his commands, Jesse elects to leave all the badly wounded behind. Frank reluctantly agrees. Cole objects, implying that it is disloyal to abandon them, but Jesse ignores him, while Frank declares that he has to abide by his brother's decision.
The James brothers return home to Missouri. An attempt is made by Pinkerton Rixley to make the Youngers, now in a prison hospital, reveal where the Jameses can be found. Rixley states that the Youngers will face life in prison (the state of Minnesota does not have the death penalty), but he offers them a more lenient sentence if they betray the James brothers. The Youngers, despite their abandonment, refuse to inform on the Jameses.
Jesse, not terribly affected by the disastrous Northfield raid, chooses to recruit a new gang. Bob and Charlie Ford, previously spurned in their efforts to join Jesse's outfit, are now invited to Jesse's home for dinner. The expectation is that Jesse will ask the two brothers to join him in further robberies. However, having made a prior deal with Rixley for a lucrative reward, Bob and Charlie shoot an unsuspecting Jesse James in the back while he straightens a picture frame.
Upon learning of his brother's assassination, Frank James surrenders his gun and turns himself in to Pinkerton Rixley, but only on the condition that he can first attend his brother's funeral. Rixley suggests that he might not agree to such terms, whereupon Frank declares that he will kill him if he refuses.
A train transports a wooden coffin bearing the body of Jesse James. Frank James, handcuffed to Rixley, stands at the railcar door, looking out, noting the people beside the tracks, paying their final respects to his brother, as the train passes by.
The Long Riders is a notable film in part due to the decision to cast four sets of actor brothers as the real-life sets of brothers:The Keaches: Jesse James (James Keach) and Frank James (Stacy Keach)
The Carradines: Cole Younger (David Carradine), Jim Younger (Keith Carradine) and Bob Younger (Robert Carradine)
The Quaids: Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid) and Clell Miller (Randy Quaid)
The Guests: Charley Ford (Christopher Guest) and Robert Ford (Nicholas Guest)
It also features an uncredited appearance by Ever Carradine, daughter of Robert Carradine and niece to David and Keith Carradine. Additionally James Keach's son, Kalen Keach, is cast as Jesse James's son Jesse E. James. Savannah Smith Boucher played Zee, or Jesse James' wife, Zerelda Mimms.James Whitmore, Jr. as Mr. Rixley
Kevin Brophy as John Younger
Harry Carey, Jr. as George Arthur
Shelby Leverington as Annie Ralston
Felice Orlandi as Mr. Reddick
Pamela Reed as Belle Starr
Lin Shaye as Kate
James Remar as Sam Starr
In 1971 James and Stacy Keach played the Wright brothers in a TV film called The Wright Brothers. This gave James the idea they should play Jesse and Frank James in a movie together. James wrote the play which Stacy financed and produced. The played it at the Bucks County Playhouse and then toured schools in New Jersey. Then the play was adapted into a country musical and performed off-Broadway at the Bowery Lane Theatre. James Keach produced (for $10,000), directed and starred as Jesse. The Keaches then decided to turn the musical into a feature film screenplay in which both could star.
In 1974 James Keach was acting opposite Robert Carradine in the TV movie The Hatfields and the McCoys and mentioned the project to him; Carradine suggested he and his brothers play the Younger brothers. The idea that all the brothers in the story be played by real-life brothers expanded, and Dennis and Randy Quaid also became attached to the project to play the Miller brothers.
James Keach later recalled, "Everyone told me, 'You can't get all these guys together; family devotion is one thing, but this is Hollywood.' We decided to prove how serious we were by having a group picture taken. We did it at midnight in a recording studio where Keith was cutting some numbers. We sent limousines for everyone; it was quite a production."
The photograph helped convince NBC to finance Long Riders as a six-hour mini-series. But then Fred Silverman became president of NBC and cancelled all mini-series ordered by his predecessors.
"It was all happening while I was on Bora Bora making The Hurricane," said James. "I spent a lot of time fishing with Tim Zinnemann, who was producing the picture. We became good friends and I told him about Long Riders.
Zinnemann took the project to United Artists, who were interested in funding the movie if a suitable director could be found. Zinnemann showed it to Walter Hill who agreed to direct.
Hill called the movie a "strange piece";
Instead of the logical conclusion being at Northfield, it then goes on to another phase of a spiral downward, and ends with Jesse's death. It's very hard material to give the proper dramatic curve to. It doesn't lay out in a classic three-act structure. It's almost a four-act piece with Northfield and the aftermath being the culmination of the third act. The fourth act is almost epilogue: How They Went Down... There's a line from a Jean-Luc Godard film: "The jokes are funny but the bullets are real." That's really what this movie is about. These were big, reckless, high-spirited guys that were unaware of the ripples they caused.
By this time the Bridges brothers had become unavailable. Joseph Bottoms had discussed the project with James Keach but wanted himself and his brothers to play the Youngers - parts already reserved for the Carradines. Eventually Randy and Dennis Quaid were signed to play the Miller brothers, and Nicholas and Chris Guest played the Ford brothers.
"The use of all the brothers can be perceived as a gimmick but I wanted a family feeling to the movie," said Hill.
In order to make the movie, David Carradine forfeited his customary profit participation; the Keach brothers gave up the extra profit percentages they were entitled to as executive producer in order that the Carradine brothers got the same amount of profits. When the film went over its original $7.5 million budget, the Keaches forfeited their executive producer fees. "The Long Riders has been made on faith and idealism," said Keach.
Walter Hill later said his "code" for the film was to keep "the jokes funny and the bullets real. It is about moral choices. I think people who object to violence shouldn't go to the movies."
Walter Hill later argued the best movie that had been made about the Younger-James brothers prior to this was The Return of Frank James. "In the historical sense it was also the least accurate, but it had a real sense of character truth," he said.
Some of the movie, especially the Northfield scene, was shot in Parrott, Georgia.
The film currently has a 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The music for the film was composed, arranged, and performed by Ry Cooder. Other performers on the soundtrack were multi-instramentalist David Lindley and percussionist Milt Holland. Some of the songs were released as an album, The Long Riders. It was the first of several soundtracks Cooder would write for Walter Hill.