The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

John Pearce and Robert Duvall as Frank and Jesse James in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1972).

The biggest problem with this movie is its inability to tell the difference between satire and farce. For a certain sensibility, that's also part of what makes it interesting. The gee-whiz voiceover that begins the film gushes enthusiastically about the heroic qualities of Jesse James and his fellow outlaws, and what follows for the rest of the film is designed to show us, in incrementally stronger doses, what a load of horseshit all that is. But then there are bizarrely "comic" sequences like the Northfield baseball game, or more generally, the entire treatment of Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson. Cole is "the guy you like." He's curious, compassionate, good-natured--basically, a teddy bear. He shows the kids the bullet holes in his protective leather vest, and he fixes the calliope guy's calliope (much to his later regret). Jesse (Robert Duvall), by contrast, is a slobbering fiend, a cracker zealot, a murderous big bad wolf. But this contrast doesn't go anywhere, so we're left in a divided state of attention that finally seems beside the point. One could argue that there's some kind of irony in the realization that, at a crucial climactic moment, Jesse makes a decision that turns out to be strategically "right," whereas Cole's humanitarian instincts prove to be ill-considered. Sort of like the central argument between Mr. Cooper and Ben in Night of the Living Dead. This film, however, doesn't deliver its nihilism with the same brutal confidence as Romero's.

The film is still saturated with an idiot vitality that makes it well worth watching. Duvall is blood-curdling, especially from the moment when he says "She's a Yankee too" to the end of the film. The Northfield scenes are very colorfully and interestingly shot (they were actually filmed in Jacksonville, Oregon, a few miles away from me). When a big steam-engine proto-automobile thing comes chugging down the main street like a dinosaur, Cole's mouth drops ("Now, that's a wonderment"), and the other outlaws take a step back, momentarily frozen in terror. A pretty Scandinavian whore sings a beautiful song in the town brothel. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small role (too small) as a bank employee. And there's some good dialogue. A couple of the outlaws are arguing over whether a ring around the moon means it's going to rain, and one says that don't mean anything, it's just an old wives' tale, and the other says it don't have to mean anything if it's true.

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