The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) dir. Philip Kaufman
Starring: Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew
By Alan Bacchus
Philip Kaufman is a venerable old filmmaker, a career which spans 40 years with a variety of memorable and culturally significant films. Perhaps ‘The Right Stuff’ is his most famous film – certainly his best. But scouring his filmography you’d see a some sci-fi, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978), the Daniel Day-Lewis starrer, ‘The Unbearable Likeness of Being’, ‘Quills’, ‘Henry and June’, of course, his screenplay credit on ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’
His breakout film ‘The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid’, though a flawed, has enough sparkles of greatness to warrant our attention.
The title refers to famous failed bank robbery by the James/Younger gang. This is not a Jesse James film though, but a vehicle for Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger, the charismatic leader of the gang. After a violent gunbattle with the Pinkertons, the gang finds themselves split up – Jesse James and his brother taking half the gang to Northfield to violate an amnestry agreement with the government and rob their new bank, and Younger who apparently is working with the Northfield bankers to trap James. Once in Northfield, it’s a doublecross and a reunification of James and Younger to take down the bank. But thanks to the new fangled time lock device installed the gang runs into some major problems and soon finds themselves under siege by the citizens of the town who band together to protect their own money.
Kaufman’s dank and dirty environment replete with muddy outhouses, a grim and psychotic depiction of James by Robert Duvall and the especially bloody treatment of the violence positions the film in the revisionist subgenre of Westerns. Part Altman, part Peckinpah, part (Arthur) Penn, it’s a conscious and admirable attempt by Kaufman to show us another side of the mythologized James gang. Unfortunately Walter Hill did this story monumentally better with ‘the Long Riders’ just 8 years later, a film which renders Kuafman’s film virtually irrelevant.
There’s an awful 'television' quality to much of it - specifically Paul Frees' voiceover which unnecessarily sets the scene with Dukes of Hazard-like hokiness. The only line missing is ‘previously on ‘The Great Northfield Massacre' . Add in Dave Grusin's cooky and bumbling country score and we’re in Bonanza territory. And lastly the title sequence featuring bubbly yellow font put the audience in a completely different tone of film to what Kaufman needs to establish off the top.
What we can still cherish is Cliff Robertson who is fantastic as Cole Younger, and so it was no surprise to see he was one of the producers, and thus, likely a passion project for him. The actual Raid sequence is superbly directed - not quite 'Long Riders' artistic grandiosity, but Kaufman’s use of the plummeting rainstorm echoes the famous waterworks in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’ climax. Robert Duvall is grossly miscast, or perhaps grossly misdirected. As an unintelligible hillbilly psychopath he lacks all the lustre the name Jesse James conjures up. Perhaps it was by design from producer/actor Robertson who didn’t want his character overshadowed.
For Western genre fans, 'The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid' is still essential viewing as a decent benchamrk in the evolution of the Western.