Despite having received pardons from the Missouri legislature in recognition of their military service to the Confederacy, Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) simply cannot stop robbing banks. The James-Younger Gang has set their sights on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, which is said to be the biggest bank west of the Mississippi. Cole arrives in Northfield before the rest of the gang and scouts the location. What he discovers is that most of the town’s citizens aren’t putting their money in the bank because they all assume that it will eventually be robbed. With Jesse determined to pull off the crime of the century, Cole and Jesse have to figure out not only how to escape after the robbery but also how to get the people to deposit their money in the bank’s vault in the first place.
Philip Kaufman is a director who made a career out of reinterpreting history (his best known film is The Right Stuff) and, when it was first released in 1972, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid was a revisionist western that mixed moments of comedy with moments of brutal violence. Today, of course, presenting Jesse James and Cole Younger as being ruthless outlaws is no longer that daring of a narrative choice. In The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Robert Duvall plays Jesse as being the western equivalent of a corrupt businessman, sending others to do his dirty work and not accepting any of the consequences for his own bad decisions. Robertson plays Cole as being more a free spirit, an outlaw who is determined to enjoy himself. Both of them give interesting performances but they also seem to be too contemporary for the characters that they’re playing.
Like most revisionist westerns of the early 70s, the film is full of hints that the old west and the time of the outlaws is coming to an end. There’s a steam engine sitting outside of the bank and Kaufman spends almost as much time focusing on people reacting to that as he does on the planning and execution of the robbery. When the robbery does finally occur, it’s not an easy robbery like you might find a 1940s western. Instead, it’s a violent comedy of errors that leaves much of the film’s characters dead or wounded in the streets of Northfield. The contrast between the quirky comedy of the first part of the film and the violence of the robbery is occasionally interesting but it often feels forced. Sometimes, Kaufman seems like he’s trying too hard to be Sam Peckinpah. In the end, Kaufman often doesn’t seem to be sure what he’s trying to say with this film. He seems to be suggesting that Jesse and Cole are soon to be relics of a bygone era but why then cast Duvall and Robertson in the roles and have them play the roles like two mid-level hoodlums in 20th Century New York?
It’s an interesting but muddled film that never quite works. For the definitive film about the James/Younger Gang, check out Walter Hill’s The Long Riders.