Jesse James, as played by Robert Duvall, is too vicious a man to be a Robin Hood-like criminal, as the Duvall vehicle, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)—and pop legend—would have it. Amnesty is proposed for James and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) and their two gangs because they have kindly protected ordinary people from railroad men. Once the amnesty is denied, though, decent-in-some-ways Younger agrees to join James in robbing a Northfield, Minnesota bank.
For the most part the film, written and directed by Philip Kaufman, tries to be realistic about America in the 1870s. Primitives confront a changing world, although rage over the Civil War ain’t going away. The ritualistic behavior and James’s religious-sounding declamation suggest the rise on American soil of pious, heretical cults like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Kaufman’s script falls short here and there, but he ably presents moral ambiguity and chaos at their most mystifying. And Minnesota Raid can be explosively fun. It is a much better movie than Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with scenes that are winningly shot and designed. Today it would be rated R, but in ’72 it got a PG. But, yeah, it is an adult Western.