The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (Kaufman, 1972)

In the new issue of the Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine All Story, Andrew Malan Milward’s short story “The Burning of Lawrence” brutally dissects the merits and pitfalls of historiography. Milward examines constructed first person accounts from the famous raid of Lawrence, Kansas by William Quantrill and his 450 bushwhackers (a devastating moment amidst a flurry of such acts during the The Civil War), while paralleling his own experience as a college student at Kansas University, also located in Lawrence. The most interesting scene in Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid also deals with the raid on Lawrence, when Jesse James (Robert Duvall) remembers his supposed role alongside Quantrill. Riding down a soggy dirt street into Northfield, Minnesota where he and the Younger boys plan to rob a bank, Jesse preaches to his brother Frank the necessity of teaching the Yankee’s a lesson. The way his passion overtakes any sense of justice; his anger, brutality, and ultimate survival, all make Kaufman’s film a fascinating and conflicting experience. History, as in both texts, depends on the storyteller and point of view. Kaufman’s film, as with many revisionist westerns of the time, references ironic twists audience members can pick up on, representing a sense of fate for the Younger/James gang. Since the purported history of their exploits is well known, Kaufman wants to undercut the familiar Old West iconography with grimy, bloody incarnations of a darker version of genre. The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid jumps from tone to tone, at once funny, playful, sadistic, and satirical, however it’s the persona of Duvall’s weasel version of James that stands alone. Often pushed to the side by Cliff Robertson’s powerful Cole, Jesse, with panache and smarts, knows when to kill and when to ride. It’s no surprise Kaufman has him murder a nice old lady and steal her clothes to get away from the posse, yet the horrifying nature of the act reminds of Lawrence, where discretion died along side all of the Jayhawkers caught in Quantrill’s wrath. It will be interesting to compare Duvall’s James with the more romantic and hypnotic variation in the new Brad Pitt film, The Assassination of Jesse James… But as in “The Burning of Lawrence”, comparing historical points of view will inevitably open up more interpretation and doubt.

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