THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID. Universal Pictures, 1972. Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Elisha Cook (Jr.), Royal Dano. Screenwriter-Director: Philip Kaufman.

   Filmed in a style that approaches cinéma vérité, Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Road has a quasi-documentary feel to it, providing the viewer with an experience that’s almost akin to watching an historical recreation. The movie isn’t so much about plot as it is about atmosphere and, more significantly, about its portraiture of both outlaws and ordinary townsfolk.

   Indeed, when it’s at its best, the movie, with its naturalistic performances and lack of artifice allows the audience to be temporarily transported to a small, calm Midwest town in the year 1876 and the midst of great cultural and technological changes.

   Enter the outlaws who will wreak havoc in the town. Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall star, respectively, as Cole Younger and Jesse James in this superbly constructed feature about the Younger Gang’s last and final bank robbery that occurred in the town of Northfield, Minnesota. Both actors portray their characters as both instigators of events and as individuals able to make the most out of life’s circumstances and opportunities after the Confederate loss in the Civil War.

   The two are technically in cahoots, but they have very different personalities. Cole is the more introspective of the two; Jesse is the more reckless of the two and betrays a real hatred for the North. He’s also not fully to be trusted. Case in point: when Jesse learns that Cole’s sights are set on Northfield, he attempts to get there before Cole is fully recovered from being wounded in an ambush. Cole, for his part, seems just as intrigued by the societal and technological changes he witnesses in Northfield as he is by his upcoming final bank robbery.

   Be on the lookout for the beautiful sequence, filmed documentary style, in which he watches a rudimentary baseball game being played on the outskirts of town with Allen (Dana Elcar), one of the town elders. The message is delivered in a most subtle manner, but it’s abundantly clear. The era of gunslingers is fading away, the anarchic spirit represented by the Younger and James gangs will soon to be replaced by a new, more orderly national pastime, one that will eventually unite a formerly bitterly divided union.

   Some might argue that such a sequence takes the viewer out of the film and that it is unnecessary to the plot. But it’s moments like these –and there are a few of them scattered throughout the picture—that are what makes The Great Northfield Minnesota Road stand out from the rather bloated pack of cinematic representations of Cole Younger and Jesse James.