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Another Shot at Jesse James

The late Jesse James / Lib Congress
THE LEGEND THAT NEVER DIES

America loves its villains. And no villain has stolen more celluloid than the outlaw Jesse James. Although his story has never been truly told on film, Hollywood just can’t stay away from the legend. This time around Brad Pitt will play James. And even as the film is being shot, the author is digging into the truth behind the myth.

Like that dirty little coward Bob Ford I too am taking aim at Jesse James. A publisher has asked me to write a short juvenile biography of the Missouri outlaw. There are already scores of biographies of Jesse James and I have a lot of them right in front of me. James has what marketing agents call "name recognition". Everybody knows he robbed banks, rode horses and shot people. Many know he also robbed trains and stagecoaches, had a wife and kids and a brother Frank, rode with the Youngers and was eventually shot in the back by gang member Robert Ford while straightening a picture frame in his own home.

Just a few of the recent books and films about Jesse James / SeacoastNH.comI learned that much from movies. I’ve seen seven so far. Jesse James has been the subject of at least 35 films. Even mild-mannered Roy Rogers played him on the silver screen. So did Tyrone Power, William Parker, Clayton Moore (TV’s original Lone Ranger), Cliff Robertson, Colin Farrell, Rob Lowe, Kris Kristofferson. It all began with a silent film about James in 1908. In 1921, Jesse Edwards James, the outlaw’s own son, played the role of his father.

Now Brad Pitt has signed on to portray the infamous fugitive in "The Assassination of Jesse James". Mary-Louise Parker will play James’ wife Zee who was also his first cousin. Based on a novel by Ron Hansen, the film is now being shot in the wild western territory of Canada. By the time the filming is over I should be finished with the manuscript for this little book. Both will appear next year.

Does the world need, you may legitimately ask, more books and films about a man who robbed and killed people? I say, it can’t hurt. History, you see, reinvents itself every generation or two. What I want to tell children about Jesse James is going to be different from what people told kids in the past.

Thanks to an early newspaper editor, Jesse James got some very positive publicity during the peak of his frontier career. When James robbed a bank, the newspaper editor said, he was just a Confederate rebel striking back at the Union that had just won the Civil War. When James robbed a train, he was just sticking it to the evil Northern millionaires who were exploiting the Southern farmers. When somebody got killed, well, they were just in the way. Even people in Missouri, according to my early reading, got pretty sick of Jesse James in his own lifetime. He never really robbed the rich and gave to the poor, as the newspaper and dime-novels said. He kept the money, gambled heavily, spent everything he had, went into debt and robbed and killed again.

History has made a lot of apologies for Jesse James. He was just a kid when the Civil War hit his homeland with ruthless force. He saw some horrific scenes, participated in them too. His family was terribly mistreated by the Pinkertons who came looking for him. His stepbrother was killed. His mother’s arm was blown off. Jesse James had a lot of reasons to be angry. And the more the Pinkerton’s botched his capture, the more sympathetic James appeared. When he was finally shot in the back and his killer was exonerated by the law, the makings of the legend were complete.

Americans love outlaws. We are awash in violence to this day. Our murder rate is the highest in the world. We walk softly and carry some very big sticks. And maybe all that has something to do with the way our nation grew up, fast and hard. Our media likes to tell a good story, much of the time, more than it likes to tell the truth. We Americans talk obsessively about money and material goods. We have spawned a race of corporations that are known around the planet. And we treat our rich and famous – whether they deserve it or not – like royalty.

You can see how we treat the famous by Googling Brad Pitt as he begins shooting the new Jesse James film. Apparently a Canadian radio station has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can capture Pitt and drag him into the studio for an interview. Critics have called the offer "borderline stalking". Inquiring people want to know what his ex-fiance actress Gweneth Paltrow had to say about Pitt dumping his estranged wife actress Jennifer Aniston in favor of actress Angelia Jolie. Jessie James, who spent 18 years of his life as a fugitive, could empathize. I can see from the latest shot on Reuters that Pitt has outgrown his long Achilles of Troy hairdo and is sporting the same close cut that James wore during his lawless heyday.

Jesse/ Brad

Pitt isn’t the first cinematic Jesse and he won’t be the last. You have to wonder how Pitt will picture James. So far none of the dozens of movies has told the story with real accuracy. They hover around the facts, but they never seem to land. Since this latest version is based on a novel that digs into the mind of killer Bob Ford, there is no need to expect the truth this time around either.

The truth, as best we know it, is better left to books. And there are some good ones out there with the bad. All I know from my reading so far is that James was not a hero and, no matter how tough his life was, each robbery and each murder made him less sympathetic, but not less interesting. My goal is to tell the true story to kids in a way that does not glorify the violence. It is possible, I believe, to trim back the legend by telling more of the truth and less of the fantasy. How, as Americans, we get from truth to fantasy – and back – makes this tale still worth the telling. It is a story, after all, about how America became what it is today.

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