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I Shot Jesse James

Jesse James in Film

Like the new Brad Pitt film, this early version focuses around the tortuous life of Bob Ford, assassin of Jesse James. Turning Ford into a hero is a tricky prospect. The film is largely a re-enactment of the popular ballad of Jesse James, chronicling what happened to "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard" in the aback in Missouri.

I Shot Jesse James (1949)
81 minutes, b&w
John Ireland, Barbara Birton, Reed Hadley, Preston Foster

I shot Jesse James 1949 film on the Dingus ProjectThe movie opens with a stirring rendition of the ballad to find the James Gang smack in the middle of a dramatic robbery that goes sour. Bob Ford (John Ireland) is shot and comes to live with zee and Jesse James for six months. This complete fiction is intended to create a closer connection between Ford and James than ever existed. Bob also has a girlfriend, an actress named Cynthy Waters (played by Barbara Briton who ended her career on the soap opera One Life to Live.) Cynthy will marry Bob, but only if he goes back to farming. She doesn’t want to end up like Zee James. "Last time I saw her hiding out in a mountain cabin she looked 50 instead of 30," Cynthy says.

The bearded Jesse James, aka Mr. Howard, also looks much older than his years, played here by 38 year old Reed Hadley. Zee tries to warn her husband about Ford. "I pick my friends and I know them," Jesse argues. But the lure of $10,000 reward money is too much for Ford, who wants to marry Cynthy. He passes up a chance to shoot his friend in the bath and through a window, but cannot resist when Jesse takes off his guns and straightens a picture on the wall. This part is factual.

Cynthy, like everyone, rejects Ford for his cowardly act. He escapes prison, but gets only $500 for his treachery. When he tries to re-enact the murder as part of a theater production (also true) he cannot handle the shame. Fearing for his life – everybody wants to shoot him – Ford goes West and strikes it rich in a silver mine. Along the way he saves a miner’s life, and begins to draw a little sympathy from the audience. Cynthy softens too and comes to join him in Colorado, ostensibly to get married. But the truth is, Cynthy is only passing through to a theater gig in Denver.

Jesse James

Fate won’t let go of Bob Ford. Cynthy has another suitor, John Kelley (Preston Foster). Kelley and Ford and Cynthy all end up in the same mining town when who should walk in but Jesse’s brother, Frank James. Frank is looking for Bob Ford, but winds up captured and on trial for his lifetime of crimes. Frank is acquitted (another bit of fact) and sets the final scene. Frank puts Ford into a jealous rage by telling him that Cynthy is really in love with Kelley.

Historically, Bob Ford did go to Colorado where he opened a couple of saloons, following the money from silver strikes. He was killed by a man named Ed O’Kelley who shot Ford with a shotgun at close range. In the film, John Kelley is more honorable. He meets Ford in a "high noon" style shoot-out, but tortures Ford by standing in the street with his back to him. When Kelley finally turns around, Ford shoots him in the shoulder, but Kelly’s aim is more precise. Cynthy runs into the street and cradles the dying Bob Ford whose final words are, "I’m sorry for what I done to Jess. I loved him."

Despite its melodrama, "I Shot Jesse James" makes a reasonable attempt to plumb the psyche of Bob Ford, and gets at least the outline of the story correct. The weakest part of the story is the trumped up theory that Ford did what he did in order to marry his girlfriend. With so much mythology surrounding James, history often forgets that he was a man who killed often and brutally. By shooting him in the back Ford not only destroyed himself, but helped promote the James legend by making him an unlikely and undeserving martyr.


Copyright © by J. Dennis Robinson on All rights reserved.

Jesse James






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