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Legends of the American West

Jesse James
Jesse James in Film #2

Short and sweet, this documentary gets the Jesse James story accross, and sticks pretty close to the facts. Features an interview with the outlaws frandson and tells the story without glorifying the outlaw too much.

Jesse James: Legends of the American West (1992)

30 minutes, color
Cabin Fever documentary

Legends of the American West, Jesse JamesDocumentary host and character actor Harry Carey Jr. – a veteran of over 80 films, mostly westerns -- appears her on horseback against a mountainous background. He presents the standard noncommittal assertion that Jesse James was a "Robin Hood" to some, and a "cold-blooded killer" to others. Fact is, he was a cold-blooded killed no matter which way you slice it. This is a straightforward 30-minute low-budget presentation. This video is part of a series that presents the basics of bad guys of the West with a good selection of historical still images, talking-head interviews and video "color" clips. The canned musical score is erratic at best, but this is a watchable documentary.

Judge James Ross, grandson of Jesse James, is interviewed wearing his judicial robes. The judge quotes his mother who, after seeing the 1939 Tyrone Power version of the Jesse James legend, reportedly said: "There were two men named Frank and Jesse James, and they did ride horses." But nothing else in that popular version, she said, was accurate.

Although this documentary admits that journalist John Newman Edwards created the legendary Robin Hood image popular in the South, narrator Carey and grandson Judge Ross continue to muddy the "legendary" elements for readers more interested in myth than truth. Although it does not compare with the recent PBS documentary and sticks closely to James’ Family history, this is a solid short video for first-timers and school children.

Dingus INdex

A bonus film clip shows Jesse James Jr. playing his father in the death scene from the 1921 silent film Jesse James The Outlaw. Clearly designed for a popular audience, writer-director-producer Marino Amoruso sticks closely near to the facts. Then in conclusion, he adds: "The truth of their lives no longer matters, nor do Jesse and Frank themselves. All people want to know is the legend, and all the legend needs to grow is an audience. And that is something it will always have." This critic disagrees. While it is certainly true that the fascinating legend has taken on a life of its own, it is critical to teach children the skills to be able to separate fiction from fact. That is done by holding the two side-by-side and making clear scholarly comparisons. This documentary, ably narrated by Ray white, comes close, and then backs away.

Text copyright (c) J. Dennis Robinson on

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