We love the bad guys. A new Brad Pitt film revives an American love affair with violence. But Pitt is only one of a host of actors, famous and forgotten, who have played Jesse James in film over much of the last 100 years. We explore the film history of the nation's best known murdering outlaw.
NH AUTHOR HUNTS DOWN JESSE JAMES IN FILM
VISIT the DINGUS PROJECT (Jesse James film history)
Like so many men before me, I am on the trail of the murderous Jesse James. He rides like the devil just over the horizon, forever out of range. A killer and a thief in real life, the historical Jesse James was assassinated on April 3, 1882 by Robert Ford, one of his own gang members. By then, after a crime spree that lasted nearly 20 years, James was already famous, his image pumped up by fictional dime novels and book-length biographies based on wildly inaccurate newspaper accounts. By shooting James in the back, when he was unarmed and in his own home with his wife and two children, Bob Ford pushed the outlaw from notoriety to martyrdom.
A new movie starring Brad Pitt recycles the legend one more time. I’ve not yet seen it. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is, by my count, the fifty-third film about the infamous Missouri outlaw. I have, so far, watched thirty-five of them. I intend to see them all. I am chasing this movie character the way detective Alan Pinkerton pursued the real Jesse James – and like Pinkerton, I am doomed to fail. The real Jesse James is dead and much of the truth died with him. The legendary Jesse James cannot be captured or killed because he represents our national madness. He is the righteous American killer. He is an anti-hero, both victim and victor. He is violence on a mission from God.
I joined this posse quite by accident when I was asked to write a short biography of Jesse James for a publisher of books for young teens. What red-blooded male could turn such an assignment down? I was shocked during my research to see how many earlier books were sympathetic to James, a man who killed more people than Charles Manson. At the Centralia Kansas massacre, guerilla forces marched 20 unarmed Union soldiers off a train, forced them to strip and shot all but one at close range. "Bloody" Bill Anderson, more gang leader than soldier, considered the teenaged Jesse among his most deadly raiders. As former guerilla "bushwackers" in the Civil War, Jesse and his brother Frank are often excused as the products of a violent era who carried on the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy long after the war. The James Brothers only robbed and killed Yankees, the legend goes. They contributed their stolen loot to Southern causes.
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Jesse James, Legendary Outlaw
But the facts prove otherwise. The "Robin Hood" image is pure myth, penned by newsman John Newman Edwards, a fan of Southern insurgent leader William Quantrill. Edwards almost single-handedly turned a serial killer into a polite and handsome highwayman. Jesse was the son of a Baptist preacher, many biographers point out, but fail to mention that his father trafficked in enslaved black children and died when Jesse was barely old enough to remember him. Jesse had a restless spirit. Frank quoted Shakespeare. Both men married and raised children. These details are offered as if they excuse all crimes.
As an American anti-hero, the legendary Jesse James quickly became fodder for stage melodramas and then films. Although Thomas Edison’s silent classic "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) isn’t about the James gang, it might as well have been. The James-Younger Gang has long been credited with the first American train robbery. Two silent films featuring the James Boys appeared in 1908 and 1911. Then in a macabre twist, the outlaw’s real son played his father in the 1921 silent movie "Jesse James Under the Black Flag." The bizarre screenplay begins when a millionaire crashes his plane on the estate of Jesse James Jr. and learns, through his son, that the famous criminal was actually a good guy. The film was a box office flop and left Jesse Jr. bankrupt and depressed.
Every American boy wants to play Jesse James, the man who could not be captured. So apparently, does every American man. Actors portraying Jesse James include Colin Farrel, Tyrone Power, James Keach, James Coburn, Roy Rogers, Rob Lowe, Clement Moore (aka TV’s Lone Ranger), Robert Wagner, Kris Kristofferson, Wendell Corey (twice) and Robert Duvall. I’ve seen them all. Farrel in "American Outlaws" (2001) is, hands down, the worst of the lot, depicting James as a cross between Superman and one of the Dukes of Hazard. Coburn and Duvall characterize James as just short of a psychopath. Audie Murphy, the most decorated American combat soldier in World war II, played James early in his film career in 1950 and again in his final film "A Time for Dying" (1969) just before his own death. Henry Fonda played Frank James in two films in 1939 and 1940 that were presented as the true story of the outlaw brothers. The only thing accurate about these films, according to a descendant of the outlaw, was that Jesse wore a hat and rode a horse.
Not even Bill Hickcok, Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp comes close to matching Jesse James film for film. His name is synonymous with outlawry, and often, the iconic Jesse James appears as the bad guy with the heart of gold. Unable to capture James, the state of Missouri considered offering him amnesty simply to end his crime spree. Bob Ford solved the problem by shooting James in the back. America, however, has granted the fictional Jesse James a full pardon, and a handsome royalty.
In the film "Purgatory" (1999) God gives a re-incarnated James a shot at getting into heaven if he can suppress his violent ways for 10 years. In "The Remarkable Andrew" (1942) – in the company of George Washington and Ben Franklin -- James returns to save an honest bookkeeper from being framed by a corrupt small town government. Jesse James appears in an episode of "Little House on the Prairie," and in comedy-westerns with Bob Hope and the Three Stooges. In the trash classic "Jesse James Versus Frankenstein’s Daughter," (1966) a kind-hearted Jesse saves a Mexican village from the deadly scalpel of a well-endowed vivisectionist. Indeed, there is an entire sub-genre of B-westerns where James meets a femme fatale. And yes, I own copies of "Renegade Girl" (1946), "Jesse James’s Women" (1954) and "The Woman They Almost Lynched" (1953).
There are a few movies that come dangerously close to the truth. "The True Story of Jesse James," (1957) however, is not one of them. One of the best of the genre, "Ride with the Devil," (1999) is not about James at all. Instead, the film probes the psyche of a fictional Missouri bushwhacker caught between warring neighbors on the bloody border states during the Civil War. The reality plays much like the life of an Iraqi insurgent in Baghdad today – caught between warring worlds. For a wink at the true story, I recommend "The Great Missouri Raid" (1951), "The Long Riders," (1980) and "The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (1986). Even though singers Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash are 20 years too old to play Jesse and Frank, this made-for-TV movie struggles to get the history right. When an admirer asks Frank which of the stories about his adventures are true, Frank replies, "I wouldn’t believe very much that’s been written about us from any source." That goes for the movies too.
Ultimately, we learn more about ourselves from these films than we do about Jesse James. Given the choice between fact and fiction, we always prefer the latter, Rambo inevitably outguns reality. Despite the body count, the American with the gun, especially if he’s handsome like Brad PItt and has suffered an injustice, is the Lord’s warrior. If he can also dodge a hail of bullets, leap horses through windows and jump onto moving trains – all the better. The rules do not apply to him. His victims are faceless. His story is everlasting.
Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved.
Robinson is the author of "Jesse James, Legendary Outlaw" by Compass Point, available for $10 (or less) on Amazon.com. For more on Jesse James films by Robinson go to SeacoastNH.com or search Google for the phrase "The Dingus Project".