In context: who was Jesse James?

Celebrated in dime novels, stage shows, songs, television programmes and films, Jesse James is one of America’s most notorious outlaw heroes. Legend casts him as a gun-slinging 'Robin Hood', who robbed trains and banks as a protest against big business and the oppression of ordinary folk on the frontier. Evading the law throughout a 16-year criminal career (1866–82) only enhanced his status, and when he was shot in the back by his accomplice Robert Ford, a popular ballad reviled “the dirty little coward who laid poor Jesse in his grave”.


Jesse James

Dir: Henry King, USA, 1939. With Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly

Here we find the legend in its purest form. Jesse is introduced as a wholesome and smiling farm boy, growing up in Missouri after the Civil War. Trouble comes with the westward expansion of the railroads. Ruthless agents force farmers to sell their land at rock-bottom prices, but Jesse and his older brother, Frank, stand up to them, and in the ensuing confrontation their mother is killed.

Hence, the brothers set out on a criminal path to seek revenge for their mother’s killing. Jesse’s wife, Zee, is the voice of morality in the film, insisting that Jesse must give himself up, serve time for his crimes, and return to her as a free and honest man.

Mel Gibson in a scene from the film 'Braveheart'

But a deal between Jesse and a benevolent federal marshal is scuppered by a railroad company executive, and he is forced to continue his criminal life. The film therefore presents it as a sad irony that this reluctant outlaw, seeking to live a respectable life, is shot down in his own front room and while reaching for a framed sampler that reads ‘Home Sweet Home’.

Far-fetched as all of this may be, the film gains some authenticity from location shooting in Missouri, from the restrained use of Technicolor, and from an earnest cast. It also has memorable action sequences. One night-time scene, showing a black-clad Jesse leaping from his horse on to a moving train, and then making his way like a cat on top of the moving carriages, was so striking that it was used again in The True Story of Jesse James.

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Another scene, in which Jesse and Frank leap off a cliff top and into a river while on horseback, was memorable for the wrong reasons. A horse was killed, and henceforth humane societies would insist on supervising the use of animals on film sets.

But is it accurate?

“About the only connection it has with fact is that there once was a man named Jesse and he did ride a horse”. So said Jesse James’ granddaughter, who served as an historical advisor on the film but nevertheless offered this blunt verdict to the press when it was first released.

It did not stop audiences from flocking to see it. The film’s populist sentiments – sympathising with a beleaguered ordinary man who fights against corrupt big business – played well in the Depression. A sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940) followed close on its heels.

Accuracy: 3/10


The True Story of Jesse James

Dir: Nicholas Ray, USA, 1957. With Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Hope Lange

The title sounds as though it is a retort to the previous film, but both Jesse James and The True Story of Jesse James were made by the same studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, and both films insist that their hero was forced by harsh circumstances into a life of crime.

However, The True Story… acknowledges that it was the Civil War that fuelled Jesse James’s criminal career. The film offers at least a glimmer of the bloody conflicts between unionists and rebels in Missouri during and after the war, and it rightly portrays the James family as staunch Confederate rebels, at war with their unionist neighbours.

Actor Errol Flynn as Robin Hood in the film 'The Adventures of Robin Hood', 1938. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

At the age of 16, in 1864, Jesse follows his brother Frank’s lead and goes off to fight. During the postwar reconstruction period, the conflicts scarcely subside, and for many years embittered Confederates regard Jesse’s crimes as a form of continued rebellion. Thus, we see that the young Jesse was brutalised by the war and never escaped from its influence.

Yet the film goes too far in portraying Missouri’s Confederates as a persecuted minority, and it is too eager to gloss over the savage violence committed by guerrilla fighters (or ‘bushwhackers’) such as Frank and Jesse. Their subsequent criminal careers are portrayed as relatively harmless too, at least until the notorious Northfield, Minnesota, bank raid (in 1876), which is staged effectively as a wild calamity.

The film does allow that Jesse developed a violent nature as his career progressed, but it persists with the sentimental notion that in the end, when he was shot in his own front room, he longed for a quiet and lawful life.

But is it accurate?

The film implicitly acknowledges its bias. It is structured along the lines of Citizen Kane (1941), beginning with a journalist asking, “What makes him Jesse James?”, and then proceeding with a series of flashbacks that are clearly signalled as coming from the sympathetic perspective of his mother, his wife, and his brother Frank.

However, the emphasis on Jesse’s troubled family relations and his youthful traumas brings the film too close to Nicholas Ray’s earlier film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and the notion that teenage angst offers an explanation for any offence. This may have played well in the drive-in movie theatres of the 1950s, but it makes the film seem dated and melodramatic now.

Accuracy: 6/10


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Dir: Andrew Dominik, USA, 2007. With Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Renner

Based on Ron Hansen’s highly regarded novel, this recent entry in the long line of films about Jesse James abandons the legend and takes a more incisive look at both the outlaw and his killer. In previous films, Ford was almost always a snivelling coward, who appears in the last reel, trembling as he takes aim at Jesse’s back.

Now he is at the centre of an account of the last months of Jesse’s life. The camera watches the 19-year-old Ford as he watches his hero, fixated by the man he has idolised since he was a boy. “I can’t figure if you want to be like me or you want to be me,” Jesse comments, and Ford has no answer.

Young women labour on a farm during the First World War. The radio series Home Front explores life in Britain during the conflict. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

His admiration gradually becomes unhinged as he observes Jesse at close quarters, seeing the viciousness beneath the outlaw’s charisma. A scene in which Jesse gently handles snakes, and then kills them with abrupt ease, offers an early warning that fraternising with him does not guarantee safety from his temper or paranoia.

At this stage in his life, he has much to fear: his trusted old gang has disbanded, the rebel cause that has protected him is losing its power, and the governor has put a high price on his head. Indeed, the film suggests that Jesse James allowed Robert Ford to shoot him, hastening his own inevitable demise and condemning his betrayer to infamy.

But is it accurate?

This interpretation of the relationship between Ford and James is made all the more plausible by the casting. Brad Pitt’s own status adds an uncanny dimension to this portrait of the beginnings of celebrity culture, while Casey Affleck perfectly captures the nervous, creepy intensity of the starstruck.

With a haunting score and stunning cinematography, the film is a landmark achievement. Audiences, however, complained about its slow pace and long running time, and it failed miserably at the box-office. The legend, it seems, holds far greater appeal than these disturbing truths.

Accuracy: 9/10

Other films about Jesse James:

I Shot Jesse James

(dir: Sam Fuller, USA, 1949)
A rare but largely fictional version of the story from Robert Ford’s point of view.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

(dir: Philip Kaufman, USA, 1972)
Robert Duvall plays Jesse James in a film that focuses on his most ambitious and calamitous bank robbery.

The Long Riders

(dir: Walter Hill, USA, 1980)
Brothers James and Stacy Keach star as Jesse and Frank James in this admired Western.

American Outlaws

(dir: Les Mayfield, USA, 2001)
Jesse James is given the Young Guns treatment, with Colin Farrell in the leading role.

The Spirit of ’76

(dir: Frank Montgomery, USA, 1917)
This long lost film is now known only through court records and press reports.

Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the co-editor of The New Film History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

This article was first published on History Extra in April 2018