Thursday, Jun 2024

Jesse James is perhaps the most famous outlaw in American history. Dozens of movies (list) have been made about the exploits of the James gang. The Western outlaw has always been a favorite subject for mythlogy not only because he successfully operated outside the legal system, but because he personified that alluring restless national spirit. The outlaw in many ways embodies the freedom of the West. The image of the gunfighter is often that of a good and decent man driven to life of crime, violence and early death by evil and unfortunate circumstances. This is certainly the manner in which Jesse and Frank James have been portrayed in many films.

What is the Legend and what are the Facts, and what do the films say abou either?In his essay, "The Outlaws: The Legend of Jesse James and his Gang" (American Vistas, 1995), Albert Castel seeks to reveal some of the facts about Jesse James which have been "concealed behind legend". Jesse and Frank's father was a minster, and by all accounts their initial Missouri upbringing and their ancestory were respectable. The James family were among the slaveholding families of Western Missouri who supported the Confederacy, so trouble for the family began with the Civil War and Missouri's divided nature as a border state. Frank, the older brother, joined the pro-Confederate forces of Major General Sterling Price at the war's outset. But Frank eventually returned home and reluctantly took an oath of allegiance to the Union after Price retreated. In 1862, Missouri's governor ordered every man of military age to enroll in the state militia. This forced pro-Confedrates to side against family and friends, and many, including Frank James, took to the hills. Frank soon joined William "Bloody Bill" Anderson's guerilla gang. Anderson was a notorious and ferocious killer who decorated the bridal of his horse with the scalps of Federal soldiers.

In August, 1863, Anderson's gang with Frank James joined "Quantrill's Raiders" in a raid on Lawrence, Kansas in which they massacred upwards of 160 men and boys. Six weeks later, they slaughtered nearly 100 soldiers near Baxter Springs, Kansas. In the winter of 1863-4, they were found robbing and occasionally murdering civilians in Texas. By this time, many in this gang were "crossing the line, always narrow, between guerilla war and sheer banditry."Jesse James, joined Anderson's gang in 1864 at age 17. During the previous summer, Union soldiers had whipped Jesse and tortured and abused his parents. In Anderson's gang, Frank and Jesse took part in many raids, robberies and ambushes. In September 1864, they stopped a train, robbed all of its passengers, then murdered about 30, mostly unarmed Federal soldiers returning home. Frank eventually surrendered to the Union, Jesse never did. Many of these bandits, including the James brothers, tried to settle down to peaceful farming after the war. But, "finding a hum-drum, poverty-tinged existence on a farm tedious after the exciting life and easy money of wartime, they could not resist the temptation to make use of the profitable skills they had acquired."

In February, 1866, the Clay County Savings Bank of Missouri was looted for nearly $60,000. It was the first daylight bank robbery in American history. This and other such thefts that soon followed were probably committed by Frank and Jesse James.In 1869, a bank robbery in Gallatin, Missouri was committed by two men, one of whom shot the cashier in cold blood. Frank and Jesse James were later identified as the perpetrators. Between 1870 and 1876, the Jameses, now joined by the Youngers, ranged from Kansas to Kentucky and from Iowa to Texas robbing banks, holding up stages and sticking up trains. These train robberies especialy excited the public's imagination at the time, being both novel and dramatic. Although the Reno brothers of Indiana were the first bandits to engage in train robberies, those committed by the James--Younger gang received far greater publicity.

Throughout their long career and afterward, their exploits were seized upon by writers who exaggerated and romanticized their deeds to meet the demands of Eastern readers for bloody Western tales of derring-do. They gained nationwide fame and were particularly cheered and heralded by fellow Missourians. Sheriffs and various police and even the famous Pinkertons tried to track them down to no avail. Law enforcement agents "were handicapped by the fact that thousands of pro-Southern Missourians believed that the James and Youngers were innocent victims of Unionist-Republican persecution and so went out of their way to help them." Foremost among their champions was newspaper editor John Edwards, a former Confederate major and close friend of Frank and Jesse. Not only did Edwards defend them, he glorified them with his purple prose. Following their robbery of the gate receipts at the Kansas City Fair in September, 1872, during which they accidentally shot a little girl in the leg, he published an editorial in the Kansas City Times entitled "The Chivalry of Crime" in which he compared the James brothers to the Knights of the Round Table.

In 1875, the Pinkertons threw a bomb into the James' house. The blast killed their younger brother and maimed their mother, but niether Frank nor Jesse was captured. This incident aroused indignation throughout Missouri. Eventually the governor placed a high price on their heads. Many of the gang were killed in the famous Northfield, Minnesota bank raid in 1876. While living in St. Joseph Missouri under the name Thomas Howard, the unarmed Jesse was adjusting a picture on the wall in his home when he was shot in the back of the head and instantly killed by Bob Ford, a gang member, who claimed the reward. "Jesse James' death and the manner of it wiped away, in the popular mind, the harsh reality of his deeds and transformed him into the classic bandit-hero whose daring and cunning render him invincible until he is brought down by base treachery."

A few months after Jesse's murder, Frank gave himself up. He was tried for murder in Missouri and found not guilty, tried for robbery in Alabama and found not guilty, and finally tried for armed robbery in Missouri and again released. He retired to a quiet life on his family's farm, dying in 1915 in the room in which he was born.The movies are usually in some degree sympathetic with Jesse James, Frank and the gang. The Ford brothers, particularly Charlie, are often vilified. Usually, none of the murderous activities which Castel recounts, such as Frank's massacres with 'Bloody Bill' in Kansas during the Civil War are depicted.

There are dozens of Westerns about Jesse James and his allies, including The James Boys in Missouri (1908); Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921); Jesse James (1927); Jesse James (1939); Days of Jesse James (1939); The Return of Frank James (1940); Bad Men of Missouri (1941); Jesse James Jr. (1942); Badman's Territory (1946); I Shot Jesse James (1948); The James Brothers of Missouri (1950); The Great Missouri Raid (1950); The Women They Almost Lynched (1950); The Great Jesse James Raid (1953); The True Story of Jesse James (1957); Hell's CrossRoads (1957); Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1968); A Time for Dying (1969); The Great Northfied Minnesota Raid (1972); The Long Riders (1980).One of the earliest efforts at portraying the James legends on film is Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921). This movie was made with the assistance of Jesse James, Jr. and written and directed by Franklin Coates. Some copies still remain. Given its age, the quality of the film is rather poor, but it is an interesting movie. It appears as a pseudo biography/flashback. Jesse James Jr. plays himself in the movie, which shows a documentary effort to recount the real tales of Jesse James. The 'Black Flag' of the title was the Flag of Quantrille's Raiders, and the movie concentrates on Jesse James' earlier career as a guerilla warrier during the Civil War. The film decidedly attempts to humanize Jesse, Frank and the gang and seems almost like a rough historical revision or public relations effort. The take is definitely that Jesse was a good man forced into a life of banditry.The movie Jesse James (1939) is generally considered to be highly fictionalized, but is a good Western with a fine cast including Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power. The movie is definitely one of director Henry King's better efforts, though not as mature as The Gunfighter (1950). The movie begins after the Civil War and shows Jesse and Frank trying to peacefully farm their land until agents of the railroad (represented as northerners or Unionists) attempt to coerce their mother to sell the farm for 1 cent an acre. In this movie, the railroad men eventually kill Mrs. James and Frank and Jesse take revenge and ultimately turn to a life of violent crime.This success of this movie spurned a sequel, The Return of Frank James(1940) with Henry Fonda returning as the surviving brother amongst most of the same cast, with Fritz Lang directing his first film which again emphasizes the mythological instead of he historical. Here, Frank is heroically portrayed as the avenging brother, his younger, murderous deeds overlooked. Worth noting is that this is the lovely Gene Tierney's first film. The tone of the film and the characters' lives is very sentimental and family-oriented.Hollywood legend Sam Fuller's first film was a treatment of the Jesse James legend, I Shot Jesse James (1949). Fuller's hardened sensibility is evident in this early effort. The film concentrates on what led to Bob Ford's decision to kill his comrade Jesse. The film has few Western themes and functions as a character study of the divided Ford, who is shown as a questionable hero who kills Jesse to escape a life of crime and become respectable enough to marry. Frank's search for revenge is also featured, but the story's emphasis is really Bob. Some have called this one of the best anti-Westerns ever made. Fuller neither adds or detracts from the Jesse James legend, only treating it with his highly individualistic spin, making this the most unique film of the Jesse James series.Nicholas Ray remade Henry King's Jesse James (1939) with The True Story of Jesse James in 1957 with Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter and John Carradine. This movie begins even further in the James' career with the failed Northfield, MN robbery. Again, here the 'cause' of Jesse's life of crime is depicted as the cruelty visited on the family by Jayhawkers and other Unionists. The movie is quite violent for its time, but does little if anything to debunk the James mythology.Perhaps the most revisionist treatment of the James legend comes in a film which Pauline Kael called one of her favorites, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972). The movie stars Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger and Robert Duvall as Jesse. This is an unapologetic, cynical, view of these outlaws which shows the dark, dishonorable side of the life of crime. Though Jesse shows favor on a poor widow whose mortgage is forclosed, here he ends up murdering her. Among other myth de-bunking, the film depicts a bent in Jesse for cross-dressing. An interesting film, but one which seems uneven from having to carry the burden of trying to coorect each and every myth evolved around Jesse James for the past 100 years.

The most recent treatment of the James legend was with The Long Riders(1980). I've always thought this a far-better-than-average Western and it remains one of my favorites. Perhaps I find an unexpected appeal with the Hollywood brothers playing the actual outlaw brothers (all of whom are better-than-average actors, it should be noted...). After the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, this film seems to re-mythologize Jesse and the gang, though not as much as earlier versions. Peckinpah's slow-motion violence is honored in the gritty filming of the famous Minnesota raid. And especially notable is how this take on the story firmly places the bandits within the rural folk-culture of post-Civil War Missouri, stressing the tight family relationships, the social rituals, and the curious mixture of roughness and courtesy of this 'border' community. Again, here we see Jesse and his brother in a more favorable light.

Overall, the movies are sympathetic to Jesse, his family and his outlaw ways. Why do we love our outlaws so? Is sympathizing with Jesse James the equivalent of distrusting and resenting the Federal government, almost always a popular position? Is it the Robin Hood tendencies in the legend we so admire?Is it the nature of the Western film in general to lionize such characters? Will we ever get an accurate, balanced treatment? What will future Westerns say of Jesse James?


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