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The Many Movie Lives (and Deaths) of Jesse James

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: Brad Pitt as Jesse James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Warner Bros, 2007]

When Bob Ford shot infamous outlaw Jesse James through the back on April 2, 1882, James the man turned into James the myth, a martyr to Unionist repression, corporate greed and one man’s cowardice. He was trumpeted as the Robin Hood of the South, and that’s the image that endures in the cinema. All those less savory details of his life were brushed aside, like the fact that he was a member of the brutal Missouri bushwhacker gang led by “Bloody” Bill Anderson, that he participated in the 1862 Centralia massacre of unarmed soldiers, and that all he gave the poor was lip service, never cash. The legend-mongering didn’t spring entirely out of his dramatic death — James had carefully cultivated his public image throughout his career. He jotted press releases that he’d leave at the scenes of his crimes, and agreed to long interviews with newspaperman and proud Confederate John N. Edwards, his mentor and informal P.R. rep.

In 1872, busy denunciating President Grant’s “corrupt, tyrannical administration,” Edwards penned an editorial in the Kansas City Times entitled “The Chivalry of Crime,” a puff piece on James that set the template for the idolization that would follow. Quoted in T.J. Stiles’ invaluable biography “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” Edwards says that a recent robbery at the Kansas City Industrial Exposition was “a feat of stupendous nerve and fearlessness that makes one’s hair rise to think of it, with a condiment of crime to season it, becomes chivalric; poetic; superb.”

And that’s how he was on-screen. The first documented James Gang film is “James Boys in Missouri” (1908), produced by the Essanay Company. It was such a success that two months later they released “The Younger Brothers,” about the other notorious members of the outlaw group. In 1921, Jesse James, Jr. was persuaded to portray his father in “Jesse James Under the Black Flag,” which was quickly followed up by “Jesse James As The Outlaw” that same year. “Black Flag” is one of the first films to make the argument that Jesse’s outlawry was caused by an incident in 1863 where Union troops invaded his home, strung up his father and whipped him in the fields. This event actually did occur, but it was perpetrated by the local militia who were searching for his brother Frank, already a feared guerilla fighter for Quantrill’s Raiders. Still, as a creation story, it explains and excuses James’ later behavior, making this hero’s crimes palatable to audiences (and more importantly, later on, the censors).

James’ sound film career started with the hugely successful 20th Century Fox Technicolor film “Jesse James” (1939). Directed with workmanlike efficiency by Henry King, it stars the blandly handsome Tyrone Power as Jesse, and a drawling, charismatic Henry Fonda as Frank. The film aimed for the widest audience possible, so all political affiliations are erased. The Union troops are replaced by an evil railroad agent who murders James’ mother — justifying his train robberies and violent revenge in one fell swoop. The figure of Edwards is caricatured by Henry Hull, who plays the ink-stained propagandist as a warm-hearted curmudgeon who gives his daughter away in marriage to James (who in reality married his first cousin Zee, named after his own mother).

The film was a box office hit, and Zanuck capitalized quickly, signing Henry Fonda to reprise the role of Frank in “The Return of Frank James” (1940). Henry King was replaced with the then-floundering Fritz Lang, who was attempting to recover from his massive (and underrated) Brechtian flop “You and Me” (1938). Eager to play nice and return to a studio’s good graces, Lang churned out a flavorless sequel indistinguishable from its predecessor. Despite Fonda’s tense relationship with the director, which went back to their work together on “You Only Live Once” (1937), he delivers a relaxed, charming performance in tune with the forced folksiness of the script, which throws history out the window fairly quickly, but neatly transfers the martyred hero complex over to Frank.

The greatest of the James films was made in 1949, in Samuel Fuller’s debut, “I Shot Jesse James.” It’s the first one that deals with the Ford-James relationship on a personal, rather than mythic, level. It’s more psychological drama than historical epic — and Fuller’s feverishly intense close-ups hammer this home. It focuses on Bob Ford in the years following James’ death, and the lies Ford tells himself to stay sane in the face of personal doubts and increasing public disdain. Motored by Fuller’s raw dialogue and invasive camera (Godard coined the term Kino-Fist after a viewing), it pulses with an energy the more whitewashed James stories lack. While hardly historically accurate, it channels the violent tenor of the period and intensely questions the concept of the “hero” well before the revisionist Westerns of the late ’60s and ’70s.

Fuller was able to pursue this rather uncommercial goal because he worked with an independent producer who didn’t impose the restrictions of a big studio. In 1957, Nicholas Ray had no such luck with “The True Story of Jesse James.” The remake of Henry King’s 1939 “Jesse James” was taken on as the assignment that sounded the least obnoxious in order to fulfill his contract with 20th Century Fox. The disappointments came early and often: he wanted to cast Elvis Presley as Jesse, but the studio forced their contract player Robert Wagner on him. He wanted to film it as a ballad, “Stylized in every aspect, all of it shot on the stage, including the horses, the chases, everything…” That idea was tabled immediately, and Ray soon lost interest as every decision of his was overruled. The result is a disjointed work with an awful tacked-on flashback structure, but which contains a few moments of inspiration, mainly at the expertly shot and paced Northfield Bank raid sequence.

The most acclaimed James film of the ’70s focused entirely on that robbery: Philip Kaufman’s “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” (1972). At this point, de-mythologizing American icons was de rigeur, so Robert Duvall’s James was depicted as a full-on Confederate ideologue, his murders payback for Union atrocities. The image of James had flipped from Robin Hood hero to near-psychotic villain. Neither is entirely convincing. Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders” (1980) continued the revisionist trend, a more formal work which avoided psychological motivations. It also cast three sets of brothers (Quaids, Carradines, and Keaches) to portray the sibling outlaws.

There has been no significant Jamesian film since… until this week’s release of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Andrew Dominik’s uneven character study that pilfers its visual ideas from “Days of Heaven” (1978). Brad Pitt slaps on the holsters this time, and depicts James as a mannered, gaunt paranoiac quite fond of licking his lips. His past is obscured, his politics absent. No longer hero nor villain, he’s simply a presence. Constantly framed against steam, sky and land by DP Roger Deakins, James is equated with nature, and is equally unexplainable. The legend of Jesse James has been so worn down and used up that Dominik doesn’t even engage with it — he just posits him as an enigma and leaves him be. He saves all his dime-store psychology for Bob Ford, a thin character give unexpected depth by Casey Affleck’s halting mewl of a delivery.

Jesse James has gone through infamy, idolization, deconstruction and dissolution in the Hollywood system. With his genre moribund and his legend fading, it might be time for the James myth to take a break. He can hide out in an abandoned Fox backlot until an intrepid/desperate producer calls his name, asking to remake Henry King’s “Jesse James” yet again — and he’ll crawl under the lights hoping there’s an iconoclast like Fuller to inject life into him again.

[Additional photos: “Jesse James,” Twentieth Century-Fox, 1939; “I Shot Jesse James,” Screen Guild Productions, 1949; “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” Universal Pictures, 1972]

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