Jesse James rides with Quantrill
Westerns in the 1940s and 50s loved the characters of Frank and Jesse James, Jesse in particular. Ever since Fox’s major Technicolor picture Jesse James of 1939, with the studio’s megastar Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank, the story had been made much of. Jesse was always a ‘goody’, of course, an all-American champion of the downtrodden, with distinctly Robin Hood-like features. Universal’s 1950 version of the tale was no different in that regard.
It did, however, concentrate on the young Jesse, in a wartime story. This was a little more unusual. Most Jesse James movies dealt with his career as bank and train robber, and/or eventual assassination. Of course it wasn’t all that easy to make the James brothers’ actions in the war very sympathetic; their record would have attracted the attention of a modern war-crimes commission. But Universal wanted to showcase some of its youthful talent, and thought a story of teenage boys fighting as guerrillas would do that. By highlighting the brutal treatment of the Jameses (the backstory has their pappy hanged, their mother’s arm blown off and their farm burned, by Union-supporting Redlegs, causing the lads to become Confederates – an exaggeration at best and complete hooey at worst) and emphasizing the boys’ disgust at guerrilla outrages, they sought to make the marauders more likeable, or at least understandable.
The picture starred Audie Murphy. The great hero had returned from World War II and James Cagney, reading the Life magazine spread on him, had picked the young man out as a potential movie star. After a couple of smallish parts in 1948 Murphy got a lead role in an Allied Artists juvenile delinquent picture, Bad Boy, in 1949. That was enough for Universal to offer him a contract. They saw Audie in the saddle, and of course that was to set the young man’s career on a distinct path.
We say ‘young man’ and indeed his youthful features did get him ‘kid’ parts for quite some time. His first oater was as Billy the Kid, in The Kid from Texas (they invented the fact that Billy Bonney was a Texan) and after he was a young Jesse James in Kansas Raiders, he would become The Cimarron Kid for Don Siegel, in a story about Bill Doolin. So ‘kid’ outlaws were rather his thing. He was in fact 25 when he made Kansas Raiders (whereas Jesse James turned 17 in September 1864), and a battle-hardened World War II veteran, but he kept that baby face, and could play a younger man.
The use of youthful stars was one of the few accurate features of the movie. So many actors in these parts were much older. In old age Frank James recollected, “Only one or two were over 25. Most of them were under 21. Scarcely a dozen boasted a moustache.”
He is definitely the star of Kansas Raiders and, in common with many another Jesse James movie, is clearly the boss. He orders the others about, including his brother Frank (who is played by a younger man, Richard Long, 23, later to be a Barkley in The Big Valley) and they meekly do his bidding. The older and more war-experienced Frank was often relegated in James-gang movies to almost sidekick status. In Kansas Raiders Jesse is promoted almost immediately and ends up taking over command of the whole guerrilla force. This is not exactly true to fact.
With the James boys are two Youngers, Cole and Jim, played by James Best, 24, and Dewey Martin, 27 (actually, Cole was older than Jim, but never mind). Apart from a bit part in Universal’s Winchester ’73 earlier the same year this was Best’s first Western. He would go on to become a stalwart of the genre. Martin would not make a thing of Westerns at all, though he would land quite a big part opposite Kirk Douglas in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky in ’52. The Youngers are joined by another character, Kit Dalton, a youthful Tony Curtis, 25, who plays it as a hothead all for extreme tactics and robbing banks. In fact a certain Kit Dalton published a book about his exploits with Quantrill in 1914, Under the Black Flag, but Dalton gang historian Nancy Samuelson has dismissed it as “completely fictitious”. It is said that Curtis and Murphy did not get on well on the set but that doesn’t come across on screen. All the ‘James gang’, as they would become, are naïve and green juveniles, though Jesse himself has embryonic statesmanlike or officer-material qualities.
The dominant character, though, in many ways, is the guerrilla leader Quantrill, about whom we were talking the other day on this blog. William Clarke Quantrill (often also called Quantrell) was a notorious leader of irregular cavalry (let’s call it that for the moment) and he too, as much as Jesse James, has become a favorite of pulp Western novels (such as Frank Gruber’s Quantrell’s Raiders) and Westerns on the big and small screen, played by the likes of Walter Pidgeon, Leo Gordon and more. Here he is impersonated by the stocky Brian Donlevy, second-billed after Audie, already pushing 50 – whereas the real Quantrill was only 27 when he was killed – resplendent in a full dress Confederate colonel’s uniform. Actually, Quantrill had enlisted with the CSA as a private but deserted to form his own band. In the summer of 1862 the Confederate authorities decided to secure the loyalty of Quantrill by issuing him a formal army commission to the rank of captain. He was never a colonel, though liked to be addressed as such later in the conflict.
Donlevy was an interesting fellow and had been nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Beau Geste in 1939 but he didn’t seem to suit Westerns, somehow, unless he could be a saloon heavy, as in Barbary Coast, Destry Rides Again and Union Pacific. He had actually been in Jesse James (though not as Quantrill). He would play Quantrill again, in Woman They Almost Lynched in 1953. In Kansas Raiders, as a soldier rather than a ‘Western’ character, he’s good.
The story is historical hooey, of course. Quantrill is blinded in an attack and appoints Jesse to succeed him in command. Then he sends the James gang (the only ones who have not deserted him) away to safety and faces death bravely and heroically alone, firing his revolvers blindly till cut down by Union bullets. This is well before the end of the war.
In reality, after the surrender of Lee to Grant in April 1865 and the subsequent surrender of most of the rest of the Confederate army under Johnston to Sherman later that same month, Quantrill, with the few followers remaining to him, continued raids in Kentucky. On one of them he was shot and paralyzed. He died from his wounds on June 6, 1865.
The movie has to have some romance, naturally, and invents a love affair (chastely unconsummated, though) between Quantrill’s woman Kate and young Jesse. Kate (Marguerite Chapman, then 32, briefly a star but one who slipped in the 50s to supporting roles, then TV) is disillusioned with Quantrill’s brutality and tries to persuade Jesse to quit the band and go away with her.
Sarah King, Quantrill’s actual consort, claimed that she did indeed wed William Quantrill, in 1861, when she was thirteen years old and he was twenty-six, taking, at his insistence, the name Kate Clarke (Quantrill’s middle name) to keep the marriage secret, though it is usually thought that they lived together without the formality of vows. According to the Kansas City Star, Mrs. Quantrill accompanied her husband on various raids he made on pro-Union towns in Kansas and shared the camp with the guerrillas. When Quantrill was killed she set up a boarding house using money he had given her, as well as jewels taken in the sack of Lawrence. She married twice more and died in 1930. There is of course no evidence whatsoever that she had an affair with Jesse James.
But we don’t blame Western movies for not being accurate historical documents. They are entertainment, not documentaries, and go for action, drama and romance. This one was written by Robert L Richards, who had co-written Winchester ’73 with Borden Chase and would also work on The Indian Fighter in 1955. Putting aside the hokum, it’s professionally done and the movie is well paced.
Kansas Raiders was one of director Ray Enright’s best Westerns. He went right back to the early days, working as a cutter under Thomas Ince, and started directing for Warners in the 20s, opening with a silent Rin Tin Tin epic. In 1941 he helmed another tale of the Youngers, Bad Men of Missouri, and he directed four Randolph Scott oaters, one of them, Coroner Creek in 1948, being absolutely excellent. Kansas Raiders was his penultimate Western; he ended with Flaming Feather in 1952.
There are some nice (though mountainously unKansan) Utah locations, shot in bright Technicolor by talented Irving Glassberg. Universal did not stint on this aspect and this is no cheap second feature – it was budgeted at $609,000. The scenes of Lawrence are well done. That’s where Jesse James (who was not in fact at Lawrence at all; nor was Jim Younger) shoots and kills Bloody Bill Anderson (who was actually killed in action in October 1864).
Audie does a good job, inasmuch as the script allows, with a conflicted sense of loyalty in the face of dishonorable conduct. The movie was quite tough, for the day. For instance, in the first reel Jesse gets into a knife fight with a guerrilla and once his opponent is down, he stabs him. Normally, Western heroes would win, then graciously show mercy to the fallen foe. Quantrill casually sentences men to death and his chief henchman, Bloody Bill Anderson (though billed without the Bloody, so as not to frighten the moms and dads) is played as a sneering sadist by Scott Brady, and delights in carrying out the executions.
Memorable smaller parts are by Richard Egan, in his third Western, as a blinded Union captain in Lawrence, and John Kellogg as a Redleg leader. We also get brief appearances as Redlegs or guerrillas from stuntmen Buddy Roosevelt, Ralph and Roy Bucko, and Henry Wills, among others.
They all have 1873 model Colt .45s in the mid-1860s, but that was normal too.
In Arizona Raiders (1965), Audie could be convincing, given his experience in Kansas Raiders, as an ex-Quantrill Raider who is assigned the task of tracking down his former comrades.
The Washington Post said, “This is a good enough Civil War action yarn”. The Hollywood Reporter said that “the competent direction by Ray Enright sustains all the excitement in the raids and killings.” Brian Garfield said that Kansas Raiders was “fair entertainment for its time, but depressingly dated.” That’s perhaps a bit harsh. It’s a 50s Western that rattles along.