In his excellent 2002 biography Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, TJ Stiles gives his last chapter, in which he describes the legacy of the Missouri outlaw, the title The Apotheosis of Jesse James. Webster’s defines apotheosis as elevation to divine status, deification, and that’s about right, for Jesse James became, almost immediately after his death and ever since, a folk hero, an American Robin Hood, a fighter for the common people against the Northern and corporate oppressors, a champion who could do no wrong.
This popular legend was reinforced academically in the 1960s and beyond by the ‘social bandit’ thesis of British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who specifically cited James as an example of peasant social resistance with behavior characterized as illegal but which is supported by wider (usually self-sufficient agrarian) society as being admirable.
Stiles argues that James was indeed carrying on the fight against the North, at first anyway, but he certainly was not the robbing-the-railroads-and-give-to-the-poor kind of bandit that popular myth portrayed. Far from it.
The Jesse myth: the early days
The powder smoke from Robert Ford’s revolver had barely dissipated over the corpse of Jesse James on April 3, 1882 before myths and legends about the Missouri robber and killer began to appear. With remarkable speed a certain Billy Gashade, a shadowy figure, wrote a ballad about him, extolling his virtues and branding his assassin a “dirty little coward”, and the Ballad of Jesse James became widely known nationwide with remarkable speed for those pre-recording days. Subsequent Jesse balladeers have included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and Nick Cave. Actually, the James fame started even earlier than that because while he was still alive books had been written about him. His great advocate and apologist John Newman Edwards published Noted Guerrillas, eulogizing Jesse, in 1877.
A year before James’s death The Five Cent Wide Awake Library put out a series of deathless works with titles such as Jesse James, the Midnight Horseman and The James Boys and the Mad Sheriff. History does not record if Jesse ever read these, or if he did, what he thought of them.
Right after the assassination Bob Ford earned money by posing for photographs as ‘the man who killed Jesse James’ in dime museums and he and his accomplice brother Charley appeared in a traveling play, How I Killed Jesse James. In 1882 Jesse’s wife Zee and his mother Zerelda are said to have collaborated on The Life, Times and Treacherous Death of Jesse James by St Louis author Frank Triplett. There were countless other books.
By the 1890s plays about Jesse James were common, stage works like WI Swain’s Western Spectacular. When Cole Younger finally got out of the pen after his sentence for Northfield he appeared with Frank James in The Great Cole Younger & Frank James Historical Wild West Show in 1903.
That same year Edison’s The Great Train Robbery, often regarded as the first Western motion picture (it wasn’t actually but we’ll let that pass) came out and caused a sensation. A good third of all silent movie output in those halcyon early days was in the Western genre, and it was inevitable that Jesse James – the legendary one, of course – would appear on the silver screen.
The Jesse myth: celluloid Jesse
Livelinks below will take you to our reviews of those pictures.
Most of the early motion pictures about Jesse James have been, tragically, lost. Even the big Paramount film Jesse James (1927) starring the then immensely popular Fred Thomson, no longer exists (thanks to producer Harry Joe Brown, who burned the negative). The only one we still have is Jesse James under the Black Flag, a 1930 re-release, an edit of two silent movies of 1921, starring Jesse James’s son, Jesse James Jr, who was then a paunchy 46 so not terribly convincing as a teenage guerrilla. It was also a shockingly bad movie, only now watchable as a historical document.
The first talkies were Fox’s big Technicolor Jesse James of 1939, directed by Henry King and starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank, and its Fritz Lang-directed sequel, The Return of Frank James the following year. Walter Hill, director of a later Jesse movie, thought The Return the best picture made about the James boys. He could be right. Not because it was historically true. It wasn’t. But as a film.
Republic put its star Roy Rogers in two Jesse James yarns, Days of Jesse James and Jesse James at Bay, and they put future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore in two serials about him, too, Jesse James Rides Again and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James. The studio later put out yet another serial, The James Brothers of Missouri, this time starring Keith Richards (no, not that one) as Jesse James. None of these Jesses, however, had even a grain of truth about them, if you are looking for the real Jesse James (a forlorn effort in any case if you are looking at Hollywood movies to get at the true figure).
Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James in 1949 was also pretty well a cheap B-Western but nevertheless a surprise hit. It starred Reed Hadley as Jesse and John Ireland as Bob Ford.
In 1950 Universal put its new Western star Audie Murphy in a Jesse James story about the war, Kansas Raiders. Naturally, Jesse was still a hero, and if he did so anything ever so slightly reprehensible, it was only because he was driven to it by, er, circumstance.
Jesse made cameo appearances in all sorts of 40s and 50s Westerns about other heroes, movies like Best of the Badmen, Fighting Man of the Plains, and such, and Paramount made a Jesse picture, The Great Missouri Raid, in 1951, with Macdonald Carey as Jesse. Then the outlaw became the darling of the low-grade B-Western put out by minor studios such as Lippert, often starring Don ‘Red’ Barry, the very worst of which was Jesse James’ Women in 1954, a United Artists release but still pretty well a Z-movie, and the best perhaps being the silly but weirdly enjoyable Jesse James vs the Daltons, a Katzman/Castle picture released by Columbia the same year (although technically this did not feature Jesse at all).
Fox returned with a big-budget remake in 1957, falsely titled The True Story of Jesse James, starring Robert Wagner as Jesse and Jeffrey Hunter as Frank, both rather wooden. Nicholas Ray directed but disowned the picture after the studio made radical changes.
A Bob Hope comedy, Alias Jesse James, with Wendell Corey as Jesse (he had been Frank in The Great Missouri Raid) followed in 1959 and the following year Fox was back yet again, though this time with a lower-budget affair, Young Jesse James, with Ray Stricklyn not bad as Jesse in the war. Most Jesse movies concentrated on his post-war banditry but occasionally, like this one and Audie Murphy’s, they went back to the guerrilla activities (though equally fictionally). In a way they were coming full circle, because that was where the only surviving silent-movie Jesse had situated James.
A low-point, if not the nadir, was reached in 1961 when Embassy Pictures released Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, a worthless piece of trash worth a look nowadays only if you are a masochist or want to goggle wide-eyed at just how bad a film can be.
The 1960s, though, were the time of Jesse James on TV. He appeared in many different popular Western shows, such as Bronco, Stories of the Century, Yancy Derringer, and so on, played by all sorts, notably James Coburn, Ricky Nelson and Lee Van Cleef, and in 1965 he even got his own series, The Legend of Jesse James, in which he was played by Christopher Jones.
There were also small-screen Jesses in a variety of TV movies, between 1970 and 1999, in which Jesse was played by Stuart Margolin (later of Rockford), Harris Yulin, Michael Cavanaugh, Kris Kristofferson, Rob Lowe and JD Souther.
The early 1970s were the time of the revisionist Western, debunking former heroes like Wyatt Earp, Custer, Buffalo Bill and so on, and Jesse got deconstructed in Cliff Robertson’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid in 1972, in which Cole Younger (Robertson) hogged the limelight and Robert Duvall was relegated to a minor role as a corrupt, possibly homosexual thug – I Shot Jesse James had also suggested that James was sexually attracted to men.
But Jesse James appeared only once that decade on the big screen. In 1980, though, United Artists released one of the better Jesse films, The Long Riders, directed by Walter Hill, and which featured brothers as brothers, James and Stacy Keach as the Jameses, Carradines as Youngers, Quaids as Millers and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Bob and Charley Ford. It had its weaknesses, I guess, but all around was pretty good.
21st century Jesse
Our own century has produced some pretty bad Jesse James pictures, notably American Outlaws in 2001, the suspiciously similarly named American Bandits in 2010 and Jesse James: Lawman in 2015. Both the latter two nominally starred Peter Fonda, though he only did cameos, probably so they could put him on the DVD cover.
But of course we have also had what many regard as the best Jesse James film ever made, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, released by Warners in 2007. This was based on perhaps the best ever novel about Jesse, of the same title, published in 1983 and written by the excellent Ron Hansen (I’m enjoying Johnny Boggs’s novel Northfield at the moment, and it’s well done, but it isn’t in the same league as Hansen).
So there you have it: a pithy précis in which I have taken the pith out of Jesse James, the killer and thief who became an all-American folk hero. I hope you enjoyed our Jesse James season, as I also hope you did our take on Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp in a series of posts. Other heroes (or villains) of the Old West will follow, though tomorrow I’m going to review one last movie which is tangentially a Jesse James one – even if Jesse didn’t appear in it.
So long for now.