Monday, May 26, 2014

The possibly somewhat true in a few points story of Jesse James

Tomorrow morning at 11:20 AM, FXM/FMC is airing The True Story of Jesse James. I don't know how much truth there is to the movie, but it's certainly worth one viewing at least.

The movie starts off with the aftermath of the robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, which was the end of Jesse and Frank James' involvement with their cousins the Youngers (Alan Hale Jr. plays Cole Younger; Biff Elliot plays Jim Younger) as the Youngers were captured. This was in 1876, a full five and a half years before Jesse was killed by Robert Ford, although the movie makes it seem as though it was only a couple of weeks. Anyhow, the Youngers are basically under siege by the police, while the James broters (Jesse is played by Robert Wagner, while Frank James is played by Jeffrey Hunter) are futher ahead, hiding out in the mountain caves until night falls and they can make an escape. Meanwhile, back in Missouri is Jesse's wife Zee (Hope Lange) and mother (Agnes Moorehead). Mom starts thinking back....

Much of The True Story of Jesse James is told in a series of flashbacks, starting with the one by Jesse James' mother. She recalls how the family were farmers in southwest Missouri when the Civil War came. Frank went off to fight with Quantrill's Radiers who supported the Confederacy, while Jesse was too young. One day, though, Union officers were looking for a suspect and, thinking the Jameses were hiding that suspect, treated them quite rudely. Rudely enough that it would be understandably why Jesse, about 16 at the time, would want to go off and join his brother Frank with Quantrill himself. (This, indeed, is more or less the part of Jesse's life covered in Young Jesse James a few years later.) The predations of the Union army, combined with a surrender gone wrong, are posited to be the reasons why Jesse turned to a life of crime.

Next up is cousin Zee, who first meets Jesse after that failed surrender, when Jesse's been badly wounded. Zee is living with relatives on their farm, and they eventually take Jesse in on the proviso that Frank is going to work off their expenses in taking care of Jesse by doing farm labor. Zee and Jesse fall in love and get married, which is supposed to lead to Jesse living happily ever after. The Jameses and Youngers had committed some raids, presumably in order to get back some of the wealth they felt the Union army had destroyed. And there was still anti-Confederate sentiment that led to individual acts against those who had been with the Confederates. Or at least, that's the way things are portrayed in the movie. It's one of these acts that leads Jesse to plan a train robbery on the very night of his marriage!

The last of the flashbacks is given to Frank, and covers the later raids up to and including the bank robbery in Northfield nd why it went wrong. Jesse is depicted as becoming further embittered by the Pinkerton's destroying the family farm looking for him when he wasn't there at all. The Northfield robbery for its part goes wrong in part because a drinker in the gang doesn't cut the telegraph wires on time, allowing a posse to be formed looking for them, and in part because a Swedish immigrant farmer pesters the lookouts. Anyhow, Jesse survives the raid, eventually to return home to Zee in Missouri where he would be shot by Robert Ford.

The True Story of Jesse James is in many ways a pedestrian picture, using an overworked plot structure and making the standard excuses for why Jesse James turned out the way he did. I'd guess that Jesse liked the adrenaline rush from the raids, and at some point after having committed enough of them reached a position where he couldn't just stop and settle down as he'd still be caught, so the only way to support himself was to keep up a life of crime. Everything I've read suggests that this film is filled with historical inaccuracies big and small. This is all somewhat surprising, coming from a maverick director like Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar and On Dangerous Ground among others). And that's another thing making The True Story of Jesse James worth watching: seeing how Nicholas Ray could have gone wrong.

Amazon lists The True Story of Jesse James as being available on DVD, although it looks to be out of print.

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