(1939) dir. Henry King
After having seen Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), I have decided to go on a little Jesse James jag. The legend is the question in Dominik’s film, the making and construct of legend of an outlaw hero, the story that became such pop culture fodder for more than 100 years after his death. And it’s true, there are a ton of Jesse James movies made, more toward the beginning of the 20th Century, but steadily, each decade would take a new crack at the legend. So, I’ve queued up a bunch of Jesse James movies, from different decades and each from a significant director.
Jesse James is not the first Hollywood version of the James legend by far, but it seemed as good a starting place as any. Directed by Henry King, not one the heavyweights of American auteurist theory, but a very solid, genre-spanning director, whose The Gunfighter (1950) was one of the first Westerns to really stand out for me, seemed like a significant enough figure to run the film. Here, we have Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank James, with John Carradine as Robert Ford, and even Randolph Scott thrown in as Mashall Will Wright. A solid cast up and down. And the movie is a pretty top-notch affair all around.
King shoots some excellent action sequences, particularly of the train robbery that got the James gang going, with Jesse racing up on horseback, jumping onto the train, peering into the windows, ultimately climbing to the top to head up to the engine. There is a fantastic shot of Jesse James striding across the train in mostly silhuoette as the train charges forward. There is also an apparently tragic action shot of a horse and stuntman leaping 90 feet into the water in a rugged escape from justice. When I saw the shot, I thought that there was no way the horse survived that. Apparently, that was true. This film was sadly noted to be the one that brought the attention of the SPCA and the protection that animals would not be harmed in the production of movies.
The narrative is one of legend-making. There is a newspaperman, Major Rufus Cobb, whose editiorializing makes for some amusing sequences, who drums up the public persona and public take on James. He also eulogizes Jesse as his funeral, evoking legend and decrying his cowardly killer. “The ‘goldarnedest’ cuss that ever…” I wish that I could quote it directly. The film already has a high self-awareness of the mythmaking and the mixed character of James, both as justified hero, a Robin Hood of sorts against the ruthlessness of the Transcontinental Railroad, and also as a fairly vicious killer. King doesn’t try to show James to be that bad of a guy, though they do allude to his ruthlessness.
Still, after watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, seeing aspects of the narrative played out to the “T”, the disarming of Jesse and the defenseless pose he died in, straightening a picture of the wall with his back turned toward his killer, somehow is still very emotionally evocative. Surprisingly so.
Jesse James is indeed a solid Western, with excellent comedic bit parts, striking action, and a lively and solid cast. I have to say that it was even better than I was expecting on a number of levels. The poignancy of the mythologizing eulogy reads the grave marker for James in Kearney, MO, “Devoted Husband and Father, Jesse Woodson James, Sept. 5, 1847, Murdered Apr. 8, 1882, by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.” This is the irony of Robert Ford that Dominik ponders in his film. The legend is well-established already.