director Philip Kaufman
Back in 2007, inspired by Andrew Dominik’s great The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I jumped down a rabbit hole of the cinematic Jesse James. At the time, Netflix only carried so many Jesse James movies, but I pushed through all I could get my hands on, really, just trying to complete it. I did, at the time, go through what I could find readily.
Since that time, more movies have trickled out of the woodwork. Some new films, but probably just more complete lists of films. Everything from the 1939 Herny King classic, Jesse James to the atrociously hilarious William “One-Shot” Beaudine flick Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
Philip Kaufman’s 1972 revisionist version of the James and Younger gang is quite contrary to most depictions of the famed outlaw. The story is focused on Cole Younger, played here with great charm by Cliff Robertson. The Youngers aren’t portrayed as the second fiddles of the gang but the real leaders and more noble hearts of the rebellious raiders. Jesse James is played by Robert Duvall, and he’s not just a scoundrel but an out-and-out psychopath, killing unnecessarily, taking credit for things he didn’t do, and even shamed as being perhaps not as lustily heterosexual as the others.
This is a real contrast to most depictions, which tend to ennoble the gang, stealing from the banks and railroads that they felt had wronged the common man in their expansion across the States.
Kaufman’s movie is full of weird little things, like a long sequence depicting a baseball game (newfangled fad that it was), the character of the very Scandinavian stock of Northfield, MN, the “wonderments” of a steam plow, and a strange hoodoo treatment by an old lady witch. These are the elements that give the movie character, and its true charms.
Because overall, the film has a weird character, flipping between PG comedy (those Pinkerton detectives forever on their train car, never catching their prey) and a little more seriousness. Duvall’s Jesse James is quite unlikable, which I assume is intentional. Robertson, though, is quite good.
It’s an odd muddle of a film, interesting in context of looking at variant depictions of the historical and yet folkloric characters.