Robert "Bob" Ford is a character based upon the real-life criminal who shot and killed the real-life outlaw and folk hero Jesse James. Ford has been portrayed most recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The real Robert Ford lived from 1860-1892. Born in Missouri he became part of the tattered band of outlaws led by Jesse James. Originally composed of Jesse and Frank James and the three Younger brothers (Bob, Cole, and Jim), among others, the James-Younger gang made many successful, vicious bank and train robberies during the period of 1866 - 1876. After the bold and ultimately disastrous Northfield Minnesota raid, wherein the Younger brothers were all wounded and captured, Jesse and Frank James needed more men. They first enlisted Charley Ford, Robert's older brother, to join their ranks. They later allowed Robert Ford, who idolized Jesse James, to come aboard as well.
But Charley and Robert had secretly made a bargain with the governor of Missouri, Thomas T. Crittenden, to kill Jesse James and secure the reward money on the criminal's head and their amnesty.
On Palm Sunday on April 3rd, 1882 Charley and Robert were at the Jameses house. When Jesse doffed his coat and his gun holsters, something he never did, and climbed on a chair to dust a picture, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head.
Robert Ford found himself both a celebrity and a villain. Vilified as the "dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard" in a popular song he received amnesty from the governor but not the public. Ford re-eanacted the murder on the New York stage, with his brother Charley portraying Jesse, for many years. He was eventually shot by another man in Colarado, Ed O'Kelley, largely because the assassin wanted to be known as the man who shot the man who shot Jesse James.
In the 1939 film, with Tyrone Power
as Jesse James, Robert Ford is played by John Carradine
. Robert is a sweating, thin rail of man. He is portrayed as having been in the James gang much earlier than history would dictate, before the Northfield raid. Even before the aborted robbery Robert is seen as planning to kill Jesse, nearly doing so when he finds that the rest of the gang, disgusted at Jesse's increasingly erratic behavoir, have left him. He doesn't however, and does not reappear until the end of the film.
Jesse is through with outlawry and planning to move to California with his wife, Zee, when he's visited by Robert and Charley Ford(Charles Tannen
). They claim that Jesse's brother Frank has sent them. Frank wants him to pull one more job. Jesse turns them down flat but get tempted by the lure of easy money and the chance to go the coast with some liquidity. Jesse goes outside to help his son who is being bullied by the neighbor boys. They're playing Jesse James with the other boys, shooting his son with imaginary guns, and telling him he's dead. The stark tableau changes Jesse's heart. He goes back in to tell Bob that he's not going in for the last job and he sees them outside with his best wishes. He goes to remove a picture from the wall, "God Bless Our Home," when Robert Ford sneaks back into the room. He raises a quavering hand and shoots Jesse in the back, then the chest, killing him.
In director Fritz Lang
's film Frank James (
) is working a farm and living under the alias of Ben Woodson when he hears that Robert Ford (John Carradine
) and Charley Ford (Charles Tannen
), found guilty of the murder of his brother, Jesse, are pardoned by the governor a half-hour later. Frank fishes his gun out of the granary bin to settle the score.
Meanwhile Bob and Charlie find that they're pariahs in town. They enter a saloon, decked out in fine new clothes, and Bob offers to buy drinks but he has no takers. Major Cobb (Henry Hull
), the editor of the Liberty Weekly Gazette and former friend and defender of Jesse, sees the Fords in the bar. He upbraids them as rats and warns them that, though Frank is rumored to be dead, "Those James boys have a mighty peculiar way of showing up." This unnerves Bob who says to Runyon, the railroad detective who supposedly put the Fords up to the murder, that he's going out west immediately.
Frank comes into town and Cobb tells him that the Fords are gone.
Frank visits Jesse's grave which says, "Loving Remembrance, Jesse W. James, Died April 3, 1882, Aged 34 years, 6 months, 28 Days. Murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here."
Frank is detrmined to catch the murderers but realizes he needs money. He breaks into the local express office, followed by Tom Grayson, (Jackie Cooper
), the son of one of his old gang members, tagging along behind him. Grayson's gun accidentally goes off alerting the locals to the robbery. The townsfolk begin to fire into the express office, killing a clerk who is lying on the floor. Frank and Tom escape through the roof.
Frank and Tom head out west to Colorado. They meet a pretty cub reporter (Gene Tierney
) and feed her a story about Frank meeting his demise in Mexico.
Bob and Charlie Ford come to town, re-enacting the shooting of Jesse James. In the play Frank and Jesse are the villains and attack a pretty farm girl to get the family safebox. Bob and Charlie Ford enter and a shoot-out commences, with Jesse falling to the floor.
Frank is watching from an opera box and can stand no more. He rises from his seat just as Bob Ford puts his arm around the pretty farm girl. Bob finally sees Frank and shrinks back in terror. He grabs an oil lamp and throws it into Frank's box. Flames fill the opera box as Bob makes his escape. Frank leaps from the box in pursuit
A cross-country chase ensues with Bob and Charlie just ahead of Frank and Tom. Bob whips his horse mercilessly. Charlie is thrown from his horse, as is Frank. Frank and Charlie shoot at one another until Charlie loses his footing and falls to his death in a canyon below.
When Frank hears that an innocent farm-hand, Pinky, has been charged as an accomplice to the express robbery and is going to hang for the death of the clerk, Frank returns to Liberty to exhonerate him and go to trial in his stead. Cobb represents Frank in court and gets acquitted playing mostly on the southern sympathies of the jury. Bob Ford smugly waits at the back of the court for what he presumes will be a guilty verdict. When Frank is freed Bob realizes that the now-free man is coming after him. He runs outside only to exchange gunfire with Tom. Both men are mortally wounded but Bob hides out in a local livery, where Frank finds his brother's killer dead on the floor.
In director Nicholas Ray's The True Story of Jesse James
Robert Ford is a moody dandy who appears near the end of picture. Robert (Carl Thayler
) is laconic and shiftless while his brother Charlie (Frank Gorshin
) says little.
As Jesse reaches to remove a picture, "Hard Work Spells Success," from the wall, Robert shoots him in the back. Ford runs down the street boasting that he has shot Jesse James. After Jesse's death and Frank James admits he'll probably turn himself in to the authoritites, a minstrel sings the song that would help solidify Robert Ford's place in the pantheon of great traitors as "the dirty little coward, who shot Mr. Howard, that laid poor Jesse in his grave."
In director Walter Hill
's The Long Riders
Charlie Ford (Christopher Guest
) and his little brother Bob (Nicholas Guest
) are unshaven bumpkins who try to impress Jesse James (James Keach
), Frank (Stacy Keach
), and Cole Younger (David Carradine
) at Jesse's wedding reception. After Charlie and Bob lie, poorly, about their exploits, they are dismissed by the gang.
Later, we see Jesse, Zee, and the Fords at a peaceful Sunday dinner in James's house. The Fords bring up another job, the Platte City bank, but Jesse tells them not to talk about business at the table.
Bob and Charley see Jesse's guns still in the holsters that hang on the coat-rack and begin to work up their nerve. Jesse absent-mindedly notices a plaque that reads "God Bless Our Home" that is crooked on the wall. As he straightens it Bob shoots him in the back.
Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton
) plays a much more active role in Frank & Jesse
. On-board a train that Jesse (Rob Lowe
) and Frank James (Bill Paxton
) rob Pinkerton, having confronted the entire gang shoots the last man departing the train, Charlie Ford (Alexis Arquette
), and captures him.
After years of unsuccessful attempts to aprehend Jesse Pinkerton releases Charlie Ford from prison and he rejoins the gang. Jesse wants to have a big score and proposes they hit the bank in Northfield, Minnesota.
Because Charlie has alerted Pinkerton about their plans the raid is a disaster. The Youngers are shot numerous times, with Jim Younger dying in town. Cole, Bob, Jesse and Frank escape but Bob is mortally wounded.
Frank announces he's done and he's moving to Texas to start a new life. Jesse admits he can't stop in his outlaw ways.
Pinkerton is pleased with the results of Northfield, which he credits to the advance information from Charlie Ford. But he also gives Charlie an ultimatum: Bring Jesse and Frank in and they get amnesty and the reward money. Fail to do so and they swing from the gallows.
It's 1882 and Charlie and his quiet brother, Robert (Jim Flowers
), visit Jesse at suppertime. They tell Jesse they've seen Frank in Alabama. Jesse, knowing where Frank lives, calls them liars, throws his steak knife into Charlie's chest and hits Bob with a candelabra. The commotion causes Zee, who is upstairs with their son, to call down to Jesse to ask what is the matter. Jesse, his traitorous visitors bested quickly runs up the flight to see his wife tucking his son into bed. He goes back down and asks the Fords who sent them. When they tell him that Pinkerton sent them, to get he and Frank, but that Pinkerton would probably stop if he only got Jesse, Jesse has an idea.
With tears in his eyes he lays his gun in front of Bob Ford and goes to straighten a "God Bless Our Home" picture on the wall. Bob picks up the gun but goes to leave. Charlie stops him and goads him. In almost a
Messianic manner Jesse waits for his execution. Bob Ford reluctantly shoots him in the back four times.
In The Asssassination
Jesse James (Brad Pitt
) is a world-weary man at the end of a long career. He is both smitten by his celebrity and desperately trying to shake himself loose from it.
The film starts on Sept. 5, 1881, just prior to the Blue Cut Train Robbery, the James gang's last train heist. The Younger brothers are all in jail so they have to make do with inexperienced locals who are used to smaller, meaner work and who yearn to have an association with a real life celebrity.
One of these locals is 19-year-old Robert, or Bob (Casey Affleck
), a shrinking, mumbling toady who has grown up reading the Jesse James mythology. Indeed he even has a box full of dime novels about Jesse. Robert, the brother of a standing member Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell
), is a stark example of how far the fortunes of the gang have fallen. Frank James (Sam Shepard
), is unnerved by the new recruits to the gang, and tells Robert he doesn't have the ingredients to be an outlaw. In an act of prescience Frank quits Jesse and outlawry and disappears back East.
In the aftermath of the robbery the remaining members of the James gang hold out in a remote cabin in the Ozarks. Jesse gets increasingly moody and paranoid. He visits former associates and proves himself to be descending into a kind of psychopathic, even suicidal spiral.
Jesse tries to return to his domestic life with his wife, Zee ((Mary-Louise Parker
), and their children, but he keeps reminders of his infamous past hanging around like mementos, including Robert. He both needs and needles Bob, asking him the pointed question, "You want to be like me, or you want to be me?" Jesse seems to be inviting Bob to dispatch him, allowing him to get close, tolerating his irritating sycophantic ways and presenting him with new firearms. Robert, meanwhile, is tired of his rough treatment by his former idol and greedily eyeing the reward money posted for the capture of Jesse. He even demands an audience with Governor Chittenden (James Carvill
) and, in an audacious move for a public official, the governor assents to be a party of the assassination by agreeing to give Robert clemency and the reward money to kill James.
Robert shoots Jesse, out of fear, out of greed, out of rejection, and expects to be branded a hero. He is, perversely, branded the coward of the title. He remains in the shadow of Jesse James, reenacting his role as Jesse's Judas for a Wild West show in New York (with Charley playing the role of Jesse). Robert is doomed to relive his act until he is shot to death by the same kind of fame-seeking nobody as him.