The last eighteen years in the life of Jesse James, showing his home life in Missouri, his experiences with Quantrill's raiders, his career of banditry with his brother Frank and the ... See full summary »
The last eighteen years in the life of Jesse James, showing his home life in Missouri, his experiences with Quantrill's raiders, his career of banditry with his brother Frank and the Younger brothers, and his attempt to lead a peaceful life after the disastrous attempt to rob the bank at Northfield, Minn. Written by
Although Jesse indicates the award for him has reached $30,000.00; in fact the arrangement with Robert Ford made by Missouri Governor Crittenden included a pardon for a previous murder and payment of $10,000.00. Only part of that $10,000.00 was received by the Ford brothers. See more »
Criminally dishonest portrait of a criminally dishonest man
That word 'True' in this film's title got my alarm bells ringing. They rang louder when a title card referred to America's Civil War as the 'War Between the States' (the circumlocution preferred by die-hard southerners). Jesse James -- thief, slave-holder and murderer -- is described as a quiet, gentle farm boy.
How dishonest is this movie? There is NO mention of slavery, far less of the documented fact that Jesse James's poor widdered mother owned slaves before the war, and that Jesse and his brother Frank actively fought to preserve slavery. According to this movie, all those Civil War soldiers were really fighting to decide whether Missouri is a northern state or a southern state ... that's ALL. (Missouri: It's a candy mint! It's a breath mint!) Black people are entirely absent from this movie, except for two glimpses of a pair of beggars, one of whom wears a "HELP THE POOR" sign that's very implausibly typeset instead of handwritten. (Some shots of 19th-century newspapers are inaccurate too, with 20th-century type fonts.)
This film has a weird flashback structure. There's some very impressive stunt riding (and some fine work by stunt horses), and one excellent montage. I savoured one line of dialogue: 'Some of those boys will never taste beans again.' The movie gets a few facts straight: Agnes Moorehead, as Jesse's mother, conceals her right arm in the scenes following the raid by the agents of Pinkerton (here called 'Remington') in which Jesse James's real-life mother suffered injuries requiring the amputation of her lower arm. Some errors here are pardonable: during his bushwhacking days, the real Jesse James accidentally shot off part of his left middle finger, but Robert Wagner (in the title role here) does not have a stumpfinger. I've seen a photo of Jesse James's real wife; if she had looked half as glamorous as Hope Lange looks in this movie, Jesse James might have stayed home more.
There's plenty of revisionism here, and most of the male actors wear 1950s hairstyles. But many of this movie's errors were avoidable. Jesse James's mentor William Quantrill is mentioned several times, but all the actors mispronounce his name. We see Jesse and his wife moving into an elaborate two-storey house (where he will soon die) after paying a rent of $18. Actually, Jesse James's last residence (at 1318 Lafayette Street, St Joseph, Missouri) was a simple one-storey cottage, renting for $14. There was no upper storey ... so, when Jesse James is killed, his wife could not come running from upstairs as Hope Lange does here. (She was actually in the kitchen.)
One continuity error: Robert Wagner (with no stunt double) does an impressive job of taking a slug to the jaw and falling over while his hands are tied behind his back ... but when he gets up, the rope binding his wrists has vanished.
The screenplay does some weird and unnecessary juggling of dates. Following the Northfield robbery attempt, Jesse says he expects to get home by his birthday. The actual Northfield bank raid by the James Gang (7 September, 1876) was two days AFTER Jesse James's birthday. (Maybe he meant next year's birthday.) Later, we see Jesse and his wife moving into their St Joseph home on a fine summer day, while Jesse tells her what he plans to do when Christmas Eve arrives ... but in real life, Mr and Mrs Jesse James moved into that house on 24 December, 1881 ... so this scene should *BE* on Christmas Eve! These errors were entirely avoidable.
Some of the fictionalisations here don't make sense. According to this movie, the Northfield bank raid failed because one (fictional) henchman was late in cutting the telegraph wires. If this had actually happened, it would indeed have hampered the James Gang's getaway ... but it wouldn't have affected the robbery itself, which failed for other reasons.
There are good performances here by Jeffrey Hunter (as Frank James), Moorehead, Alan Hale Jnr (as Cole Younger) and by stage actress Marian Seldes in a rare screen role. I was disappointed by Robert Wagner, normally an under-rated actor. Elsewhere, Wagner has proved his impressive range by convincingly portraying heroes, villains and morally ambiguous characters. Here, he can't seem to decide whether to depict Jesse James as a goodie or a baddie ... so he doesn't much bother. John Carradine phones in his performance in a brief role as a fictional jackleg preacher who baptises Jesse and his wife at their wedding. In fact, Jesse James was baptised in childhood by his uncle, a Methodist minister ... but perhaps this second baptism is a topping-up.
Jesse James was no Robin Hood. (I doubt that Robin Hood was Robin Hood either, but that's another story.) There is not one single documented instance of Jesse James ever sharing his loot with anyone beyond his own family. After some of his hold-ups, he didn't even split the swag with the rest of his gang. In this movie, Jesse gets gunned down right after he vows to give up his bandit ways forever. In reality, the night before his death, Jesse James and the Ford brothers stole horses that Jesse planned to use the next day in a robbery of the Platte City bank. As preparation for most of his robberies, Jesse James stole horses from local farmers ... the same poor folk who (in the inaccurate legends) were supposedly the beneficiaries of his largesse. I cringed at one scene here, in which the fictional Jesse James is so gol-durn refined that he disapproves of an oil painting which tastefully depicts nudes.
'The True (not much!) Story of Jesse James' is wilfully dishonest about a thieving murderer, and likewise dishonest about the Civil War. For the very impressive stunt work, one good montage and a few fine acting turns, I'll rate this obscenely dishonest movie 2 points out of 10.
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