It explains how the myth of Jesse James began....and that's reason enough to see this.
As a retired history teacher, I am often appalled by the Hollywood image of Jesse James that was promoted from the 1930s through the 50s. In these films, Jesse was a misunderstood Robin Hood sort of character--a guy who was sticking it to the powerful in the name of the weak and downtrodden. I have always been irritated by this because James was no man of the people--he was a cold-blooded murderer and thief. In light of this, I was thrilled to watch this episode of "The American Experience" as it debunks this myth and explains how it developed.
The earlier years of Jesse were far bloodier and nasty than I had expected to see in this show. I knew that during the Civil War he'd been a raider and had done some vicious things, but I learned that he was basically a war criminal--and had been involved in some massacres of unarmed soldiers in which the bodies were mutilated horribly--beheaded, tortured and the like. This certainly was not the stuff of a hero! Following the war, Jesse and his brother, Frank, began robbing and killing. But, because there were lots of angry ex-Confederates living in Missouri, a newspaperman named Edwards deliberately misrepresented the James Brothers' evil deeds. Now, they were not stealing and murdering--they were sticking it to the evil North and corporations! And, at least for a time, many ex-Confederates bought into this and the myth of Jesse James was born. But, as the years progressed, one unprovoked murder after another after another made it tough for Edwards and his ilk to portray James as a hero. And, in a newly empowered Missouri legislature in the Post-Reconstruction era, James was now seen simply as a thug who needed killing--a thug who always seemed to kill the unarmed and weak.
I loved this show. It debunked the myth and explained how it began. My only regret, and it's a minor one, is that it did not talk much about the movie image of James. But, as I said, it's minor. Otherwise an impeccable and important documentary--one this history lover certainly enjoyed.
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