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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Movie Review: The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

One of the nice things about my new home in Santander is that it's just five minute's walk away from the local Filmoteca. These are a national chain of government-subsidized cinemas showing local films, international indies, and classics.

Last week I saw The True Story of Jesse James, a 1957 remake of a 1939 film. It stars Robert Wagner as Jesse, Jeffrey Hunter as Frank, and Gilligan's Island skipper Alan Hale, Jr., as Cole Younger. I recently completed a book about the James gang so I was interested to see how much of the "true story" was in this picture.

OK, now that all of you've finished laughing, I can attest that while it doesn't come anywhere close to the true story, it's the most accurate film about the James gang other than Brad Pitt's The Assassination of Jesse James. That's not saying much. Read my post on Jesse James in Hollywood to see just how bad the Dream Factory screws up history.

The film opens with a presumptuous text saying how this is the real story, unvarnished by myth. That's a bit like Dan Brown saying at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code that his story is all true. What follows is about ten percent history, ninety percent myth. The basics of Jesse James' life are outlined fairly accurately: his beating at the hands of a Unionist militia, his subsequent enlistment in Quantrill's bushwhacker band, his inability to stop fighting after the end of the Civil War, etc. Much of the film is dedicated to the gang getting shot up during their failed heist at Northfield, Minnesota, and the ensuing chase.

Throughout this basically correct narrative are strewn historical errors and fables. Robert Ford is somehow along for the ride to Northfield despite his not being a member of the gang yet. The Northfield shootout is turned into a fairly even gunfight in which several armed citizens die, when in fact only two unarmed civilians were shot down in cold blood. There's also a completely made up subplot about a neighbor of the James family who wants their land and is conspiring with the local Union soldiers and law enforcement.

No such neighbor existed. The James brothers were no more persecuted for their wartime record than any other ex-Confederate. Yes, in post-war Missouri former secessionists had many of their rights curtailed, but the James family had a prosperous farm and were in fact better off than many of their Unionist neighbors. Greed drove Frank and Jesse to rob banks, not persecution. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may have also played a part. They weren't the first, or the last, veterans who were unable to put a war behind them.

The overall point of this movie seems to be to put the James brothers on a pedestal, making them into American Robin Hoods when in fact they were nothing more than capable bandits with a flair for public relations. This was only one of the many films that helped create the Jesse James legend and as such, it's worth watching for those with an interest in the Old West and folklore. Plus it's got some cool gunfights.

At least it wasn't as bad as Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. That made my list of the ten worst horror films ever.


  1. It's hard to find a historically accurate film. I enjoyed the film Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett but it wasn't very truthful and it could've been while still being interesting.

  2. Maybe someone needs to do the true story?

  3. mshatch: That's what really bothers me! The real story of Jesse James (and so many other historical characters) is so much more interesting than the legend.

  4. "The Real Story Really Told For the First Time!"

    Reminds me of a cable TV movie that came out some years ago, titled -- seriously -- "The Postively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."

    I guess if this trend continues, someday we may see "The Postively, Absolutely, This Time We Mean It True Story of Jesse James" or something like that.



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