Tag Archives: Jesse James

Frank and Jesse

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 16, 2015

Frank and Jesse—Rob Lowe, Bill Paxton, Randy Travis, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Maria Patillo, Sean Patrick Flanery, William Atherton (1995; Dir: Robert Boris)

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This was not in fact originally made for television, although something about it has that feel.  The best actor in this film is Bill Paxton, who plays Frank James, although Rob Lowe as Jesse James is better than you’d expect.  There are lots of historical inaccuracies, but it’s not terrible; there are many worse Jesse James movies out there.  This sticks to some of the facts about the James brothers, using the dates for some of their better-known depredations.  But it juggles around others and feels free to invent things whenever it wants.

The outlines of the James brothers’ story are familiar by now.  Frank and Jesse are veterans of the Missouri border wars in the Civil War, having ridden as guerrillas with both William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.  (Frank refers to both of them having participated in Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas.  Frank was probably there, but Jesse wasn’t.)  They are less than comfortable in a post-war Missouri where carpetbaggers and avaricious Yankee railroads play prominent roles, oppressing honest citizens.  Pinkertons hired by the railroad attack their mother’s home (the famous attack is out of sequence in their career, and the results weren’t exactly as depicted); the brothers pay the mortgage for a widow who helps them.

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The James brothers (Rob Lowe as Jesse, Bill Paxton as Frank) on the run.

They are driven deeper into a life of crime, assembling a gang with the Younger brothers, Bob and Cole (Randy Travis), Clell Miller, Archie Clements (who was actually killed during the war) and the Ford brothers (much earlier than the Fords were actually involved with the Jameses).  They rob the Gallatin bank in 1869 (it actually took place in 1866), killing the Yankee manager who insults their Confederate service.  Frank is depicted as against killing and being the brains behind the gang’s public relations activities.  Jesse is colder and quicker to kill.  We are glad when Frank loses the distracting tricorn hat.  The gang robs trains, on one of which they encounter Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton, whom we are quick to recognize as slimy after his roles in the Die Hard movies), which never happened.  Jesse and Allan Pinkerton never met, as far as we know.

The famous Northfield raid of 1876 is not very accurate.  When the gang arrives in September, there is snow on the ground.  The gang shoots down a number of townspeople; in fact, two people were killed, aside from gang members.  It shows Charlie Ford having previously warned the Pinkertons of the raid, which didn’t happen.  Both Cole and Bob Younger, as well as their brother Jim, who is not shown in the movie, were shot up.  But Cole didn’t kill a dying Bob, as shown here.  All three Youngers were taken prisoner, and Bob died in prison some years later.  Nothing much is shown of the six years between the Northfield raid and Jesse’s killing in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1882.  Both Jesse and Frank get married, to Zee (Maria Pitillo) and Annie (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), and attempt to have family lives while on the run.

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Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton) has the James gang in his sights.

In the end, the Ford brothers approach Jesse with the intention of killing him, motivated by both threats and promised rewards from Pinkerton.  This shows Charlie doing the shooting, when it was Bob who killed Jesse.  It depicts Jesse as knowing what was coming, cooperating with it, returning the gun and even deliberately turning his back for the shot, thinking it would get the authorities off Frank’s back.

This is not in the same league with The Long Riders (1980) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), but it doesn’t have that kind of ambition.  It’s better than American Outlaws, for example.  It’s worth watching for its version of the interplay between Frank and Jesse.  A little familiarity with Jesse and Frank’s careers and chronology is helpful, but don’t take them all that seriously.  Just enjoy this for what it is, including the fact that Rob Lowe isn’t as bad as you expect.  He makes a decent Jesse James, better than many on film.  Enjoy William Atherton’s malevolent self-righteousness as Allan Pinkerton.  Bill Paxton and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson had parts in 1993’s Tombstone, as Morgan Earp and Mattie Blaylock, respectively.  Normally, the presence of a country music star in a western is not a good sign, but Randy Travis is better as Cole Younger than some others have been, with a distinctive voice that seems to fit.  Sean Patrick Flanery shows up as a Chicago Tribune reporter, a sort of sympathetic counterpoint to Pinkerton.

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In color, rated R, written and directed by Robert Boris at 105 minutes.  Apparently its numerous departures from the facts were made consciously.  At the end of the movie, it makes this disclaimer:  “This motion picture is based upon actual events.  However, some of the characters and incidents portrayed and many of the names used herein are fictitious; any similarity of such character, incident, or name, to the name, characters or history of any person, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”  The title is sometimes written as Frank & Jesse.

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Jesse James (1939)

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 24, 2014

Jesse James—Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, Nancy Kelly, Henry Hull, Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy, Donald Meek, John Carradine, Slim Summerville (1939; Dir: Henry King)

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If you had never seen a Jesse James movie, this might not be a bad place to start—not because it’s strongly factual (it isn’t), but because it’s almost pure romanticized legend.  It’s a top-flight big-budget production with a strong cast, a big-name writer and a well-known director, in color at a time when almost all films were in black and white.

Jesse James: “I hate the railroads… and when I hate, I’ve gotta do something about it.”

As the film opens, the St. Louis Midland Railroad, in the person of Barshee (Brian Donlevy at his slimiest), is bullying and bamboozling poor, honest Missouri farmers into selling their land for much less than it’s worth. That doesn’t work on the James family of Liberty; their mother, Mrs. Samuels (Jane Darwell) feels poorly but is strong-minded. When Jesse (Tyrone Power) shoots Barshee in the hand while he’s trying to use a scythe on Frank (Henry Fonda), Barshee gets a warrant for his arrest. While trying to serve it, he throws a bomb into the room where Mrs. Samuels lies, killing her and starting the James brothers on their outlaw trail for good.  Jesse confronts Barshee in a bar, killing him and one of his strong-arm minions.

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Good ol’ Missouri farm boy Jesse (Tyrone Power) becomes notorious outlaw chieftain Jesse James.

Jesse has to leave his long-time girlfriend Zee Cobb (Nancy Kelly), niece of the local newspaper editor, Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull).  Liberty Marshal Will Wright is sympathetic to them, like many of their fellow Missouri citizens, but is also romantically interested in Zee.  After Jesse and Frank have started a successful career robbing trains, Zee and Will talk Jesse into taking the railroad’s offer of leniency if he turns himself in.  However, the sleazy railroad president has no intention of keeping his word and plans to see Jesse hung.  (The offer of a deal to return to respectability that turns bad is also a feature of the stories of Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.)

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Jesse (Tyrone Power) turns himself in to sympathetic Marshal Will Wright (Randolph Scott).

Through the craftiness of Frank and the connivance of Will, Jesse is liberated.  Before resuming his outlaw career, he and Zee are married, but the outlaw life wears on her.  When her son is born, she returns to her uncle’s home in Liberty, and Jesse turns mean.

Zee Cobb James:  “Shooting and robbing—it’ll just get in your blood, Jesse. You’ll end up like a wolf!”

A detective spreads word that if a member of the James gang kills Jesse, he will receive $25,000 and amnesty.  Bob Ford (John Carradine) is tempted, and he warns the detective about the gang’s next job in Northfield, Minnesota.  The gang is shot up, Jesse is badly wounded and Frank and Jesse barely escape, desperately jumping their horses through a storefront window and, later in the pursuit, over a cliff into a river.  Frank disappears from the story at this point; Jesse escapes his hunters and arduously makes his way back to St. Joseph, where Zee finds him and nurses him back to health.  He resolves to take his family to California and go straight.

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Frank James (Henry Fonda) runs for his horse in Northfield when a bank robbery goes bad.

As he is about to catch a train west, he is visited by the Ford brothers, Bob and Charlie. They tell him Frank wants to do a last job, and he is tempted. But he refuses, and as the brothers are leaving, Bob shoots Jesse in the back.  As the film closes, Major Cobb gives a populist eulogy for the deceased outlaw, painting a very sympathetic portrait of him.

Many of the members of this cast do very well. Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Brian Donlevy and Donald Meek are all very good.  Power was known more for costume dramas, but he made a few good westerns (The Mark of Zorro, Rawhide).  Henry Hull quickly becomes tiresome in his role as the hard-drinking editor, the first of a string of those in westerns. (See, for example, Wallace Ford in Wichita and Edmond O’Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)  This is a problem in the writing, as well as in Hull’s overplaying.  Nancy Gates as Jesse’s wife Zee often comes across as sanctimonious in her sometimes lengthy ruminations on outlawry and such; again, much of this is due to the writing.  She did not have a robust career, but she appeared in at least one other good western in the same year:  Frontier Marshal, also with Randolph Scott.  At this point of his career, Scott often played ethical characters with criminal conflicts (Western Union, Virginia City); here he is also conflicted because of his attraction to Zee and his sympathy for the brothers.  He’s the most ethical character in the film, although he doesn’t really have much to do.  Both Donald Meek and John Carradine would appear the same year in the superb Stagecoach.

Although it has occasional bursts of action, there are also several spots where it bogs down slightly with a lot of talk, when Jesse is briefly in jail, when Zee is philosophizing about the outlaw life, or when Major Cobb is dictating another of his cranky, repetitive and tedious editorials.  Notwithstanding the pacing problems and talkiness, the technicolor Tyrone Power is always great to look at, and Henry Fonda as Frank is excellent and persuasive.

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A brooding Tyrone Power as Jesse; and the real Jesse James about the time of his death at 34 in 1882.

This would be followed the next year by a sequel.  Since Jesse dies at the end of this movie, the sequel is about Frank:  The Return of Frank James, with Frank seeking revenge for Jesse’s killing.  Henry Fonda as Frank, Henry Hull as the tedious Major Rufus Cobb, Donald Meek as the slippery railroad president, John Carradine as Bob Ford and J. Edward Bromberg as Runyan the detective all reprise their roles.

The variations from actual history are too numerous all to be mentioned here.  The film makes no mention of the James brothers’ guerrilla history with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War.  There are no Younger brothers in the gang; all the members but Jesse and Frank are nonentities.  Events like the railroad-sponsored bombing are misplaced and telescoped together in time.  Mrs. Samuels was not killed by the incendiary bomb, but she did lose an arm and it killed her youngest son.  It was not what started their outlaw careers but came after they were well-established in robbing trains and banks.  Bob Ford was quite young when he killed Jesse, and he was not a member of the gang on the Northfield raid.  No one gave any warning to authorities in Northfield; the citizenry was just well-armed and prepared not to let its bank be robbed.  Jesse was not wounded at Northfield, although other members of the gang were killed or badly shot up (e.g., the Youngers).  The movie shows Jesse being killed shortly after recovering from his Northfield wounds. In fact, the Northfield raid was in 1876 and Jesse was killed six years later, in 1882.  There is no evidence that Jesse was planning to move to California when he was killed.  Jesse was not the Robin Hood figure shown in this movie.  For a more accurate historical depiction of the James brothers and their depredations, see The Long Riders more than forty years later.

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The film has an unfortunate place in movie history because of a stunt.  As Frank and the badly wounded Jesse are making their escape from Northfield, they both appear to ride off a 70-foot cliff into a river below.  While it appears to be two riders and two horses, the second is simply a closer camera angle of the one stunt, so it looks different.  The horse in the stunt was killed, however, which caused such an outcry that it led to the formation of what became the American Humane Association’s Film and Television Unit.  Since 1940, the unit has monitored the treatment of animals in movies, and since 1989 the phrase “No animals were harmed during the making of this picture” (a registered trademark) has appeared in the credits of movies for which it is true.  The stunt is visually impressive, but knowing what the outcome was dampens the viewer’s enthusiasm.

In 1939, the use of color in film was in its infancy.  Few movies were in color, like the big productions Gone With the Wind and Dodge City.  This was.  Director Henry King had been making movies for 25 years at this point, including such notable silent films as Tol’able David and The Winning of Barbara Worth.  He was not involved with the sequel.  He made several more memorable westerns, including The Gunfighter and The Bravados, both with Gregory Peck, before finishing his long and eminent career more than twenty years later.  Writer Nunnally Johnson had a newspaper background, like many others of the best writers for movies (Ben Hecht, Charlie MacArthur).  He sometimes played a production role on movies, and he was prominent enough that his name sometimes even appeared with the movie’s title in the credits (“Nunnally Johnson’s Along Came Jones,” for example).  He did not write many westerns, although he did some uncredited work for King on The Gunfighter.  Shot on location in Missouri.  108 minutes long.

 

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The Return of Frank James

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 12, 2014

The Return of Frank James—Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, John Carradine, Donald Meek (1940; Dir:  Fritz Lang)

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In color, indicating that it had a large budget for a 1940 western.  This sequel to 1939’s Jesse James stars Henry Fonda reprising his role as Frank James, a growing-up Jackie Cooper as Frank’s companion Clem and Gene Tierney in her first leading role as Eleanor Stone, a Denver reporter who is smitten with Frank.  The movie starts as Frank gets news of Jesse’s death, robs a bank owned by the railroad and goes off to Colorado in search of the Ford brothers and revenge. 

While in Colorado he meets Eleanor and gets news that his black farmhand Pinky (Ernest Whitman) has been arrested for and convicted of the robbery James committed, along with related deaths.  Reluctantly, he gives up temporarily on his pursuit of Bob Ford (John Carradine), returns to his home state and turns himself in to save his friend.  As he is put on trial in Missouri, Bob Ford shows up unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) in the courtroom, and Frank finishes him off in a shootout in a barn after Ford kills Clem in the town square.

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The entire film is not very factual, aside from Frank being acquitted at a Missouri trial after Jesse’s death, which he was.  Fonda is good, and Tierney is beautiful–the camera loved her.  Donald Meek has a nice role as the venal railroad executive.  Ford was actually killed in a saloon in Creede, Colorado, by a non-James. 

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The lovely Gene Tierney as Eleanor Stone, in her first starring role.

This is one of director Fritz Lang’s few westerns, together with Union Pacific and Rancho Notorious.  For another western focusing on Jesse’s assassin Bob Ford, see Samuel Fuller’s I Killed Jesse James, with John Ireland.

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Jesse James on Film

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 5, 2014

Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang in Movies

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Jesse James has captured the popular imagination since the days of 19th-century dime novels, to the extent that, beginning during his lifetime, he has become one of the two most famous outlaws in U.S. history (with Billy the Kid).  After visiting Jesse’s home town in Missouri, Oscar Wilde wrote in one of his letters home to England that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes.”  Much like the Australians with Ned Kelly, perhaps.

Jesse and his older brother Frank rode with William Quantrill’s Missouri bushwhackers and with Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War.  Frank is thought to have participated in such atrocities as the raid on Lawrence, Kansas, and both of them in the Centralia massacre.  Jesse was not yet 18 when the war ended.  After the war, the brothers formed a gang with the Youngers, robbing banks and trains.  The dime novels tended to depict them as romantic Robin Hood-type figures, but that reputation fit them less than it did, say, Butch Cassidy later in the century.  Some wanted to see them as righting lingering Civil War wrongs, or fighting the railroads and Yankee carpetbaggers that oppressed settlers and farmers in the region after the war, but it’s not clear that they were anything other than outlaws with guns, more successful than most and looking for personal gain and loot.

Jesse was a leader of the gang, a hard man leading other hard men.  He had a flair for public relations, and several of his letters were published in a Kansas City newspaper, burnishing his image.  The gang’s most active period was from 1866 to 1876, when their raid on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, went disastrously wrong.  His brother Frank was said to have been better (faster) with a gun.  Cole Younger, whom they had initially met while riding with Quantrill, was seemingly just as tough.  As Cole put it after the gang’s Northfield raid, during which Cole and two of his brothers were shot up and captured and only the James brothers themselves escaped, “We tried a desperate game and lost.  But we are rough men used to rough ways, and we will abide by the consequences.”

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A Missouri wanted poster for the James brothers, and the brothers (Jesse on the left and Frank on the right) in the 1870s.

Jesse was famously killed by Bob Ford, a young quasi-member of his gang, in April 1882, a death that sealed his romantic legend.  Brother Frank stood trial in Missouri and was acquitted (a highly fictionalized version of this process is presented in Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James from 1940); Frank later toured with Cole Younger after Cole’s release from jail, lecturing on the evils of their former lives of crime.  (Frank and Cole during this phase are depicted briefly at the end of the remake of True Grit.)

Jesse is hard to depict on film, with his elusive charisma; his brother Frank usually comes across more sympathetically.  If you’ve never seen a Jesse James movie, start with 1939’s Jesse James, with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jesse and Frank, for the romantic image and very little historicity.  Although there have been some interesting depictions of Jesse and the James gang, the best on film is probably Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  Perhaps the best performance as Jesse James was given by Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a beautifully shot but slow-moving film.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse, and the real Jesse Woodson James ca. 1882, the year of his death at 34.

Each generation seems to feel the need to make its own cinematic versions of Jesse and Frank.  Most of these films play fast and loose with the actual history of the James brothers and their gang, and many of them are pretty bad as movies.  (See, for example, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter [1966], directed by William “One-Take” Beaudine.)  Jesse James was often used as an incidental character in completely fictional movies, as in Fighting Man of the Plains (1949), where he (played by Dale Robertson) rides in at the end to rescue Randolph Scott from hanging.  His long exposure in dime novel stories and his colorful end are such that he easily lends himself to fiction.  The most historically accurate so far is probably The Long Riders again, which uses four sets of actual brothers to depict the brothers involved with the James gang.

An extended discussion of films dealing with Jesse is available in Jesse James and the Movies by Johnny D. Boggs (2011).  He says, among many other things, that the best movie about Jesse James is Ride With the Devil (1999), a Civil War movie about Missouri bushwhackers that doesn’t mention the names of Frank or Jesse James or Cole Younger.  “The best movie about Jesse James is Ride with the Devil, which isn’t about Jesse James, but that’s all right because the best movie about George Custer is Fort Apache, which isn’t about Custer, either, and the best movie about the O.K. Corral is My Darling Clementine, which gets almost all of the facts – including the year of the famous gunfight – wrong.”  The theory is that, while not specifically about the Jameses, it does capture the spirit of the bushwhackers better than any other movie.  It’s a superb movie, but you won’t find it on the list below.

If you want to know how it really was with Jesse, the definitive biography to date is Jesse James:  Last Rebel of the Civil War, by T.J. Stiles (2003).  A recent engaging account of the botched Northfield, Minnesota, raid is Shot All to Hell:  Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape, by Mark Lee Gardner (2013).

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The James Boys in Missouri (1908, 18 minutes)

Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921, with Jesse Edward James, 46, as his father) 

Jesse James as the Outlaw (1921, again with Jesse Edward James)

Jesse James—Fred Thomson (1927)

Days of Jesse James (1939)

Jesse James—Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda (1939; Dir:  Henry King, Irving Cummings)

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Tyrone Power as Jesse James, 1939.

The Return of Frank James—Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney (1940; Dir:  Fritz Lang)

Jesse James at Bay–Roy Rogers (1941)

Bad Men of Missouri (1941)

Badman’s Territory (1946)

Jesse James Rides Again—Serial (1947; Dir:  Fred C. Brannon)

Adventures of Frank and Jesse James—Serial (1948; Dir:  Fred C. Brannon)

The James Brothers of Missouri—Serial (1949; Dir:  Fred C. Brannon)

Fighting Man of the Plains (1949)

I Shot Jesse James—Foster, Ireland (1949; Dir:  Sam Fuller)

Kansas Raiders—Murphy (1950)

The Return of Jesse James (1950)

Best of the Badmen—(1951)

The Great Missouri Raid—Carey (1951)

The Great Jesse James Raid (1953)

Jesse James’ Women (1954)

Hell’s Crossroads (1954)

Jesse James vs. the Daltons (1954)

The True Story of Jesse James—Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter (1957; Dir:  Ray)

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Robert Wagner as Jesse and Jeffrey Hunter as Frank in The True Story of Jesse James.

Cole Younger, Gunfighter (1958)

Alias Jesse James—Bob Hope, Wendell Corey, Rhonda Fleming (1959)

Young Jesse James (1960)

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966; Dir:  William Beaudine)

A Time for Dying—Audie Murphy (1969)

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid—Robert Duvall, Cliff Robertson (1972)

The Long Riders (1980; Dir:  Walter Hill)

Last Days of Frank and Jesse James—Cash, Kristofferson (MfTV, 1986; Dir:  Graham)

Frank and Jesse—Rob Lowe, Bill Paxton (1995)

Purgatory (MfTV, 1999)

American Outlaws—Colin Farrell, Scott Caan (2001; Dir:  Mayfield)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford–Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck (2007)

American Bandits:  Frank and Jesse James (2010, direct to video)

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Actually, Quantrell (normally spelled Quantrill) wasn’t really wanted because he was dead by the end of the Civil War.  A lot of people wanted to kill him during the war, though.

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American Outlaws

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 8, 2014

American Outlaws—Colin Farell, Gabriel Macht, Scott Caan, Timothy Dalton, Harris Yulin, Ali Larter, Kathy Bates (2001; Dir:  Les Mayfield)

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This is a good-looking, fanciful and not very factual retelling of the Jesse James legend.  There are a lot of young, good-looking actors in this one, most of whom were not well known when it was made.  Seemingly inspired by Young Guns, this makes the Jameses and Youngers seem like teenagers, and ends with the outlaws winning:  with his feisty young wife, the newly married Jesse goes off to Tennessee, where the railroad and the Pinkertons will be less interested in pursuing him.  There is nothing about such negative aspects of Jesse’s later life as the resumption of his outlaw career, the disastrous raid on Northfield, Minnesota, or Jesse’s eventual murder by a quasi-gang member. 

The focus is on the social battle between a heartless, fraudulent railroad and the good-hearted Missouri peasantry that supports the gang because the railroad oppresses them.  It emphasizes conflicts and dissension within the gang, especially between Jesse and Cole Younger.  Jesse (Colin Farrell) is presented as slicker with a gun than he probably was.  Although handy enough with weapons, Jesse was not primarily a gunfighter.  His brother Frank had the reputation of being the best with a gun in the James-Younger gang.  Jesse was a charismatic leader and planner, and quite cold-blooded when it came to the execution of his crimes.  As depicted in this movie, the gang apparently had an infinitely expandable roster of members when necessary; in the final scene there appear to be upwards of 50. 

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Frank (Gabriel Macht) and Jesse (Colin Farrell) liked their mom (Kathy Bates).

Farrell captures a version of Jesse’s charisma and attractive qualities, without the coldness and brutality.  Gabriel Macht is fine as older brother Frank James, although not much is made of his role.  Scott Caan seems stocky and pugnacious as Cole Younger; some of that is the fault of the script, and some is bad casting.  A very blond Ali Larter is Zee Mimms, Jesse’s first cousin (named after his mother), romantic interest and finally wife, and she seems very 21st century feminist, although not terribly bright.  Kathy Bates has a small role as Ma James (Zerelda Samuel), killed in a Pinkerton raid on her home (a young son was actually the one killed, and Mrs. Samuel was injured and lost an arm as a result of the real raid). 

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Cole Younger, Jesse and Frank pursue the outlaw path.

Timothy Dalton is a malevolent Allan Pinkerton pursuing the gang with a Scottish accent, and his twist at the end is not terribly persuasive (inadequate preparation in the script and cutting of the film prior to that).  Harris Yulin is the corrupt (and fictional) Thaddeus Rains, head of the fictional Rock Northern Railroad which Jesse despises and robs, and source of the purpose and funds for chasing Jesse and the gang.  Canadian (born in Edmonton and presumably Native American) Nathaniel Arcand plays Comanche Tom, a member of the gang unknown in actual history.  Not to be confused with American Bandits, also about Frank and Jesse but without much star power or budget.

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Director Lee Mayfield has worked principally in television.  Not a terrific film, and it didn’t do well at the box office, although it’s a guilty pleasure for some and others find overtly (if unintentionally) comedic elements in it.  Compare it with Texas Rangers, another youth-oriented (and not terribly successful) western released the same year.  The proliferation of different posters suggests that those backing the movie hoped heavy marketing would distract potential audiences from the fact that their product wasn’t very good.

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Purgatory

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2013

Purgatory—Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, J.D. Souther, Randy Quaid, Peter Stormare, Brad Rowe, Amelia Heinle, R.G. Armstrong (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  Uli Edel)

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Much more watchable than the premise and the fact that it was made for television would suggest.  Despicable outlaw Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts in his evil mode) and his numerous gang rob a bank in the town of Sweetwater, killing a number of citizens and soldiers in the process.  Pursued closely by a posse into the desert heading for Mexico, they get lost in a storm and emerge into a green valley and a small town.  They enter the town of Refuge and are welcomed, bemused by the fact that the sheriff (Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun and asks them not to curse.  Meanwhile, they get free booze and accommodations, but, given their predilections, that’s not enough for them.

The gang’s segundo, Cavin Guthrie (Peter Stormare, recognizable from Fargo), is if anything even more despicable than Blackjack, but he’s hampered by his green nephew, Sonny Dillard (Brad Rowe), an avid reader of dime novels.  Sonny fancies he starts to recognize some of the town’s characters.  The sheriff bears a resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok; the town doctor (Randy Quaid) seems like he could be Doc Holliday; the storekeeper (J.D. Souther) seems like Jesse James; and the impetuous deputy (Donnie Wahlberg) like Billy the Kid.  And Sonny is taken with Rose (Amelia Heinle), a young lady of the town.  They all seem to spend an unusual amount of time in church. 

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Eric Roberts as the loathsome Blackjack Britton; Brad Rowe as Sonny Dillard.

[Spoilers follow.]  Not seeing any viable resistance, Blackjack loosens the controls on his men and they start tearing the place up.  Among them, Cavin develops plans to molest Rose.  Meanwhile, Sonny finds himself identifying more with the townsfolk than with the miscreants he rode in with.  He discovers Rose has a hanging scar around her neck; she was Betty McCullough, the first woman hung in Arizona Territory, at age 19 for killing her father with a meat cleaver after he had molested her for seven years.  [Note:  Betty McCullough seems to be a fictional creation, not an actual historical character.]  She does not encourage Sonny’s attentions, and describes the setup of Refuge:  they are there as a place of repentance and reformation after living questionable lives.  If they succeed in reforming, they get to move on to heaven in due course.  In fact, the sheriff is due to leave in a couple of days after ten years in Refuge.  But they can’t return to their former vices and violence, or they’ll go the way of the truly damned.  And they’ve spent years reforming in Refuge.

Finally, the gang plans to leave in the morning and burn the town down, having their way with whomever they feel like.  Sonny tries to get the sheriff and townsfolk to resist, but that would be violating the rules of their probation.  Finally, he declares that even if they won’t help him, he’ll defend Rose and the town the best he can.  There are more than 16 in the gang against him, and he’s not that good with a gun.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen, and what will follow from it.  

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The uneasy sheriff (Sam Shepard) and his impetuous young deputy (Donnie Wahlberg).

This is about choices, and not easy ones.  Sonny has drifted into some bad choices in the past, and he’s choosing where (and with whom) his future will lie.  He chooses to give Rose something she’s never had:  somebody to stick up for her.  For the four, it’s different.  They made bad choices in the past as well, or at least some that played to their violent skills and strengths, and they’re having to choose where they want their strengths to be long term.  Ultimately they go, as we knew they must, with what feels right in the moment, despite having lost some of those skills they valued in life.

Hickok concludes that he’s been thinking too much about his own good and shortcomings, and straps on his two guns, handles forward.  Even Blackjack recognizes that.  Similarly Jesse and Billy put on their guns, and even Doc takes a hand.  Unlike Sonny, they probably can’t be killed (since they’re already dead), but they have just put themselves in line for eternal damnation and given up any hope for redemption.  In the extended shootout all the outlaws but Cavin and Blackjack are taken out (these four defenders are really good, and they move well). 

Sonny stands up with his dime-novel heroes and plays his part, but he’s clearly out of his league, both with his deceased colleagues and against his former outlaw friends.  Finally, it comes down to just Hickok, who is putting away his guns after the showdown, and Blackjack, who won’t take no for an answer.  It isn’t even close.  Sonny discovers that he has mortal wounds but somehow isn’t dead—or if he is, he’s now a resident of Refuge like everybody else.

The four and Sonny present themselves at the cemetery, where they expect the old Indian Chiron figure (Saginaw Grant) will conduct them to hell.  As they prepare to enter, the eternal stagecoach pulls up.  It is driven by R.G. Armstrong, who says that the Creator takes their self-sacrifice for what it seems to be, and they can now all get in.  Sonny, too, but he declares he wants to stay.  Hickok passes the badge to him, and the coach takes off.

purgatory4 Taking on the bad guys.

This is better done than we have any right to expect.  The writing is good, by Gordon Dawson, a long-time television writer with experience on The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick, among many other things.  The pacing is good while the premise develops, presumably the work of the director Uli Gellen, a German television veteran.  The social attitudes are not unbearably anachronistic.  We could wish that this were in widescreen, but mostly made-for-television westerns weren’t in 1999. 

The cast is very good for such an enterprise, especially Sam Shepard as Hickok.  Brad Rowe is also surprisingly good as Sonny; if we don’t care enough about him, this story loses a lot of its punch.  Eric Roberts can do evil in his sleep, and he does exactly what’s required of him.  Peter Stromare is a little over the top as the evil Segundo uncle, but it works.  Randy Quaid is a little broad as Holliday; we’re aware that others, including his brother Dennis, have played Holliday more elegantly.  Souther is lacking in charisma as Jesse James.  Given the balances of this, the film has to depict horrible evil convincingly without showing it too explicitly, and it does that well.  It’s one of the best things of its kind, although it’s hard to think of very many other things of its kind.  Usually a high concept supernatural premise like this would find a lot of ways to be irritating, and this is actually quite watchable and involving.  One could quibble about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as candidates for redemption, but what the heck.  This deserves to be better known.

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At the cemetery: Holliday (Randy Quaid), James (J.D. Souther), Hickok (Sam Shepard), and Billy (Donnie Walberg).

There are a couple of echoes of other westerns, particularly Ride the High Country.  There is a reference to Hickok’s upcoming “entering his house justified.”  And of course, the presence of R.G. Armstrong, often cast as a religious fanatic in Peckinpah films (High Country, Major Dundee), here used as a much cheerier sort of quasi-religous figure in his last western.

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The Long Riders

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 14, 2013

The Long Riders—Stacy and James Keach, David, Keith and Robert Carradine, Christopher and Nicholas Guest, Randy and Dennis Quaid, Pamela Reed (1980; Dir:  Walter Hill)

There’s an obvious gimmick to this movie, with several sets of actual brothers playing historical brothers.  The effectiveness of movies about the James gang must usually balance three characters:  Jesse, his brother Frank and their cousin Cole Younger.  Historically, Jesse was the most charismatic of the three, and making him seem so in a movie can be a challenge.  You can think of movies obviously cast with a charismatic Jesse first (as with Tyrone Power and Brad Pitt).  But in this movie Jesse (played by James Keach) seems a little remote and is perhaps less effective than his older brother Frank (Stacy Keach).  David Carradine as a long-haired Cole Younger has one of his best movie roles, along with brothers Keith and Robert as Jim and Bob Younger.  The Guest brothers are Bob and Charlie Ford, and the Quaids play Ed and Clell Miller.  Gimmick or not, the casting works remarkably well here.

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Three Carradines, two Guests, two Quaids and two Keaches.  The long linen dusters are historically accurate, worn by the gang because they could be used to cover up guns and firearms.

This western has a dim, dusty and rough-hewn look to it, appropriately evoking the post-Civil War era.  The music, composed and arranged by Ry Cooder, has an old-timey bluegrass-mountain flavor, also appropriate to the time and setting.  The outlaws wear grey dusters and other period gear, and it looks authentic but not glossy.  There are a number of good small touches here:  A three-man band swings into “Jack of Diamonds” at the gang’s favorite whorehouse, although it only plays three or four bars before the action cuts away; there’s a real community feel to the dancing at Jesse’s wedding; a solemnly drunk Clell Miller quotes Isaiah to a bare-breasted prostitute; and many others.  It means that small moments are engaging to watch even if the gang isn’t robbing a bank or a train or having a shootout with the Pinkertons.  Particularly notable among the supporting roles is Pamela Reed as Myra Belle Shirley (later Belle Starr), a whore who longs for semi-respectability through marriage to the rootless Cole Younger but will never get it. 

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Like most movies about Jesse, this one is mostly sympathetic to the outlaws.  The Long Riders is more historically accurate than most, and was referred to on its release as revisionist because of that accuracy (and because of a certain amount of nudity).  The Pinkertons are generally unsympathetic here, as they could be in real life and as they are portrayed in most movies about Jesse James, although they are not unrelievedly so in this film.  There are a few inaccuracies, especially with the characters of Belle Starr (the impressive Pamela Reed) and Sam Starr (James Remar).  Some historical episodes are telescoped closer together for purposes of pacing.  Still, it’s good and marks the entry of director Walter Hill to a genre with which he clearly feels some affinity. 

For contrast, look at the recent (2007) Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford.  The cinematography is a lot cleaner and just plain more magnificent in the newer film.  Brad Pitt as Jesse is more compelling than James Keach; you can see both the charismatic attraction and the psychotic edge, along with the weariness creeping in at the end of his outlaw career.  Casey Affleck is an unsettling Bob Ford, partly because the camera focuses on his face so often and so long when he’s not giving much away.  It makes him seem creepy, which is perhaps the point.  That film is interesting in some ways and visually beautiful, but it doesn’t move, which is a problem for a movie.  The Long Riders, now more than 30 years old, is still the best movie about the Jesse James gang. 

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Director Walter Hill is known for his association with and admiration for Sam Peckinpah, leading to a supposed preoccupation with violence.  The extended climactic sequence at Northfield, Minnesota, in which the James-Younger gang tries to rob a bank and is shot to pieces by the townsfolk, is one of extended violence, some of it in slow motion.  But it is well-staged, with good stunt work, and has a compelling quality to it, a horrific fascination—more, perhaps, than the more celebrated climax of The Wild Bunch.  When Jesse and Frank, seeking a way out of the death trap on the main street, burst through two sets of large windows on horseback and make their escape, that is visually impressive.  And when a cold-eyed Jesse makes the decision that he and Frank will leave the Youngers and Clell Miller behind because they’re all shot up and can’t ride, that seems like real Jesse.  It’s amazing that the Youngers survive their wounds; Cole is said to have been shot eleven times.

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The Keach brothers not only have the lead roles here; they’re also listed as executive producers and have writing credits.  They, along with director Hill, deserve most of the credit for this successful venture into western history and action, especially in an era when westerns were no longer cinematically fashionable.  (This was released shortly after the Heaven’s Gate debacle and may have suffered at the box office by association.)  Hill and the Keaches do a good job in attempting to connect the James gang with their actual history.

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