The Old Corral: Jesse James On the Silver Screen

Just as Billy the Kid rode across the silver screen endless times, almost always as a misunderstood youth with many qualities and sometimes as a downright knight in shining armor, so too did movie representations of that other famous American outlaw, Jesse James, show him to be a Robin Hood figure, battling ruthless corporate enemies of the common man. Of course there is no evidence whatsoever that either Billy or Jesse robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. In fact, more than likely, both were murderous thieves out for their own gain. But the "Robin Hood" / Jesse James narrative was quick to arrive, dating back to the dime novels that came out with astonishing speed after his violent death, and The Ballad of Jesse James, probably written by Billy Gashade in 1882, which made Jesse the martyred hero of legend.

Hollywood followed suit. The first silver screen treatments of Jesse James were little more than hagiography, and would have fitted admirably into any lives of the saints. Jesse E. James, known as Jesse James Jr. (1875-1951), starred as his father in several silent movies. Jesse James Jr. was an interesting character. The E in his name was for John Newman Edwards, the Missouri journalist and champion of the famous outlaw. In his youth Jesse Jr. went by the name of Edwards in order to conceal his identity, but later on the name Jesse James became more attractive and valuable. He studied law and owned a pawnshop in Kansas City, practicing law. In 1898 Jesse Jr. was arrested and stood trial for train robbery - exciting stuff - but was acquitted. He moved to California in the 1920s and ran the "Jesse James Inn."

Eager to maximize and commercialize his assets, Jesse Jr. appeared in and produced two 1921 films with his sister Mary: Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The only extant version (as far as we know) of these is an edited 1930 release of the two films, under the title Jesse James Under the Black Flag, with narration taking the place of most of the original inter-titles plus musical accompaniment and sound effects; it lasts 69 minutes. Each of the two original films has been shortened to approximately half its original length.

Today, both movies are only watchable as an historical document. As a Western, they're pretty hard going, partly because of the narration, which is plodding, dull, and badly delivered by someone who is far from a professional. This narration accompanies the action throughout and becomes fairly tiresome by the end. Jesse Jr. is hardly believable as Jesse Sr. He was certainly no actor and was in his podgy late forties at the time, so not terribly convincing as a seventeen-year-old guerrilla.

The Jesse in these films actually commits no crimes. The robberies and killings are all the work of a half-breed, Murdock, who falsely uses Jesse's name. Jesse himself is saintly and noble, helping children and so forth. (He even helps a Pinkerton agent out of a ditch.) I guess a lot of people believed this in those more gullible times.

The other silent movie of the 1920s which features Jesse James stars Fred Thomson as the outlaw in the 1927 Jesse James. This Paramount Jesse was also bold, true and spotless. Directed by actor Lloyd Ingraham and written by Fred's wife Frances Marion this picture has Jesse E. James billed as "technical advisor."

There was a long pause in screen Jesses after 1927. Members of the James family were still alive and jealously guarded the rights to their celebrated forbear's name. In the late '30s Fox paid an undisclosed sum (said to be large) to the James descendants for the right to feature the outlaw in motion pictures, and the studio made the most of its purchase. Adult Westerns were making something of a comeback after a decade when they were, frankly, perceived as juvenile B-pictures. All the big studios brought out their own big Western for grown-ups in 1939: Universal had Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in Destry Rides Again, Warners had Errol Flynn as a Wyatt Earpish marshal cleaning up Dodge City, Paramount starred Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific, and, of course, John Ford came out with Stagecoach, released by United Artists. Fox contributed with their blockbuster Jesse James.

You might call Jesse James a Technicolor whitewash. Darryl Zanuck spared no expense, and had big star Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as brother Frank with Henry King directing. Lengthy color Westerns were a risk - this was 106-minutes - but it was a huge hit. This Jesse was a goody too. He robbed trains and so forth, but reluctantly, as it were. It was all the fault of the railroad companies driving decent hmesteaders off their land with Jesse and Frank desperately needing to do something.

The picture was such a success that Fox came out with The Return of Frank James the following year, directed by Fritz Lang. Jesse only appears briefly in the first reel to be assassinated by the Fords.

In December '39, Don "Red" Barry was Jesse in Days of Jesse James, a cheap Republic B-picture starring Roy Rogers (and Trigger, naturally). Barry, who made a name for himself as Red Ryder in the serial, is a rather dashing Jesse with twin tied-down Colts in side holsters. Frank (Harry Worth) is suave. The villain is Captain Worthington (Harry Woods), a crooked railroad detective -- the involvement of the wicked railroad companies was already a given. It's preposterous hokum but a fun watch for the B-Western aficionado.

Jesses came thick and fast in the following decade, with ten in the 1940s. Roy Rogers had been "Roy Rogers" in the '39 picture but in '41 he was back, as Jesse himself -- a good Jesse, obviously -- in Jesse James at Bay. As with the 1921 silent movie there's a fake Jesse (also played by Roy) committing the crimes while the real Jesse is innocent as a new-born lamb. There's no sign of Frank.

In 1941 Warners got in the act when Alan Baxter was Jesse in Bad Men of Missouri, but this was really a Cole Younger picture (with Dennis Morgan as Cole) and Baxter was only sixth-billed as Jesse.

There were other non-starring Jesses, when the outlaw appeared in small parts in other movies. Rod Cameron was a two-gun cameo ghost-Jesse in the rather charming The Remarkable Andrew (William Holden is Andrew). George Reeves was an uncredited Jesse James in a bit part in Richard Dix's last Western, The Kansan, in 1943. And Lawrence Tierney was Jesse (quite a good one, actually) in the RKO 1946 Randolph Scott Western Badman's Territory.

Lone Ranger Clayton Moore was Jesse in two late-40s Republic serials, Jesse James Rides Again and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James. Jesse was, once again, maligned as crimes of which he is entirely innocent are laid at his door. Actually, Jesse was quite Lone Ranger-ish, aiding decent folk in times of trouble.

In 1949 Samuel Fuller directed the lurid I Shot Jesse James, with John Ireland as the central character and Bob Ford and Reed Hadley doing duty as the assassinated outlaw. It's amusing, in a very B-Western kind of way.

The same year Republic came out with another Jesse James serial (they sure liked the story); the twelve-chapter The James Brothers of Missouri, with Keith Richards as Jesse and Robert Bice as Frank. Jesse wants to go straight and plans to pay back the victims of his former depredations (most of which he didn't commit anyway), but is forced to go back to the gun when their partner in a freighting business is killed. We were still yet to have a real outlaw Jesse.

The '40s ended with Dale Robertson as Jesse appearing (briefly) in another Randolph Scott Western, Fox's enjoyable Fighting Man of the Plains. In his short appearance Robertson at least manages to convey a certain amount of menace as Jesse.

All through the 1950s Jesse James rode, again and again. Audie Murphy was first, playing a guerilla Jesse in Kansas Raiders in 1950 (he had been Billy the Kid earlier in the year). Audie's Jesse is disgusted by the atrocities of Quantrill (Brian Donlevy), but conflicted about deserting him. Of course Audie was the most decorated soldier of World War II so he couldn't play a murderous war criminal.

Lawrence Tierney was Jesse again in an RKO sequel, Best of the Badmen (a good picture) but Jesse only has an incidental part to play. Other '50s Jesses include Macdonald Carey (The Great Missouri Raid), Willard Parker (The Great Jesse James Raid) and Don "Red" Barry, again, in the frankly trashy Jesse James' Women which Barry himself directed.

In the '50s Jesse inevitably started appearing on TV. The first small-screen Jesse was John Kerr in a 1953 Walter Cronkite-hosted episode of You Are There which had James Dean, no less, as Bob Ford. The following year Lee Van Cleef was Jesse in an episode of Stories of the Century. Railroad detectives Matt Clark (Jim Davis) and Frankie Adams (Mary Castle), with the aid of stock footage from earlier Republic pictures, pursue Frank (Richard Travis) and Jesse when they want revenge on the law after their young half-brother is killed in a police ambush. Like most of the Stories of the Century series it was complete balderdash historically but at least Jesse was a bad guy.

In 1957 Fox decided to return to the theme with another big Jesse James picture, falsely titled The True Story of Jesse James. They got then-popular star Robert Wagner to be Jesse, with Jeffrey Hunter as Frank. The screen intro text tells us "Much that you will see here is fact and much is as close to what actually happened as any man can testify." Nonsense, of course. The same text presents Jesse as "a quiet Missourian farm boy." Jesse's saintly mother (she was in fact a formidable, slave-owning woman) says, "He's a good boy. The Yankees drove him to it." The claim "We never owned a slave" is plain fraudulent. Jesse's kind to animals too.

The movie was directed by the talented Nicolas Ray but the studio imposed so many changes and cuts that it wasn't really Ray's picture and the result is pretty second-rate.

The '50s finished with another cameo Jesse, this time played by Wendell Corey, in the highly entertaining Bob Hope comedy Alias Jesse James. The '60s started with Ray Stricklyn as Young Jesse James, another Fox picture, but this time a B-Western. In it, Willard Parker, Jesse in The Great Jesse James Raid is back as Cole Younger. In 1966 Jesse appeared in a horror flick, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (a companion piece to the epic Billy the Kid Versus Dracula), with John Lupton as Jesse. I'm surprised that today there isn't a zombie-killing Jesse.

All through the '60s and '70s Jesse made appearances in almost every Western TV show you care to name, played by Robert Preston, James Coburn and Ricky Nelson, among many others, and in 1966 he even got his own show, The Legend of Jesse James. Legend was the right word, for once again Jesse (Christopher Jones) is only a semi-baddy, spending much of the series doing good and helping people out. The series, produced by Don Siegel, aired on ABC for 34 episodes but was not renewed.

At the end of the '60s Audie was back as Jesse, in a cameo in a Western which also featured Murphy's sons, A Time for Dying. Despite being directed by the great Budd Boetticher and shot by the equally great Lucien Ballard, featuring Victor Jory as Judge Roy Bean, the movie was not a succes and was Audie's last film.

The revisionist '70s featured Jesse, of course. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid focuses on Cole Younger, and Cliff Robertson, who plays Cole, was one of the producers. Robert Duvall is Jesse, and he is relegated to the position of follower and imitator, sadistic and unintelligent. It was a necessary corrective, even if still largely unhistorical.

James Keach was Jesse (and his brother Stacy was Frank) in the 1982 Walter Hill-directed The Long Riders, and this is a candidate for the best Jesse James to date. Assorted Carradine brothers play the Younger boys. This version of the story is closer to the historical truth than previous ones and at last we start to see some respect for reality, although the events of many years are telescoped into a short time frame. Furthermore, much of the time the look is also authentic -- the costumes and props are generally good (though you can tell this was filmed in the late '70s from the principals' pants and haircuts).

The music is delightful, the best aspect of the film. The wedding dance is probably the highlight of the movie. Ry Cooder gives us his distinctive jangly steel guitar sound, which fits, and is punctuated by period songs such as "I'm A Good Old Rebel" or "Jack o' Diamonds."

In 1986 Kris Kristofferson was Jesse and Johnny Cash was Frank in the made-for-TV The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James.

The chief 1990s version of the tale is Frank & Jesse (interesting that as in the 1986 TV one, Frank is mentioned first) in 1995, with Rob Lowe as Jesse and Bill Paxton as Frank. It's pretty standard fare: feeling oppressed by Chicago railroad investors, the James and Younger brothers rob banks and trains, with the Pinkertons sworn to bring them to justice.

In our own day, Brad Pitt's psychopathic, menacing Jesse James is masterly in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2007, and Casey Affleck was Oscar-nominated for his Ford, a creature fearful of Jesse yet obsessed by him. It is a superb movie, long but never dragging, and beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, who was also nominated for an Academy award. One of the best features of the picture is Sam Shepard as a sour, unpleasant Frank, though sadly the role isn't developed despite the length of the film.

These are only the principal Jesses Jameses of the screen. There have been over a hundred, and several are still coming out. It's an astonishing record and the American people's fascination with James is remarkably long lasting. One day we'll get the real story but in a way, the legend of Jesse James has almost become the myth: his deeds have passed from fiction into fact, or at least accepted orthodoxy. In any case, we don't watch Western movies to learn historical truth, we think of them as entertainment. You want history? Read a book. (I can recommend TJ Stiles' 2002 biography on James.) We'll just have fun watching Jesse fight those corporate interests on behalf of the common man, robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

Jeff Arnold is the author of the blog Jeff Arnold's West as well as several Western short stories and novels, researching the subject extensively for many years. A traveler of the American West, Jeff currently resides in France.