Having recently seen The Assassination of Jesse James, and having enjoyed it immensely, it occurred to me to go back and revisit some of the other movies based on the legendary outlaw. Along with William Bonney the name Jesse James has become an integral part of the myth of the west. For both of these men, questions of who and what they were and why they acted as they did have been endlessly explored and no truly satisfactory answers have emerged. But does that really matter? To me it doesn’t since the movies are and were, at heart, an entertainment and storytelling medium. It seems naive in the extreme to seek the whole truth in a dramatic form – if you want the real facts you need to look elsewhere. Henry King’s 1939 version of Jesse James certainly bends the truth more than a little, but that doesn’t mean the film is a poor one.
This movie opens in the years following the Civil War and portrays Jesse (Tyrone Power) and brother Frank (Henry Fonda) as peace loving farmers in Missouri. That’s the first of many inaccuracies, for the truth is that the brothers had already strayed into lawlessness during the war – Frank riding with Quantrill and Jesse with another group of guerrilla raiders. There is no doubt, right from the beginning, that the true villain here is the railroad and more specifically it’s representatives. The railroad, as in many westerns, is shown to be the product of the greedy and corrupt east. It is the actions of one of the railroad agents (Brian Donlevy) that causes the James bothers to turn their backs on the law. From this point on their fates are mapped out for them and further dissembling on the part of the big businessmen serves only to provide more justification for the brother’s criminal activities.
The movie is full of some fine set pieces such as the early train robbery with Jesse riding up to the rear, hauling himself aboard, and then proceeding along the roof for the whole length of the locomotive until he reaches the engine. The famous raid on the bank in Northfield could have been given more time but it does contain some great action shots – Jesse and Frank riding their horses through a store window to escape and then following that up with a dive off a cliff into a river below.
Power and Fonda play the brothers as essentially romantic and heroic figures, but the film is not above pointing out the less honorable aspects of Jesse’s character. At one point Randolph Scott’s sympathetic lawman makes it clear that Jesse’s initial justification has been superceded by simple, inexcusable criminality. Another scene, on the eve of the Northfield raid, shows Jesse to be a man on the verge of losing control and only the efforts of his more rational brother haul him back. Scott’s supporting role doesn’t offer much and I get the feeling that it was only included to show that all authority figures are not scheming back-stabbers. The notorious Bob Ford is played by John Carradine as a craven scoundrel with whom the viewer can feel no sympathy whatsoever. As a portrait of cowardly betrayal it’s well done but, as with all the villainous parts, remains one dimensional.
Fox issued the movie on DVD last year and the presentation is a good deal less than might have been hoped for. Frankly, the print is in poor condition and this is particularly evident for the first half hour or so where the age of the film becomes painfully obvious. Things do improve as it goes on but issues with the colour occasionally arise. The film clearly needs restoration work but, despite it’s shortcomings, I’m still very happy to at least have it in my collection.