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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Jesse James At the Movies (originally published 8/01)

Americans, it seems, have always been deeply ambivalent about outlaws. On the one hand, we want their antisocial acts sufficiently curtailed to prevent us from being personally victimized. And yet, at the same time, we secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) root for them to elude capture. There is an undeniable romance attached to living outside the law that has transformed some of our most successful sociopathic criminals into celebrities, and even cult figures. When that happens, you can bet that our storytellers, including filmmakers, will lose no time in transmuting the outlaws' personal histories from the dross of historical fact into the shiny, irresistible cultural gold of legend.

Among the denizens of the American rogue's gallery who have achieved this legendary status, no name is more prominent than that of Jesse James. A veteran of Quantrill's Raiders during the Civil War, he turned to a life of crime, along with his brother Frank, after the war. Banding together with Cole Younger and his brothers, they plundered and pillaged their way into the annals of the wild west. It is only natural, then, for such a renowned outlaw to have become the subject of lots of movies through the years. The most recent is "American Outlaws," which is currently playing nationwide. For a sampling of how earlier films have portrayed the James Gang, look for these titles on home video.

"Jesse James Under the Black Flag" (1921). One of the most fascinating films about Jesse James is this rather obscure silent picture. What makes it remarkable is that it was made in cooperation with James's own family. In fact, the legendary outlaw's son, billed as "Jesse James, Jr.," plays the role of his famous father. This one isn't easy to find, but it can be obtained from Facets Video (

"Jesse James" (1939). This big-budget production from 20th Century Fox represents the definitive Hollywood version of the Jesse James legend. With Tyrone Power playing Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank James, it was a foregone conclusion that the James brothers would not be portrayed as common criminals. Instead they are presented as victims, driven to a life of crime by injustices committed against them. The film even confers an air of respectability on their crimes, presenting them as latter-day Robin Hoods.

"Jesse James At Bay" (1941). The culmination of Hollywood's rehabilitation of James's image is probably to be found in this B-Western, in which the title character is played by none other than Roy Rogers. Billed as the "king of the cowboys," Rogers built his career on a squeaky-clean image. Normally he would have played a lawman in pursuit of outlaws, so the decision to cast him as the title character here is a clear indication that this portrayal, like Tyrone Power's, will be more heroic than sociopathic.

"The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid" (1972). Writer-director Philip Kaufman's version of the James Gang's career takes a completely different tack. His Jesse James, played by Robert Duvall, is a murderous thug, clearly psychologically disturbed, who seems to have, at times, only a tenuous grasp on reality. It is a mark of the power of the "Robin Hood" image of the James Gang that this film, which is probably much closer to the historical facts, is generally labeled as "revisionist."

"The Long Riders" (1980). This retelling of the legend is based on a gimmick, but it's a good one. Because the James Gang at one time included four sets of brothers, the idea was to cast four sets of sibling actors in those roles. Jesse and Frank James are played by James and Stacy Keach, respectively. This picture, directed by Walter Hill, steers a middle course between the extremes of "Jesse James at Bay" and "The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid," portraying its outlaws as neither heroes nor psychopaths.

There are plenty of other films featuring Jesse James as well, some of which emphatically illustrate the point that becoming a legend can be a mixed blessing. Once your life becomes fodder for the storytellers, almost anything can happen. Jesse James might have been pleased with some of the films about him, but we can only imagine what he would have thought, for example, of "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" (1966). Sure, Jesse knocked over a few banks in his time, but I'm not sure he deserved that kind of retribution.

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