In evoking the outlaw spirit of America’s Wild West, no name packs more immediate pistol-pumping impact than that of Jesse James.The Missouri-born bandit, hijacker, bank robber, train robber, Confederate Army guerilla, and ruthless murderer led the James-Younger gang to larger-than-life status after the Civil War as he looted and brutalized the central and southern United States.
Following his death in 1882, Jesse James instantly became even more of a legend — and he remains so to this day.
As such, Jesse James still looms as a towering figure in the American consciousness. What follows are nine wildly different takes on both the man and his mythology.
“JESSE JAMES” aka “THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES” by BASCOM LAMAR LUNSFORD (1924)
Early pulp novels and numerous other popular media often painted James as some sort of black-hatted cowboy Robin Hood.
Perhaps no single force more effectively promoted this notion of James as a good-guy-who-played-bad-guy than “Jesse James,” an enormously popular hit song by Bascom Lamar Lunford, a Western music pioneer known as the “Minstrel of the Appalachians.”
Consider the opening stanza alone:
“Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man
He robbed the Glendale train
He stole from the rich and gave to the poor
He had a hand and a heart and a brain”
No actual evidence indicates James or his gang ever actually “stole from the rich and gave to the poor.” He just kept stealing from everyone — and, oftentimes, killing to do so.
Regardless, “Jesse James” or, as it is often known, “The Ballad of Jesse James” sold countless copies and has been covered by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Van Morrison, Woody Guthrie, the Pogues, Willy DeVille, and numerous other artists to date.
JESSE JAMES (1939)
Director: Henry King
Cast: Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, John Carradine
As the art of filmmaking dawned just around the same time that the Old West was dying out, cowboy adventures immediately came to dominate the new medium. Many westerns focused on true-life gun-slingers, and Jesse James proved to be a potent box office topic.
Jesse James, Jr., the actual son of the outlaw himself, portrayed his own father in two 1921 silent films, Jesse James as The Outlaw and Jesse James Under the Black Flag.
Numerous James-themed productions swamped theaters, from low-budget grinders to lavish Hollywood productions, the most noteworthy of which is Jesse James (1939). The movie proved to be widely acclaimed box-office smash.
Tyrone Power blasts the screen wide open with star power in the title role. Henry Fonda matches him as Frank James, Jesse’s brother and partner-in-crime. John Carradine makes for a perfectly untrustworthy Robert Ford, the member of Jesse’s gang who ultimately killed him to claim a reward. [TCM]
I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949)
Director: Samuel Fuller
Cast: Preston Foster, Barbara Britton, John Ireland
On the surface, I Shot Jesse James might appear to be just another B-western cashing in on the famous name of an outlaw. What makes this 1949 potboiler significant, though, is that it marks the directorial debut of Samuel Fuller, one of Hollywood’s all-time most cynical visionaries and hardboiled talents.
Even with its limited scope and resources, I Shot Jesse James showcases a fine performance by John Ireland in the lead, and it ripples with the tough, unvarnished furor that Fuller would later apply to classics such as The Steel Helmet (1951), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), The Big Red One (1980), and White Dog (1982). [Criterion]
JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1966)
Director: William Beaudine
Cast: John Lupton, Narda Onyx, Cal Bolder
Included here to demonstrate the insanely broad scope of one Missouri criminal’s impact on the culture at large, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter is a western-horror hybrid beloved as an anti-classic among bad-film aficionados.
John Lupton stars as Jesse James. Narda Onyx plays the diabolical granddaughter of the original Dr. Frankenstein who’s conducting experiments in the Old West. The two run afoul of one another in 1882, after Jesse survives getting shot by Robert Ford.
The whole mess is even more (enjoyably) ludicrous than it sounds, and it played on a double bill with Billy the Kid Meets Dracula. Each film was made simultaneously by grade-Z legend William “One Shot” Beaudine, a director so nicknamed because he never, ever asked to shoot a second take. [Cult Reviews]
THE BRADY BUNCH — “Bobby’s Hero” (1973)
Director: Leslie H. Martinson
Cast: Robert Reed, Florence Henderson, Mike Lookinland
In an odd dollop of grit for TV’s most sugary family sitcom, the Brady Bunch episode “Bobby’s Hero” focuses the youngest male member of the brood worshipping at the mantle of Jesse James. Concerned about Bobby looking up to a thief and a killer, Mom and Dad Brady bring in an actual descendent of James to set their boy straight.
At first Bobby scoffs at the old codger, but that night he dreams about his entire family getting shot in the back — on camera — by the outlaw himself. Even Alice the housekeeper bites the dust! [The Very Special Blog]
THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES — Various Artists (1980)
The Legend of Jesse James is a hugely ambitious country music concept album composed by songwriter Paul Kennerly and featuring performances by an astonishing all-star cast.
Levon Helm sings the role of Jesse James. Johnny Cash portrays Frank James. Charlie Daniels plays top gang member Cole Younger. Other contributors include Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Albert Lee, and Rodney Crowell. [All Music]
GUNFIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES (2001)
Translating to a medium that the actual Jesse James couldn’t even possibly have imagined, Gunfighter: The Legend of Jesse James is a first-person shooter video game that proved popular among the Playstation set. The six-gun bang-’em-up adventure even proved successful enough to beget a sequel, Gunfighter II: The Revenge of Jesse James. [IGN]
JESSE JAMES: LAST REBEL OF THE CIVIL WAR by T.J. STILES (2003)
Author T.J. Stiles brings vivid life and an onslaught of hard facts to Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.
It’s a ferociously engaging biography that dispels just about any notions of “Robin Hood,” but also makes clear how its subject’s character and charisma turned him into such a mythic figure. [New Yorker]
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)
Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Mary-Louise Parker
Hailed as an overlooked great film by some, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which takes its name from a 19th-century folk ballad, is a sprawling Old West epic that seems ripe for rediscovery.
Sticking as close to historical accuracy as possible, the sprawling and beautifully filmed Assassination details the last year in the life of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) after Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) joins his gang.
The film climaxes with the event of the title, during which Jesse James stands on a chair to dust off a picture hung over a mantelpiece, and Robert Ford shoots him in the back of the head to collect a $10,000 reward.The movie doesn’t end there, though, as it continues on with the fascinating saga of what happened to Robert and his brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) after the event that would forever define them. [Roger Ebert]
Main photo: Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, poster detail [Warner Bros. promotional image]