“He was one of the doggonedest, gawl-dingedest, dad-blamedest buckaroos that ever rode across these United States of America!”
It’s funny how history can be kind to some criminals. As mythologies build, all of a sudden intentions become more noble, back stories become more tragic, and the black and whites become more grey. In Australia, we have bush ranger Ned Kelly. He was portrayed (for some reason) by Mick Jagger in the 70s and Heath Ledger in the new millennium. Basically just a thief, outlaw and killer, the movies felt the need to make him a hero of the every man, fighting against oppression. In America, a very similar legend seems to have been built around Jesse James.
The American Civil War is over and the country is being rebuilt via a transcontinental railway. The only problem is, that new railway is coming at the expense of a lot of hard working people’s humble farms. Including that of the James family. When brothers Frank (Henry Fonda) and Jesse (Tyrone Power) James resist the intimidation tactics of the St Louis Midland Rail Road Company, the feud escalates until their mother is dead and the James boys are on the run after taking a little revenge.
They spend the next decade or so robbing every St Louis Midland train that crosses their path, beginning as Robin Hood types. Along the way, Jesse keeps a flame for home town sweetheart, Zee (Nancy Kelly). Sometime pursuer, sometime ally, sometime reluctant admirer, Randolph Scott is Will Wright, the local Marshall and all around good guy. He wants nothing more than to find peace between the criminal James gang and ruthless railroad moguls, all while having his own thing for Zee.
It might be named after the more famous of the James brothers, and Power as Jesse is a tad more central to the story, getting a little more screen time, but Jesse James could have easily been called The James Brothers. I don’t know if it’s just a testament to Henry Fonda’s performance, or if it was intentionally made that way, but I found Frank a much more interesting and complex character than Jesse. Jesse gets a cookie cutter, melodramatic plot of the man pushed too far. Frank suffers the same setbacks and tragedies, but comes out of it in a less predictable, more compelling way.
Made in 1939, if my maths is correct, Jesse James is officially super old. I don’t know how the version I watched was restored to the standard it was, but it looks amazing. If it wasn’t for knowing roughly when Fonda was a big deal, I would have thought this movie was maybe made as late as the 60s. But to think it’s three quarters of a century old is mind blowing. It really does look that good.
While the look is ahead of its time, the story is pure 1939 sap. Jesse James gets the odd moment of darkness, but the heavy handed reminders that he is in a lot of ways a victim, forced to go to these extreme lengths, is the kind of thing that dates a lot of movies from this period. Today, it’s OK to build your movie around an antihero who is just an out and out bad dude with purely selfish intentions. But the 1939 Jesse James needed the audience on his side.