WHAT TO WATCH ON TV
Stream On: ‘Jesse James,’ ‘The Assassination of,’ and ‘The Return of Frank James’

By on May 27, 2021

The mythology of the American west has been an enduring narrative about the United States since the War Between the States. 1903’s The Great Train Robbery (streaming here), produced during the lifetime of western icon Wyatt Earp, proved that an audience could be transferred from pulp magazines to more modern media. While in the beginning these entertainments had little to do with actual history, more recently they’ve used historical facts to explore the human situation. We see both approaches in these films about the outlaws Frank and Jesse James.

Legendary outlaws Jesse and Frank James prepare to hold up a bank in Jesse James. (IMDb.com) [AssassinationIMDb

JESSE JAMES [IMDb.com] [trailer]

[Amazon.com; Prime Video; these platforms] 1939 and

THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES [IMDb.com]

[Prime Video; these platforms] 1940

Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man, He robbed the Glendale train, He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor, He’d a hand and a heart and a brain. (The Ballad of Jesse James, traditional)

Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath screenplay) took the legend and contributed the screenplay of Jesse James to the lore of the famous outlaw. The resulting movie was the third-highest grossing movie of 1939, a high bar in a banner year for Hollywood. It was filmed in color and featured stars Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, John Carradine and others … and owed almost nothing to historical facts. It whitewashed the James brothers, portraying them as peaceful farmers turning to crime only after the death of their mother to evil railroad men who sought her farm.

That said, it’s an entertaining and exciting Hollywood western, with a helping of comedy. One running gag involves Henry Hull, playing a crusty newspaper editor sympathetic to the James brothers; depending on who has annoyed him, he would call to his typesetter, “Roy! Take down an editorial! Paragraph: If we are ever to have law and order in the West, the first thing we gotta do is take out all the [current objects of his wrath] and shoot ’em down like dogs!”

Jesse and Frank (Power and Fonda, respectively) are handsome and almost saintly farmers whose mother’s farm is threatened by the encroaching railroad, leading to her death, and take their revenge by repeatedly (and politely) robbing it. A 33-year-old bearded John Carradine plays Bob Ford (who actually joined the James gang at 18); he kills Jesse for a reward in the last act. Famously, Jesse was shot while straightening a picture in his home, and this movie uses some convoluted business to get him up on the chair, but hey, it’s classic Hollywood! Henry King (Twelve O’clock High) directed.

The Return of Frank James picks up from there; Frank (still Fonda), along with Clem (Jackie Cooper), the teenaged son of a gang member, and Pinky (Ernest Whitman), a farmhand, pursue Bob (still Carradine) and his brother Charlie. The great Fritz Lang (in his second American film after his immigration from Austria-Hungary) directed, and while his famed expressionism surfaces in a few scenes, otherwise The Return is indistinguishable from Jesse James. Sam Hellman (The Horn Blows at Midnight) wrote the screenplay, which does feature Bob Ford’s theatre tour in which he reenacted the killing for audiences.


Small-time outlaw and assassin Bob Ford moved in with Jesse James (right) and his family as they lay low after a notorious crime spree. (IMDb.com)

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD [official site] [trailer]

[Prime Video; DVD; these platforms] 2007 [R]

Well it was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward, I wonder how he feels, For he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed, And he laid poor Jesse in his grave. (The Ballad of Jesse James)

On the other hand, this slowly paced, elegiac character study is considered very accurate in the facts surrounding the fatal relationship of Jesse James and Bob Ford (here’s an actual photo of Bob with Jesse), which it reimagines psychologically. Adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name and using some of its text for the voice-over narrative, it’s a farewell to pulp—and Hollywood—westerns.

“He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on her two children.”

His children “didn’t know how their father made his living or why they so often moved. They didn’t even know their father’s name.

“Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them.”

To a soundtrack of doleful fiddle droning, The Assassination of Jesse James stars a brilliant Casey Affleck as Bob Ford, immature hero worshipper of the notorious Jesse James. Bob keeps a collection of pulp magazines about the James brothers in a shoebox under his bed. His older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) had been recruited for Jesse’s (Brad Pitt, in another great performance) final train robbery.

After the failed robbery, Charley, with Bob, moves in with Jesse and his family, hiding out in a house in Missouri, while a paranoid Jesse seeks out and kills one gang member and the Fords seek to stay in his good graces.

“Jesse was sick with rheums and aches and lung congestions. Insomnia stained his eye sockets like soot. The omens promised bad luck, which moated and dungeoned him.”

Jesse asks Charlie if he had ever thought about suicide. He is haunted and deteriorating. Charlie suggests adding Bob to the gang, “so’s maybe we could get out of our next job alive.”

Bob goes to Kansas City Police Commissioner Henry Craig, saying he knows Jesse James’ whereabouts. To prove his allegiance with the James Gang, Bob urges Craig to arrest surviving gang member Dick Liddil. Following Liddil’s arrest and confession to participation in numerous gang robberies, Bob brokers a deal with the Governor of Missouri (played by James Carville!) and is given ten days to capture or kill Jesse James and promised a substantial bounty and full pardon for murder.

“And so it went. Jesse’s mood was increasingly cavalier. Merry. Fey. Moody. Unpredictable.

“Jesse would look over at Bob with melancholy eyes, as if the two were meshed in intimate communication.”

After a nerve-wrought Bob, looking physically ill himself, takes an opportunity to shoot an exhausted and depressed Jesse, who sees Bob in the picture-glass yet does nothing to stop him, he and Charley move to Manhattan, where they replay the act in theatres for paying audiences, before karma catches up with them.

“By his own approximation, Bob assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one in history had ever or so publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.”

The film was edited by director Andrew Dominik to be “a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy,” similar to the style of director Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life). I can’t say enough about this beautiful and poetic movie.


Next time, next-level sketch comedy on Chappelle’s Show and Key & Peele.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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