Jesse James was a notorious outlaw, bank and train robber and murderer. Historically speaking, he was nothing but a violent and horrible human being. Yet while he was alive, he was celebrated as a Robin Hood-type character and since his death, his legend has continued to grow. As it so often happens, the mythological person has turned into a much better person than the actual human ever was.
There have been untold number of stories and books written about him, songs have been sung since just about the moment the “coward” Robert Ford shot him down. There have been more than a dozen films made about the outlaw plus television shows and even a musical. Jesse James, it seems, continues to play the muse for artists all over, and captivate our collective imaginations more than a hundred years after he died.
By 1939, there had been at least three films already made about Jesse James before this one premiered. Starring Tyrone Power, Jesse James gets almost all of its facts wrong. Hardly anything that happens in the movie happened in real life. But what the film lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for in sure, unadulterated fun.
The film is very much on the side of Jesse James, glossing over a great deal of his criminal reign (there are actually only two robberies filmed in the entire movie) while still allowing him to break bad as it were. In the early scenes, we see how the railroad companies are doing everything possible - from lowball offers to legal threats to outright physical force - to take land away from lowly farmers in order to lay their tracks. When The Man comes to the James' house, mother James says she won’t sell, and when the railroad thugs get nasty, Jesse and Frank (Henry Fonda) get nastier. Thus starts their outlaw ways.
At first they simply rob the railroads as payback (telling the passengers to sure cash in on the railroad’s insurance policies as they take their wallets.) But soon enough they are moving on to banks and other crimes. Jesse’s wife Zee (Nancy Kelly) pleads with him to stop, noting that sooner or later the thrill of the crime will turn him into a hardened man. When it does and Jesse fails to show up for the birth of their son, she leaves him.
The local law makes a deal with Jesse to turn himself in for a lessened sentence, but the state boys take over and give him a stiff sentence. In the film's best scene, Frank sends word that he’s gonna bust Jesse out if he’s not released by midnight, sending the town completely on edge. Frank does indeed bust his brother out and the boys go into hiding.
After a narrow escape, Jesse comes crawling back to Zee where he mends his evil ways for a spell. Just before they leave for California, the coward Robert Ford kills him.
It is fascinating to see the movie try to paint Jesse as a hero while still showing at least a little bit of his outlaw persona. In the first part, his train-robbing is shown to be justified, but as he begins to go off the rails, the film turns its attentions to the ever-loving Zee, letting the James brothers' crimes go mostly off screen. He returns only when he’s become repentant so that the character remains a sympathetic person.
The movie zips along at a brisk pace and is very well told. It's a great deal of fun to watch, packed with action, drama, and humor. It definitely feels dated in both technique and story, but it's never dull or tiresome. Tyrone Power was one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time and it's easy to see why. He simply radiates charisma while on screen. But to me, the real stand-out is Henry Fonda in one of his early roles, and the one that made him a star. While Power is all smiles and charm, Fonda brews with a darkness and that classic thoughtful way of his.
The film was shot in vintage Technicolor, but unfortunately none of the original elements exist. What we get is a poor attempt to replicate what was no doubt a beautifully shot film. The colors are often out of whack, with skin tones getting tinged with purples and greens. It's been cleaned up fairly well, but the color problems are all too often distracting. The audio is presented with both a DTS-HD 5.1 mix as well as the original soundtracks. It sounds good with the dialogue being up front and audible though there is virtually no use made of the bigger mix. The only extras are two short Movietone spots and the trailer.
Jesse James was hugely successful upon release and its easy to see why. Though a bit dated and terribly inaccurate, it is a joy to watch and is immensely entertaining. It's a shame they’ve still not managed to correct the color in this new high-def edition, but that’s not enough to keep me from recommending the film