The infamous Jesse James (1847-1882) remains one of the Old West's mythic outlaws. Confederate guerilla, train robber, bank robber and killer, James was a featured character in a number of motion pictures dating back to Hollywood's Silent Age.
Here are ten Jesse James movies that no western film fan should ever miss. Some are good, some are so-so and some are just plain strange...
Jesse James (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1939)
Tyrone Power claims the title role, with Henry Fonda (Frank James), Nancy Kelly (Zerelda "Zee" Cobb), Randolph Scott (Marshal Will Wright), Henry Hull (Major Rufus Cobb), Slim Summerville (Jailer), Brian Donlevy (Barshee) and John Carradine (Bob Ford) along for the ride in this $1.6 million western. It's mostly fiction, as Jesse and brother Frank turn to robbing trains after an evil railroad agent murders their mother. Jesse later takes a mortal shot to the back from fellow gang member Bob Ford. "It's just like I always told you: I hate the railroads... and when I hate, I've gotta do somethin' about it," Jesse tells his future bride Zerelda.
Director: Henry King, Irving Cummings (uncredited)
Review: "It is historically inaccurate, since aside from their names and Bob Ford, it gets almost nothing right, but it is a very enjoyable film that moves along well and has a surprisingly bleak view of the price of the outlaw life." - Andrew Allen, History on Film (2010)
On DVD: Jesse James (20th Century Fox, 2007)
Insert movie poster: Jesse James (1939)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros., 2007)
Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James in this $30 million outing based on the novel by Ron Hansen. Other principals include Mary-Louise Parker (Zee James), Brooklynn Proulx (Mary James), Dustin Bollinger (Tim James), Casey Affleck (Robert Ford), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford) and Sam Shepard (Frank James). Brad Pitt's Jesse James is a grizzled, depressed, confused but still murderous outlaw in his final days, with Casey Affleck's Bob Ford out to collect a reward and win fame by eliminating the man he once idolized. The movie earned two Oscar nominations: Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins) and Best Supporting Actor (Affleck).
Director: Andrew Dominik
Review: "'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' will drive a lot of people to distraction, if they’re even attracted to it in the first place. A meditation on celebrity, 19th Century frontier fan boys and the myths America feeds to its young, this superbly realized adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel runs about 160 minutes, and while there aren’t many individual acts of violence, they are painful and, more importantly, carry a moral consequence." - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (10/4/07)
On DVD: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner, 2008)
Advance one sheet movie poster: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
American Outlaws (Warner Bros., 2001)
Colin Farrell plays Jesse James, with Scott Caan (Cole Younger), Ali Larter (Zee Mimms), Gabriel Macht (Frank James), Gregory Smith (Jim Younger), Kathy Bates (Ma James) and Timothy Dalton (Allan Pinkerton) also on hand. Filmed in the Texas Hill Country, American Outlaws is more hip comedy/action than historical movie, with Farrell and his young guns taking up arms against a corrupt railroad baron. Kathy Bates has a field day as ol' Ma James.
Director: Les Mayfield
Review: "You can tell Colin Farrell is the star of the drab new Western 'American Outlaws' by the fact that he's the only one who's bothered to partially shave before the slaughter begins. As Jesse James, he hops on a steed, puts the reins in his mouth and shoots with a pistol in each hand. Though by the end of that sequence, his 5 o'clock shadow is about to strike 9. Irishman Farrell is Hollywood's new 'it' toy – according, at least, to Joel Schumacher, who directed him in last year's soggy boot-camp drama 'Tigerland.' But with a bland performance here, he's more persuasive as the next-big-thing-in-waiting." - Wesley Morris, San Francisco Chronicle (8/17/01)
On DVD: American Outlaws (Warner, 2001)
The Long Riders (United Artists, 1980)
The ultimate "brothers" movie, The Long Riders features four sets of siblings in the featured roles: David Carradine (Cole Younger), Keith Carradine (Jim Younger), Robert Carradine (Bob Younger); James Keach (Jesse James), Stacy Keach (Frank James); Dennis Quaid (Ed Miller), Randy Quaid (Clell Miller); and Christopher Guest (Charlie Ford), Nicholas Guest (Bob Ford). A tough, gritty oater, this $10 million effort traces the origins of the James-Younger Gang, highlighted by the disastrous 1876 Great Northfield Minnesota Raid where the boys are ambushed by the God-fearing townsfolk while trying to rob the local bank. The sight of the gang all decked out in their identical gray dusters and galloping down the trail is classic Hollywood western.
Director: Walter Hill
Review: "The Long Riders is striking in several ways, not the least of which in casting actor brothers as historical outlaw kin, but narrative is episodic in the extreme." - Variety (1980)
On DVD: The Long Riders (MGM/UA, 2001)
One sheet movie poster: The Long Riders (1980)
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (Universal, 1972)
The bungled 1876 James-Younger Great Northfield Raid is the focus of this western, with Cliff Robertson (Cole Younger), Robert Duvall (Jesse James), Luke Askew (Jim Younger), R.G. Armstrong (Clell Miller), John Pearce (Frank James) and Matt Clark (Bob Younger) manning the principal roles. Robertson and Duvall are excellent in their respective outlaw characters. The film is a sympathetic portrayal of the James-Younger Gang, with the greedy railroads as the true villains.
Director: Philip Kaufman
Review: "Philip Kaufman's 'The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid' is a lovely, odd sort of middle Western. That is, it's neither conventional Western fiction nor completely documented fact, although it makes full use of history and is as crammed with the artifacts of 19th-century America—everything from dolls to a working calliope—as an especially splendid Third Avenue Shop." - Vincent Canby, The New York Times (6/15/72)
On DVD: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (Universal, 2007)
The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (NBC-TV, 1986)
This made-for-TV movie stars Kris Kristofferson (Jesse James) and Johnny Cash (Frank James), focusing on the final years of the James boys' lives. Also on hand are Marcia Cross (Sarah Hite), Gail Youngs (Anna), David Allan Coe (Whiskeyhead), Andy Stahl (Liddil), June Carter Cash (Mother James), Darrell Wilks (Bob Ford) and Willie Nelson (General Jo Shelby). Filmed on location in Tennessee, The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James was first telecast over NBC-TV on February 17, 1986.
Director: William A. Graham
Review: "This is a surprisingly fine motion picture. Well written with far more attention to historic detail in firearms, clothing and even saddles than I would have expected, excellent writing and fine acting from all involved." - skoyles, The Internet Movie Database (6/9/07)
On DVD: The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (Lions Gate, 2003)
I Shot Jesse James (Lippert, 1949)
One of many confessional movies of the era with "I" in the title, this western features Reed Hadley in the role of Jesse James. Also in the cast are Preston Foster (John Kelley), Barbara Britton (Cynthy Waters), John Ireland (Bob Ford) and Tom Tyler (Frank James). Once again sneaky little coward Bob Ford ends Jesse James' life in St. Joseph, Missouri, shooting him in the back and collecting a $10,000 reward. The outdoor scenes were shot at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California. "I... I want to tell you something I ain't never told anyone. I'm sorry for what I done to Jess," a repentant Bob Ford tells Cynthy Waters in his final line. Well, this is a confessional movie.
Director: Samuel Fuller
Review: "I Shot Jesse James is a character study of the man who felled the west's most famous outlaw with a coward's bullet. It's an interesting treatment that doesn't overlook necessary plot and action." - Variety (1949)
On DVD: Eclipse Series 5 - The First Films of Samuel Fuller (Eclipse, 2007)
Alias Jesse James (United Artists, 1959)
A little "funnin'" never hurt anyone, and in this nearly forgotten comedy western Bob Hope plays insurance agent Milford Farnsworth, who sells a $100,000 life insurance policy to a stranger. The buyer turns out to be none other than Jesse James – played with gusto by Wendell Corey. The hapless Farnsworth is sent west by the home office in order buy back the policy, but ends up getting robbed and set up as the fall guy in Jesse's scheme to fake his own death and collect the insurance money. Rhonda Fleming (Cora Lee Collins), Gloria Talbott (Princess Irawanie), Jim Davis (Frank James), Will Wright (Titus Queasley) and Mary Young (Ma James) are also along for the ride. A fun role for Bob "I'm not Jesse James" Hope.
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Review: "...Mr. Hope strives valiantly to kid all the Western clichés. And he is professionally amiable about his trade. Falling into this gag bag are the traditional train robbery, the saloon drinking bit with tough, bearded hombres, the gun duel between the bad man and Jesse James and the climactic street battle between the James gang and our wacky hero, who happens to be aided at this juncture, through small, cute bit roles, by practically every noted Western hero and heroine in films and television." - A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (5/18/59)
On DVD: Bob Hope MGM Movie Legends Collection (MGM, 2007)
Lobby card: Alias Jesse James (1959)
The True Story of Jesse James (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1957)
Robert Wagner stars as Jesse James, with Jeffrey Hunter (Frank James), Hope Lange (Zee), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Samuel), Alan Hale Jr. (Cole Younger), Alan Baxter (Remington), John Carradine (Reverend Jethro Bailey), Rachel Stephens (Anne James) and Biff Elliot (Jim Younger) also dotting the western terrain. The movie follows the murderous exploits of James and his gang, using flashbacks to try and rationalize their outlaw behavior. And this is Hollywood, so don't put too much stock in the "true story" gracing the movie's title.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Review: "It is a remake of the Henry King production with Tyrone Power. Oddly enough, it is more accurate than the original but less enjoyable." - Andrew Allen, History on Film (2010)
On DVD: The True Story of Jesse James (20th Century Fox, 2007)
Half sheet movie poster: The True Story of Jesse James (1957)
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (Embassy, 1966)
Just by the title one strongly suspects that this entry is not your run-of-the-mill western. John Lupton, who starred as Indian Agent Tom Jeffords in ABC-TV's Broken Arrow (1956-58), plays Jesse James opposite Narda Onyx's Dr. Maria Frankenstein. The plot – such as it is – features the Missouri outlaw on the lam, where he takes refuge in a castle. The owner of said castle is Dr. Frankenstein's granddaughter, whose experiments turn Jesse's wounded sidekick Hank Tracy into a zombie. Also on hand are Cal Bolder (Hank/Igor), Estelita Rodriguez (Juanita Lopez), Jim Davis (Marshal McPhee), Steven Geray (Dr. Rudolph Frankenstein), William Fawcett (Jensen) and a body count of eight. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter was paired at movie theaters with Embassy's Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), making for a fine time at the old picture show. Perhaps your future husband "treated" you to this sensational double feature?
Director: William Beaudine
Review: "The title pretty much tells the story, as two historical characters – one real, one fantasy – collide in an awful mess of a plot that has Jesse James seeking medical help for his shooting buddy from the most unlikely doctor in town. The story, the acting, the dialogue – it's all a mess..." - Christopher Null, AMC Filmcritic.com
On DVD: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (Alpha Video, 2004)
Five More Jesse James Movie Favorites
- Frank & Jesse (1995)
- Young Jesse James (1960)
- The James Brothers of Missouri (1949)
- Best of the Badmen (1951)
- Days of Jesse James (1939)
One sheet movie poster: Days of Jesse James (1939)
- All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas
- Top image: Lobby card: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)
Copyright © 2013 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.