This is Jesse James as a heartthrob and a rebel with a cause.
The tale is told in flashbacks that reveal how this outlaw and the cult is born and grows, how the gang frustrates the law, falls apart and how the dreams of a normal life are ruined for Jesse. This was director Nicholas Ray’s last movie for Fox before going to Europe, a picture that came after a number of renowned works like Johnny Guitar, Bigger Than Life and Rebel Without a Cause. True Story feels like a western version of Rebel, and when you read about the treatment Ray originally had in mind, “what could have been” is very exciting. He was thinking James Dean or Elvis, location shooting and a highly stylized look. The studio was thinking other things, including making him use footage from the Henry King-directed 1939 Jesse James with Tyrone Power. The dangerous horse stunts done in the ’39 movie were no longer allowed, so those bits were cut into this film, with actors’ hairstyles and clothing, as well the very plot structure, matched as closely as possible. So the movie got the wrong start before shooting, and has a few big problems in the finished product.
Robert Wagner’s performance didn’t impress me. He’s stuck in scowling adolescent angst even in his scenes as the adult Jesse, and comes off as stiff in most other types of interactions, coming closest to genuine emotion in his scenes with his love, Hope Lange. He just doesn’t make for a likable rebel or Robin Hood figure. The story stacks a great many injustices and despicable acts against the James, so it’s easy to have sympathy for Jesse’s motives and cynicism. For example, when a Pinkerton-type agent (Alan Baxter) shows up, his method is to just toss a bomb into the James home when family is inside. Jesse quotes the Bible and has a painting with nudes removed from his home to show he has morals, and even gives $600 to a woman to pay off her mortgage. Trouble is, he only does it to top Hale and live up to the legend he’s just read, and he eventually gets his money back. So while this kind of complexity may well be the True Jesse, in the film it’s indecisive and ineffective, as you’re firmly instructed by the script to feel sorry for a character who doesn’t seem to want or deserve your sympathy.
Watching Jeffrey Hunter as Frank James makes me wish he was the lead. He does the better acting, bringing first a youthful idealism, and later a mature gravity and disillusionment to his part. You believe Hunter’s involvement, misgivings, regret and forgiveness. From what little depth he gets from the script, he still plays out an actual arc and ends up the far more magnetic presence, which he proved in many pictures came as much from talent as from looks. It would have been an interesting parallel to have him play Tyrone’s “part” of Jesse since they were both actors often underestimated due to those handsome faces.
Other than marking places in the lives of the James family and in the events of the James’ gang robberies, the characters aren’t very deep. Thankfully, occupying those roles are some fine actors who knew all the shorthand needed to create character in a short time. Actors like Agnes Moorehead as Ma James, who fidgets with her buttons to convey she fears for her sons’ lives and souls and is quick to defend them. John Carradine, as the flinty Reverend who baptizes Wagner and Lange, and returns to introduce another flashback, has run out of patience and hope for Jesse’s soul. Alan Hale Jr. as Cole Younger is all bombast and bluster, and therefore an omen of trouble when he gets quiet. The Coward Robert Ford is played here by Carl Thayler, with Frank Gorshin as his brother.
The landscape and the events look amazing with Ray’s touch and in Cinemascope, with the train robbery being an especially good looking sequence. There’s a glamorous sheen to everything; to name one memorable sight, there’s the gang riding into town wearing those bright dusters. The studio ordered the flashbacks to be rearranged chronologically and added the swirling, colourful mists to signal when each reminiscence would begin, and those bits are silly, but otherwise the pace is not too bad and there were no boring moments. It’s definitely worth veiwing, but it disappoints where you can see it was almost great, were it not for studio tinkering and a weak performance from its star.