The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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15 thoughts on “The True Story of Jesse James (1957)”

  1. Not a perfect film at all and yet I’m quite fond of it – probably for the reasons you mention: Ray and Hunter.
    Ray does marvelous things with the camera and Hunter is just fantastic as Frank.

    1. Right, another great director/imperfect movie with many redeeming qualities. I liked the look of it, there are many shots suitable for framing. Hunter is by far my favourite part, really good work from him that had me eagerly awaiting all his scenes. Thanks!

      1. It’s refreshing to hear some good things about Hunter – I think he was a fine actor and deserves more recognition.

        1. Definitely underrated– now there’s someone who needs a good biography written about him. Really enjoy his work in most things. Still have to see Sgt. Rutledge…

          1. That’s a film which continues to divide opinion. Personally, I think it’s a fine piece of work – again, not perfect but it doesn’t have to be – with some excellent performances.

            1. I’ll pull that one soon, love to follow a thread with the viewing. You’re right, not everything needs to be filet mignon to taste good– as in this case I very often enjoy and would revisit a movie even when I don’t like certain things in it.

            2. As much as possible, I try to focus on the positive aspects when watching or writing about a film as I find it much easier to think of what I enjoyed rather than what I didn’t. Of course that’s not always doable when you stumble on a total turkey, but those tend to be few and far between in my opinion. Perfection in films, and all art, is rare and I reckon my viewing list would be a short one indeed if I set myself such a standard. No, as long as the positives outweigh the negatives overall, then I’m happy enough.

  2. I remember the horse clip being added from the 39 film and you automatically think this is now an inferior version made cheaply. Not fair maybe but the 39 film is better. As usual Carradine turns up in both films. Funny about Hunter being more interesting because I feel the same way about Stacy Keach being more interesting as Frank vs. James Keach’s Jesse in The Long Riders.

    1. It’s kind of unfortunate that the movie got off to a bad start in production, and that footage then invites even more comparison to the 39 version. I wonder what Elvis would have been like as Jesse; another ‘what if’ in his career. Frank James has given a few actors a meaty role to play next to the demanding and flashier Jesse.

      1. I fully concur with both yourself and Mike on what might be referred to as The Frank James Question. I remember doing a series of posts on Jesse James movies years ago and coming to the conclusion that Frank actually offered the plum role in a number that I’d seen.

        1. That’s interesting, Jesse’s a role that needs a strong anchor/foil in Frank and Jesse can also be tricky and overdone which leaves Frank as the more grounded one. I don’t know much about the real James brothers but I gather they weren’t at odds like the movies often have them.

          1. Quite. The fact it is an anchoring role means the character must be more human and, for me anyway, more interesting as a result.

    1. I haven’t seen that many of his from that era to say, but for example in A Kiss Before Dying, this kind of stiffness works because he plays a creepy guy. And Hunter was in that too. Here Hunter just steals the scenes for me.

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