*note: The Return of Frank James is a sequel to this film by Henry King, so I decided to watch it ahead of Fritz Lang’s film. I didn’t imagine that I would miss anything important story-wise, but I thought it would mostly be interesting to compare and contrast.*
Let’s just imagine that this film is about a fictional character named Jesse James who, completely coincidentally, also robbed banks in Missouri in the late 19th century, not the actual man. That strips away a lot of the noise about how it’s historically inaccurate (oh, my, is it) and let’s us focus on the actual storytelling, the fractured, unfocused storytelling. Yeah, this movie is a mess. If it were actually just an invention of screenwriter and director, it wouldn’t be this diffuse. Instead, Henry King and his screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, have to navigate the descendants of both Jesse and Frank James as well as the Hays Code while trying to tell the whole life of a man. It really doesn’t work.
The railroad is coming through and they’re buying up land on the cheap through dishonest, unethical, and, if necessary, violent means. The railroad representative Barshee (Brian Donlevy) bites off more than he can chew when he reaches the James farm, led by the sweet old woman Mrs. Samuels (Jane Darwell), the brothers’ mother. Jesse (Tyrone Power) and Frank (Henry Fonda) quickly become folk heroes to the area when they stand up to Barshee and his three thugs, shooting Barshee through the hand when he tries to strike Frank with a scythe in the back. Things get worse when Frank and Jesse flee the posse Barshee forms, and Barshee throws a grenade through the James’ front window, killing Mrs. Samuels. Well, Jesse doesn’t take too kindly to this, kills Barshee and becomes a fugitive from the law.
We then skip ahead some amount of time and Frank and Jesse have a gang that has been regularly robbing trains from the railroad. How did they form this gang? Well, Jesse had a gang in real life, so telling how he would actually, emotionally and logically, get to the point where he figured that robbing trains was the right and just thing to do and that he could convince other people to go along with him doesn’t matter, it seems. This is one of the smaller leaps in the film (we’d already seen how the community pretty much cheered him on for killing Barshee), but it’s still a leap that, if this were purely a film of fiction invented by Hollywood screenwriters, they probably would not have skipped.
Jesse has a girl, Zee (Nancy Kelly), the daughter of a newspaper editor Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull) who dictates the same editorial about how frontier justice is needed for whomever is bugging him that day (the railroad, governors, dentists) that provides some nice little comedy to the affair. Anyway, Zee loves Jesse just so much (it’s a thin romance), and this is where Federal Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott) is introduced. The railroad owner McCoy (Donald Meek) needs Jesse caught, and Wright is surprisingly blasé about catching the outlaw. There’s a scene at night where Jesse goes to visit Zee and Wright shows up, at least acting like he doesn’t recognize Jesse who assumes the moniker Thomas Howard. It’s never clear if Wright actually does recognize Jesse here (I think he does), and this represents the moral issue with the film. It wants to be on Jesse James’ side. This would be fine with a completely fictional character, but the balance between that and the actual direction Jesse James takes (even in this film) creates a murky element that the movie can’t navigate because it doesn’t want to.
The noose tightens around Jesse, and McCoy gives a message to Zee (How do they know each other? How does McCoy know that she’s Jesse’s girl? How does the scene play out where McCoy convinces Zee that he’s on the level play out?) saying that he’ll only pursue a light sentence against Jesse, which Jesse takes up. However, it’s quickly apparent that McCoy is going to go for the full sentence of hanging for Jesse, and we get an extended scene of people sitting in a jail worrying that Frank is going to somehow follow through on his threat of freeing Jesse. Well, it happens, and nothing really changes in the story. Jesse is still an outlaw. McCoy still wants to get him. Wright is still playing both sides without actually doing anything.
Jesse and Zee get married, have a baby, and Zee ends up running away with the baby because Jesse missed the birth and she hates her life wondering if Jesse is alive or dead. Jesse accepts this and becomes the desperate outlaw. This jump is the biggest of the film, and it helps demonstrate the complete lack of a center in the film. Jesse is in surprisingly little of the film. Zee gets a significant amount of screentime while the whole jail sequence makes the film feel like it’s actually about Frank, not Jesse. When we get to the scene where Jesse looks maniacally at his gang, telling them that he’ll get them to rob whatever whenever, there’s a disconnect because we barely know this thin portrait of this character Jesse James, having spent so little actual screentime with him, and the movie really doesn’t want to make him out to be a bad guy, not all the way. So, we only see one train robbery (an early one where they hurt no one and make it obvious that the passengers should sue the railway for the event) and the rest are covered in newspaper headlines, undermining the violence and desperado nature of the crimes. The movie is hiding his violence by the end.
Bob Ford (John Carradine) has been a member of James’ gang this whole time (Carradine’s voice is really distinct, and yes, he’s in the first train robbery) and decides to take up the governor on his offer of clemency as well as $25,000 to kill Jesse James. James is, of course, ready to leave his life of crime behind and move to California with Zee, having reconciled. This ends up making Ford look like the bad guy in all this (eh…Ford wasn’t a good guy in real life, but I think you get me), and it’s, again, designed to soften Jesse, to justice Cobb’s finale of a speech glorifying the man.
If this weren’t based, however loosely, on a real person, the creative team behind the screenplay wouldn’t have had to worry about portraying the eponymous character negatively to assuage the feelings of their living kin, including Jesse’s granddaughter Jo Frances James who is listed in the credits as a “historical data assembler”. This would have allowed a more penetrating view in a man who decides that a life robbing trains is a right and moral thing but gets lost in it. In addition, the jumps on the journey from good man to desperado wouldn’t be there because the writing team couldn’t rely on audiences having a knowledge of the history. They’d have to create it themselves, and those gaps wouldn’t survive a studio’s writing department management.
The best thing this film has going for it is the cast, though. Power is good in his fractured role as Jesse, making his key moments feel realistic. Fonda is underused as Frank, but he’s always good. It’s also interesting to see so many John Ford regulars in smaller roles, making it feel like one of the lesser films in his filmography, but this isn’t a Ford picture, it’s a Henry King picture, and he doesn’t make much of the material.