"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jesse James: the books

 

The Book of Jesse


There have been hundreds, if not thousands of books written about Jesse James, from scholarly analysis to dime novel and everything in between. Just put jesse james in the search box of amazon books and see what you get.

You can’t read them all. You don’t want to. And if you buy a few at random because you are interested in the subject, they may turn out to be partisan, inaccurate or, worst of all, badly written.

So what to do?

Never fear, Jeff is here.

All you have to do is read the following and you will be entertained and reliably informed.

Until 2002, the most authoritative, not to say definitive work on Jesse James was Jesse James Was His Name; or, Fact and Fiction concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri by William A Settle, published in 1977. This rather unwieldy title masked an excellent, scholarly but readable study which, pretty well for the first time gave us a balanced, researched picture of the Missouri bandit and his times. The blurb says:

"Jesse James," said Carl Sandburg, "is the only American bandit who is classical, who is to this country what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin is to England, whose exploits are so close to the mythical and apocryphal." For this definitive study no significant source of information concerning Jesse James and his brother Frank has been neglected, and from it emerges resolution of the debated point: "Were the Jameses common criminals or gallant Robin Hoods?"

In case you are wondering, the answer to the last question is both. They were common criminals but were made into heroes. But then I guess we knew that.
 

This book is still a good read today.

But TJ Stiles, who acknowledges a great debt to it, in his own masterly exposition, says that scholarship has moved on (it does, you know) and it was time for a revision. In 2002, Dr. Stiles (who went to college in Northfield, Minnesota) published Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). The book argues that Jesse James was a kind of proto-terrorist with a political agenda as well as a common criminal, and a self-publicist who presented himself as a fighter for the South after the Civil War.
 
 
TJ Stiles

If you only read one book on Jesse James, make it this one. It's superb.

If, on the other hand, you prefer a novelistic treatment, there are very many but start with Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983). This was the book that was so closely followed for the outstanding film of 2007. It is beautifully written, at once atmospheric, realistic and authentic in tone and style. Hansen says that is sources were principally the Missouri newspapers of the day and then The Man Who Shot Jesse James by Carl W Breihan, The Crittenden Memoirs by HH Crittenden, Jesse James Was My Neighbor by Homer Croy and The New Eldorado by Phyllis Flanders Dorset, as well as the Settle mentioned above.
 

I first came across Professor Hansen’s books when I read Desperadoes (1979), his story of the Daltons, and then I read Atticus and Jesse James (I think he was written nine in all). Hansen is a ‘Catholic writer’ in the sense that he is a practicing Roman Catholic and in his novels blends drama with themes of spirituality and morality. But it’s the quality of the writing that I go for, and the gut-feeling as you read that you are getting as near to historical truth as you are likely to.

I’ve changed my mind: if you only read one book on Jesse James, make it this one.
 
Ron Hansen
 
Now, if you are really serious about delving into the facts of the matter, well, you’ll have to start with the bibliography in the Stiles book: 16 pages of closely printed titles of primary and secondary sources. That’ll take you a day or two.

But really, stick to the Stiles and Hansen and you won’t go wrong.

We’ll finish our blogographical examination of Jesse James in fact and fiction with a brief look at Jesse James in song and then we can lay poor Jesse in his grave. I think we’ve rather done the subject to death, dear readers, don’t you think? But I’ve enjoyed it anyway.




 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Jesse James: Ma James

 
Jesse’s mother
 

Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James Simms Samuel (let’s call her Ma James; we can’t go on giving her that full name) appears in many (but not all) of the Jesse James movies. She has come in for her own legendization, if you’ll accept that word. She has especially been portrayed as a dear, granny-like figure, frail and timorous - think of Jane Darwell (below) in Jesse James in 1939.


Nothing could be further from the truth.

Her age

First, her age. Why is she always so old? She was Frank and Jesse’s mother, not grandmother. Jane Darwell was 60, Agnes Moorehead (The True Storyof Jesse James) was 57 and Fran Ryan (The Long Riders) was 64. Yet Zerelda was born in 1825 and was thus in her 30s during the war and her 40s during the James gang’s depredations and the Pinkerton attack on her farm. She was still in her mid-50s when Jesse was killed.

Perhaps it was the known photographs of her, taken later in life, that make casting people choose older actresses.
 

And then the “sainted mother” or benign, apple-pie aspect: well, let’s look at her life.

Her marriages

Kentucky born, Ma James attended a Catholic girls’ school. She was literate and intelligent. In 1841 she married Robert Sallee James, a hemp farmer, slave owner and Baptist preacher. They moved to Centerville (later Kearney) in Missouri.

They had four children: Alexander Franklin (Frank), born 1843; Robert James (who died after a month in 1845); Jesse Woodson, born 1847; and Susan Lavenia, born in 1849. So Frank, Jesse and Susan grew to maturity.

In 1849, Robert James moved to California to preach to the miners (though there is also some suggestion that he left to escape his domineering wife) and died of a fever there in 1850. So Jesse can hardly have remembered him.
 

In 1852, Ma James made a second marriage, to Benjamin Simms, 22, a wealthy farmer. The marriage proved to be an unhappy one. It is said that Simms disliked Frank and Jesse. Zerelda left Simms, who died in January 1854, when he was thrown by his horse. In 1855, she married a third time, to Dr. Reuben Samuel (1829 – 1908), "a quiet, passive man … widely described as standing in the shadow of his outspoken, forceful wife". Together they had four children: Sarah Louisa (1858 - 1921), John Thomas (1861 - 1934), Fanny Quantrell (1863 - 1922) and Archie Peyton (1866 – 1875).

Her name

In many films (and sometimes in newspaper reports at the time too) the name was spelled Samuels. However, the spelling Samuel is quite clearly attested by birth records, family gravestones, and neighbors. Films referred to her variously as “Mrs. Martha Samuels” (why Martha?), Mrs. James, Mrs. Samuels and, especially popular, “Ma James”. Only in The True Story of Jesse James and The Long Riders was she accorded her real name.

In many films (including the 2007one) she doesn’t appear at all.

What was she like?

Ma James was a fierce and outspoken member of the pro-slavery militants of Clay County. Slaves were her most valuable possession and free-state Jayhawkers were not very far away. For her, Missouri belonged to the South, body and soul.
 
All contemporary accounts agree that Ma James was a forceful, strong woman who was utterly committed to the Southern cause. She gave the “bushwhackers” outspoken support, food and shelter. When Company L of the Clay County Unionists came to the farm in May 1863 (although Jesse, at 15, was still at home, Frank was known to be with the guerrillas) they had orders “to arrest the most prominent and influential rebels and sympathizers.” And it was added, “Women who are violent and dangerous secessionists must be arrested as well as men.” Perhaps the brutal treatment meted out by the militiamen (they beat Jesse and half-hanged Dr. Samuel) justified Zerelda in her own mind for signing the oath of loyalty on June 5th with no intention whatsoever of keeping her word.
 
She explicitly condoned the worst guerrilla atrocities and soon after, she defiantly named her new daughter after the noted Confederate guerrilla leader famed for his brutality in the cause of slavery (Quantrell was a common spelling of Quantrill then) “just to have a Quantrell in the family,” as she put it. Later she played hostess to Bloody Bill Anderson and his crew and, as TJ Stiles puts it, her “farm became the cause’s physical home.”

She was perfectly happy to lie as well as break oaths. After the war she attested that Jesse had been at home the day in 1869 when John Sheets was murdered. You could argue that it is natural for any mother to protect her son.

Of course, the bungled Pinkerton attack on the farm of January 1875, in which the house was partially burned, Zerelda lost her hand and nine-year-old Archie was killed, was appalling and inexcusable but it was also a boon to the propaganda effort of the post-war Southern cause and Zerelda made as much of it as possible.

She did not approve of all the dime-novel bally-hoo that her sons’ notoriety excited but she still charged a dollar a time for tours of the farm to curious tourists. The tour ended with Jesse’s grave (she had him buried an extra few feet down for fear that his body might be stolen).

She moved to Oklahoma, where Frank later joined her, and died on a train in 1911 aged 86 while traveling to San Francisco.

It is clear from this that the “Jane Darwell” version of Frank and Jesse’s mother was about as far from the reality as you could get. Of course it served the cause of the “Robin Hood” Jesse James well and underlined the decency and honesty of the harmless farm boy who was driven to war and crime by ruthless corporate interests.

But perhaps Ma James - Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James Simms Samuel - deserves a more accurate portrayal.

The nearest she got to it in film was the depiction by Fran Ryan in The Long Riders. There you get a forceful, stubborn Confederate woman ready to defend her sons and the Southern cause.
 

I don’t think she’s going to get accurate protrayal from Tom Waits, though, who sang in his song Diamond In Your Mind:

Oh Zerelda Samuel said she almost never prayed
Said she lost her right arm, blown off in a Pinkerton raid
Then they lashed her to a windmill with old 3-fingered Dave
Now she's 102 drinking mint juleps in the shade



 

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros, 2007)


 
Jesse meets his maker

 
Visually, this film is perhaps one of the finest Westerns ever made. Photographed by Englishman Roger Deakins in Alberta (with some in Utah), it features wind in waving grass and wheat, chiaroscuro and time-lapse skies. It is luminous, and each shot is framed as a work of art. You are left with a sensation of cold and bleakness. Episodes such as the locomotive's headlight piercing the trees before the train hold-up remain in the memory. There is a dream-like quality to many of the scenes and often an appropriately noir-ish look. Some of the frames are blurred at the edges to resemble old photographs, and there is a lot of brown and black, not in a kitschy nostalgic way but to create a subtle impression. Mr. Deakins, who had already done some fine work, notably for the Coen brothers (think of Fargo or No Country for Old Men), was influenced by the work of Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009), the American painter. The photography was nominated for an Oscar, with perfect reason.


 Wyeth paintings

The visual beauty is accompanied by a fine score, by Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It is dark, melancholy, slightly ‘folky’. (They had also worked on The Proposition, a very powerful film). Nick Cave has a minor part late in the film as the strolling minstrel in a saloon who sings The Ballad of Jesse James, to the chagrin of one of the customers at the bar, Bob Ford. The Cave/Ellis 2009 album White Lunar contains some of the music from the film. (For more on songs celebrating Jesse James, click here).

I make no apology in starting with the look and sound of this film. It’s what strikes you most and stays with you.

It seems to me quite extraordinary that New Zealander Andrew Dominik could create such a great film, and a great Western, with such a short track record. He had only directed one movie, Chopper in 2000, about an Australian criminal. Yet The Assassination of Jesse James… is the work of a consummate artist. The pacing of it is masterly. Not being an action ‘Jesse James shoot-em-up’ at all but rather a long study in gradually-growing paranoia, it could have dragged. It doesn’t. It builds (and builds) tension instead. Those critics (and there are some) who call it too long and too slow have really missed the point, and missed an essential quality of the film.
 
 Frank at Blue Cut
 
In some ways it is not a Western at all, or if it is, it is the psychological Western par excellence, for there is no action in the classic sense. The violence, when it comes, is brutal, sudden and horrible. It is more of a Victorian murder story. There are no Stetsons and stagecoaches. The policemen have helmets and the plain clothes ones wear bowlers. We could almost be in London.


Jesse
 
The story concentrates on less than a year, from the Blue Cut train robbery in September 1881 to the shooting of Jesse in April 1882, with an epilogue of the Ford brothers’ later career and deaths.

There are three outstanding actors: Brad Pitt as Jesse, and Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell as Bob and Charley Ford. Affleck was also nominated for an Academy award but any one of the three could have been. Between them they create an electricity. Pitt is psychotic, and as the voiceover says, merry, moody, fey, unpredictable. The sense of authority he conveys and the sheer menace, the fear he creates in the others, is remarkable. Bob Ford is almost in love with Jesse in this picture. It goes beyond admiration or even hero worship. And Jesse taunts him as one might a lover. There is nothing overtly homosexual about the relationship but there is an intense homo-erotic undercurrent to it. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times perceptively wrote that “Since sex between them is out of the question, their relationship turns into a curiously erotic dance of death”. Ford’s obsession is such that that Jesse finally asks him, "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"
 
 
 The book
 
Ron Hansen
 
The notion of suicide by Jesse James is more than hinted at. The scene on the ice, in particular, reinforces it. When Jesse takes his guns off in the house, he announces ponderously why he is doing it (and Pitt delivers the line superbly) and equally deliberately turns his back and mounts the chair to dust the picture.

It would be churlish to criticize such a long film (one version had a running time of three hours +) for not developing character but I wish Frank James had figured more. Sam Shepard (outstanding – his best ever part?) is cranky, sour, bitter. We want to know more.
 
Frank
 
And I think the women were just adjuncts. They are peripheral. You could argue that they were peripheral in Jesse’s life and they were in society in 1880s Missouri. Both were very male affairs. But I thought more could have been made of the part they played in the drama. Zee (Mary-Louise Parker), in particular, emerges from the Ron Hansen book as a person who deliberately suppresses her worries about Jesse’s criminal career and chooses to live in ignorance. She’s an interesting character. This doesn't really come across in the film. Dorothy Evans (Zooey Deschanel), in whom Bob Ford confides late in life, is largely an invented personage. Martha Bolton (Alison Elliott), the Fords’ elder sister who harbors gang members, and Sarah Hite, Wood Hite’s stepmother, have little to do or say.

Another criticism might be that unless you have read the book (an outstanding novel, by Ron Hansen, also an associate producer) you are not always quite sure who these characters are: Wood Hite, Ed Miller, Dick Liddil. Why are they afraid (as they so clearly are) and why, exactly, are they killed? It’s a complex relationship and history which Jesse-freaks like us understand by now and those who have read the book will too, but I must admit that on first viewing of the film I came away from the movie theater with very positive impressions, yes, but rather mystified as to plot. The movie needs multiple viewings. It’s sure got them from me.
 
Browns and blacks, wind in the grass
 
Certainly the best Western since Unforgiven, this is a landmark in the genre. It harks back to Unforgiven in some ways, and to McCabe & Mrs.Miller. They are dark (in every sense), tense, psychological Westerns, visually striking (all three were shot in Alberta, in fact) and with a sense of brooding menace and coming violence.

Just when we thought that the whole mine of Jesse James cinematic treatment had been exhausted, that there was nothing new to say, along comes this masterpiece. This is the future of the Western. This is how they should be in this century. Magnificent.

 
 
 
 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Frank and Jesse (Trimark, 1995), Purgatory (TNT, 1999) & American Outlaws (Warner Bros, 2001)

 
 
Jesse James at the turn of the century: three modern versions


Two chapters were added to the Book of Jesse in the 1990s, Frank and Jesse (1995), in which Jesse was impersonated by Rob Lowe, and Purgatory (1999), in which he was represented by JD Souther.
 

Frank and Jesse is frankly a pretty tired and clichéd telling of the tale. Frank and Jesse’s Pappy is murdered because the railroad wants his property so the boys vow vengeance and start robbing businesses owned by the railways. Really, this won’t do in 1995. We should have got past that. Firstly, it is not true and secondly it is simplistic and thirdly it’s been done to death.

The film goes for a fashionable 90s dark look (though Unforgiven it ain’t) and for slight weirdness. There are lines like, “I know I could kill you. I’m just not convinced you’d stay dead.”

The acting is average at best and you could not say that any of the principals are convincing. Rob Lowe plays a 2D Jesse, Bill Paxton is a boring Frank, and country singer Randy Travis plays a flat Cole Younger, who suddenly starts narrating in the last reel for some odd reason.

The screenplay is poor. It’s as if the writer suddenly remembered that Frank and Jesse were supposed to have fallen out, so half way through the movie he cut in a scene in which Jesse shouts at Frank and pulls a gun on him, then it’s never mentioned again. It’s either bad writing or directing (Robert Boris, who did both) or bad editing (Christopher Greenbury) or all three.

The film does at least look at the help the murderers got from the local population a bit more than some movies and does make the James gang out to be fairly ordinary guys rather than dashing superheroes, so that’s a plus. But it’s still clearly on the side of the poor, put-upon underdog Jameses, and Pinkerton (William Atherton) is the evil, implacable Northern corporate persecutor.

The very nasty Archie Clements, Bloody Bill Anderson’s scalper in chief who was so admired by Jesse and whom Jesse followed down to Texas, becomes just another James gang member.

Frank is the real author of the letters to the papers in Jesse’s name, which seems implausible to say the least. There’s no John Newman Edwards (there’s a reporter named Zack Murphy instead). Frank and Jesse’s stepfather is “Ruben Samuels” (John Stiritz) and their mother (Mari Askew) is once again “Ma James”. There’s some absurdity about the guerrillas being forced to take the oath of allegiance at gunpoint, as if it were Josey Wales or something. The usual inventions and nonsense, in fact.

Some of the Walt Lloyd cinematography is attractive (pleasant Arkansas locations standing in for Missouri) and the movie isn’t cheap or studio-bound. It just needed better directing, writing, editing and acting, that’s all.

Really, you’ve seen it all before. And done better.

Purgatory, a TV effort, was a bit more interesting and at least had something original (if bordering on the silly) to say. Really, after Frank and Jesse, they had to have some new slant on the story or why do it? You can’t go on making middle-of-the-road evil-railroad-justifies-Jesse stories, not for ever. Of course it took till 2007 before a truly original Jesse telling came out, and a fine motion picture to boot. But 1999’s effort had at least the merit of being quirky.
 

This is the idea: a gang of no-goods rob a bank in Sweetwater (funny how popular that name was in Westerns), are chased by a posse (so far, so traditional), get lost and happen upon a valley wherein lies a town called Refuge. Now, there’s something special about this town. It’s a ghost town but not as we know it, Jim. The sheriff (an excellent Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun. There isn’t even a jail. He welcomes the outlaws. They can stay, they are welcome – as long as they don’t cuss.

Well, this town is ripe for the taking, think the bad guys. So they start hurrahing the place. What should the townsfolk do? They are peace-loving folks. All their names are sweet, nature-loving things like Forest, Rose, Lamb and so on. They don’t embrace violence. Should they fight back?

It is no accident that Shepard wears Gary Cooperish clothes. We are in High Noon territory here (though not, sadly, as far as the quality of the movie is concerned).
 
Marshal Sam

Then all sorts of townspeople turn out to be famous characters: Wild Bill Hickok (Shepard), Doc Holliday (Randy Quaid, very good), Billy the Kid (Donnie Wahlberg) and of course Jesse James (JD Souther in his first Western). And we realize that we are in a Western Purgatory, that land where the good shall be winnowed from the bad, the eternal last chance saloon where you get a final opportunity to go upstairs rather than down.

It’s an amusing idea. I’m not going to tell you how it pans out except to say that it’s quite a clever ending.
Jesse
 
Shot in California by William Wages, there’s nothing epic or grandiose about it. It’s a town film. But it’s competently done. The direction (vet TV man Uli Edel, no previous convictions as far as Westerns are concerned) is a bit flaccid. After the flurry of action of the initial bank job, the pace is pretty soporific. There are the inevitable mini-climaxes and fades to black for commercial breaks. It’s a TV movie after all.

There’s a sub-plot in which one of the gang falls for a Refuge woman. Well, there had to be.

The best thing about it is that the great RG Armstrong has a small part, his last Western, as the coachman.

Anyway, it’s diverting, with an unusual twist. Of course it’s only a marginal Jesse film at all. Mr. Souther hardly leads. But see it if it comes on. Well, you gotta.

Warner Brothers’ American Outlaws came out in 2001, directed by Les Mayfield, his only Western (it shows, but he was born in New Mexico so I forgive him) and written by Roderick Taylor, an academic and poet, and John Rogers, a physics student and comedian (who weren’t so I don’t).
 
No, bad is still bad actually, as far as movies go

It didn’t pay for itself at the box office and received dismal reviews, the critics saying it was just a Young Guns rip-off, it was childish, it was a travesty historically and had no sense of time or place. I don’t know about the critics but personally, I think that it was just a Young Guns rip-off, it was childish, it was a travesty historically and had no sense of time or place.

It’s as if it was made by people who had never read anything about Jesse James and never seen any of the movies. They aimed at the juvenile market with one-line quips and stunts. I imagine them saying over their cappuccinos,
“Let’s do for Jesse James what Fox did for Billy the Kid!”
“Great idea! We’ll have popular young comedy/action stars as Jesse and Frank, an Irishman and a New Yorker, who know nothing at all about Westerns. They’ll fit in well.”
 
Authentic, huh
 
Rotten Tomatoes says: “With corny dialogue, revisionist history, anachronistic music, and a generically attractive cast, American Outlaws is a sanitized, teenybopper version of Jesse James.”

Yup.

The trailer will give you the idea. Saves you having to watch the movie. You can read the deathless prose of the script here if you’ve a mind to.

Kathy Bates hams it up dreadfully as “Ma James”. Welsh erstwhile James Bond Timothy Dalton plays Pinkerton with a cod Scottish accent. Comedy star Ali Larter is eye-candy as a babe Zee with highlights (if you are still allowed to say babe). (Or eye-candy). Various popular young actors are bratpack James gang members. Marc Savlov in The Austin Chronicle says they are “fresh-faced up-and-comers sporting pearly whites so dazzling the reflected glare could bring down the entire Texas Air National Guard.” None of these actors had been in Westerns. We do get Harris Yulin (Wyatt Earp in Doc) as the inevitable evil railroad baron, so that’s something, I suppose.

It was shot in Texas. They had a train. The music (Trevor Rabin) is quite ghastly.
 
Been there, done that

Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times said, “Imagine the cast of American Pie given a camera, lots of money, costumes and horses, and told to act serious and pretend to be cowboys, and this is what you might get.”

Oh, that’s enough about this dog.

Two documentaries about Jesse James came out in 2005 and 2006. The Discovery one wasn’t bad, although it was probably a mistake to have modern crime solvers. The 60-minute PBS one in 2006, however, was excellent. We get an insightful, clear and unsentimental look at the reality of the James story and an understanding of the context. Recommended.

 

 

 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Long Riders (UA, 1980) & The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (NBC, 1986)



Two 1980s Jesse James pictures


 
The Long Riders (UA, 1980)

Walter Hill can be relied on for a good Western yarn (Geronimo, Wild Bill, Last Man Standing - which I count as a Western) and he does an excellent job in his first Western with this start-of-the-1980s treatment of the Jesse James tale. The gimmick is that the brothers are played by brothers: James and Stacy Keach play the Jameses (Stacy as Frank better than James as Jesse in my view), Carradines play the Youngers (all three outstanding), a brace of Quaids play the Miller boys (good) and a duo of Guests play Charlie and Bob Ford (very good, both). It’s a clever idea and it works, also because these are good actors as well as brothers.
 

This version of the story is closer to the historical truth than previous ones and at last we start to see some respect for reality, although the events of many years are telescoped into a short time frame. Furthermore, much of the time the look of it is also authentic – the costumes and props are generally good (though you can tell this was filmed in the late 70s from the principals’ pants and haircuts).

The music is delightful, the best aspect of the film. The wedding dance is probably the highlight of the movie. Ry Cooder gives us his distinctive jangly steel guitar sound, which fits, and this is punctuated by period songs, well sung, such as ‘I’m A Good Old Rebel’ or ‘Jack o’ Diamonds’.
 

The movie is well photographed by Ric Waite and we get some convincing and attractive green Missouri scenery (filmed in Georgia).

The shoot-out at the Northfield Bank raid is a grisly bloodbath that reminds you of the opening scenes of The Wild Bunch. Blood spurts in slo-mo. It was fashionable at the time. It’s very well done, though, and you wince when they are hit. Often.

Cole Younger has a fearsome knife fight with half-breed Sam Starr (James Remar) over Belle Starr (Pamela Reed) in a Texas saloon. Unfortunately Ms. Reed reminds me constantly of the extra-terrestrial lady in Mars Attacks! Sorry about that.
 


There are proper trains to rob and much galloping. The action is all there.

Harry Carey Jr. had by then entered his old-timer phase, handling the parts Walter Brennan or Arthur Hunnicutt would have done in their time. Here he is a Confederate veteran on a stage they rob.

The film is also distinguished by having probably the best Mrs. Samuel of all of them in the form of Fran Ryan. She captured well the hard-as-nails Confederate woman with a bitter tongue and was no soppy quivering grandma as so many “Ma James” figures are.

The only weakness really is in the writing (Bill Bryden, Steven Smith and the Keaches). Perhaps they tried to concertina too many events into too short a time but the characters never really get the chance to develop and some of the lines are pretty clunky. Fortunately, the actors are usually good enough to overcome them. A special mention to James Whitmore Jr. as the Pinkerton man: his steely determination counterbalances nicely the driven Jesse.
 

Even Jesse and Zee’s baby son is a Keach, though he only has a toddle-on part. This is the Jesse Edwards James, known as Tim, who would, thirty-nine years after his daddy’s assassination, when he was 46, play his father in the Franklin B Coates 1921 epic Jesse James under theBlack Flag.

Although one has a soft spot for the 1939 JesseJ ames and 1940 The Return of Frank James, it must be said that The Long Riders was one of the best, perhaps the best Jesse film – till Brad Pitt came along.
 
***

Television got back into the act in the 1980s with The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (NBC, 1986). But it was a far cry from those 60s half-hour series. We are now in the era of the TV movie.
 

And it is interesting, the role-reversal that went on here because at first TV gave us low-budget, studio-bound black and white affairs and only Hollywood could afford the big sweeping locations, galactic casts and lengthy pictures. From the 1980s on, with Hollywood cringing under a cold economic wind, and TV (with its advertising) dominant in everyone’s home, it was the reverse. TV could hire big stars and writers and, with TV movies and then mini-series, could give us televised versions of long novels like Lonesome Dove, which could never have fitted into a 90-minute motion picture.

This one was directed by William A Graham, not a prolific Western director. He’d done a few, such as Cry for Me, Billy and Waterhole #3, as well as a few TV shows (later he would do the Val Kilmer TV Billy the Kid based on Gore Vidal's play) but he was solid. It was written by William Stratton who, extraordinarily, according to IMDb hadn’t written anything Western since two pictures in 1929! It can’t be true, can it? Amazing if so.
 

Anyway, it’s one of those ones where country music stars get together and strap on holsters. Of course the 80s was also the decade of bad hair and loud pop music (see, for example, Young Guns in 1988) so having Cash, Kristofferson and Nelson (I don’t know where Waylon Jennings was) was an improvement on that anyway. At least for an old fogey like me. Less so Willie, perhaps, but actually Johnny and Kris could act. Kris, of course, had been Billy for Peckinpah in the 1970s (was already a bit superannuated by then, to be honest, to be doing juvenile roles) and he was 50 by the time this one came out so he makes a slightly old Jesse. Still, it was supposed to be his last days and not Jesse as a kid. Jesse was 34 when he was shot, in fact. Johnny Cash was Frank and that’s OK as Frank was the older brother and is usually shown as the elder statesman figure. Johnny in 1986 was 54 to Frank James’s 39 in 1882. The story goes on with Frank (in fact the movie would have been better titled The Last Years of Frank and Jesse James) so becomes more believable from that point of view. Frank died in 1915 aged 72.

Anyway, enough about age. Depressing subject.

Johnny’s wife June Carter plays Mrs. Samuel, billed as “Mother James” (makes her sound like a nun). Roles are invented for soap actress Marcia Cross as Sarah Hite and Gail Youngs (in the 80s she was Mrs. Robert Duvall) as “Anna”. I wouldn’t want you to go away with the idea that this treatment is historically accurate although to be fair to it, it makes a better stab at accuracy than most. We get Ed Bruce as John Newman Edwards championing Jesse with zeal and building up his rep. Darrell Wilks is quite a good Bob Ford. Meg Gibson is Zee and David Cobb as ‘Dr. Samuels’ (Dr. Samuel has again grown an s; films often did this).Thomas Theodore Crittenden, the 24th Governor of Missouri, has become Mr. Crittendon. But these are quibbles. Apparently Willie Nelson’s short performance is the first time Jo Shelby has appeared on screen, in a Jesse epic anyway. A good move because Shelby (Edwards had been his adjutant) was an important figure in Civil War Missouri and after. Jesse is shown as a womanizer again, for which there is little evidence. He seems to have been loyal to Zee.