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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jesse James in fact and fiction, Part 11: the 1990s



Jesse at the turn of the century

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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, another 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).
 

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
 
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” (why will Jesse Westerns call her that?) 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.

Well, pards, that finally, at long last, brings us up to the 2007 (and in many ways the best) cinematic Jesse James, which we will look at next, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros, 2007). It’s been a long trail but we’ve met some interesting characters and characterizations along the way.

 
A bientôt!

 

 

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