Almost twenty years after scoring a hit with Jesse James Fox tried to repeat their success in 1957. With a screenplay based on and crediting Nunnally Johnson’s 1939 effort, the studio tagged ‘The True Story’ onto the title and director Nicholas Ray was handed the task of trying to offer a fresh perspective on this oft-told tale. So, does this one actually tell the true story? Well, not exactly since the time-line is more than a bit suspect, although it does get quite a few things right which the earlier version didn’t.
The film pitches the viewer straight into the action as it opens during the raid on the Northfield bank. After the dramatic escape of Jesse (Robert Wagner) and brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) the film proceeds to narrate events via a series of flashbacks which lead up to the climactic and doomed heist. The True Story of Jesse James, as I said, manages to correct a few of the errors of the earlier version. In this film the James gang are, more accurately, shown to be driven towards a life of crime as a result of the conditions that prevailed after the Civil War. The treatment of the other characters is also a good deal closer to reality. The 1939 film had the James home being bombed by railroad agents, resulting in the death of Jesse’s mother. Nicholas Ray’s movie has the attack being carried out by Pinkerton men (referred to here as Remington agents) and causing not the death of the old woman but the loss of her arm – again this is pretty much as it happened. It is no bad thing either that the Younger brothers are actually portrayed here, although the emphasis on them is slight.
The biggest weakness of the movie lies in the casting, and particularly that of the lead. While earlier incarnations showed Jesse James as a lovable rogue (Tyrone Power) or a saintly, avuncular type (Reed Hadley), here he has evolved into more of a trigger-happy glory seeker. The trouble is that Robert Wagner just doesn’t have the necessary edge or grit to carry this off successfully. Although he does give a pleasant enough performance he is simply too lightweight. Jeffrey Hunter, on the other hand, is excellent as Frank; so much so that it seems a pity he wasn’t given the lead. Agnes Moorehead adds some class as the mother but her scenes are few. Even though Alan Hale’s Cole Younger is played mostly for comic relief it lends a touch of realism to see the character appear and be shown as a figure of some influence within the gang. John Carradine turns up again (how many movies did this man make?), not as Bob Ford but as the preacher who baptises Jesse.
While I generally enjoyed this movie there were a few things that did get up my nose. These mostly involved the inclusion of footage from the 1939 Henry King film. The train robbery sequence blends in fairly seamlessly but another example proved especially distracting to me. During the well filmed Northfield raid, as the lead flies and men are falling all around, Frank and Jesse take the time to ride into an alley and divest themselves of their long dusters. Why, you might well ask, would two men caught in a firefight pause to do this? Well, the answer is that we’re about to see recycled footage of Power and Fonda riding through a plate glass window and later jumping their horses off a cliff – and our heroes hadn’t been wearing dusters in the ’39 film! Now those scenes were great the first time round but it smacks of a certain cheapness to wheel them out here again. Another problem I had was at the end of the film. You know that Bob Ford is going to shoot Jesse as he stands on a chair to straighten that picture. Well, here Ford gives it to him in the back of the head at point blank range - and instead of dropping to the floor like a sack of potatoes, Jesse swivels around to glare reproachfully at his assassin before succumbing to his wound. Bah!
The True Story of Jesse James is available on DVD from Fox in R1 and Optimum in R2. I watched the R1 and the presentation of this scope film is excellent with no major faults worth mentioning. I can’t comment on the quality of the R2 disc but I would imagine that it has been cut by the BBFC for the aforementioned scene of the jump off the cliff – I understand one of the animals was killed during the filming of that stunt. So, despite some quibbles, I would say this is not a bad movie – just not a great one.