The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

3 April

Jesse James dies 1882

On this day in 1882, the outlaw Jesse Woodson James died. Born in Missouri, he had come to prominence as the leader of the James-Younger gang having served as a Confederate guerrilla in the American Civil with his brother Frank. Continuing in peacetime the activities that had been sanctioned during the war, he robbed banks, trains, stagecoaches. His gang was most prolific from the years immediately after the War, which had ended in 1865, and it continued successfully until 1876 when its raid on a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, failed, resulting in the death or capture of several gang members. Harried by the law and the Pinkerton men (whose founder, Allan Pinkerton saw the James-Younger gang as a personal affront), James continued recruiting new members. The gang lived almost beyond the law in Missouri, where former Confederates in the government refused to vote in favour of increased rewards for the gang’s capture, in spite of public opinion gradually turning against the gang when it was realised it wasn’t a Robin Hood organisation. In spite of reluctance of the legislature the governor managed to get the bounty on the James brothers’ heads increased to $5,000 each, by appealing to the railroad and postal services. Robert Ford, newest recruit to the gang, took the bait and fatally shot Jesse James in the back while he was dusting a picture. James was 34.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, dir: Andrew Dominik)

The title comes from Ron Hansen’s original book, and that comes from the epitaph that James’s mother wrote for him: In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here. This fictionalised retelling of the last months of the outlaw’s life makes claims for authenticity and does stay close to the known facts – it was Robert Ford who shot him, aged 19, largely, it seems, because he was a young man in a hurry. Here a 44-year-old Brad Pitt plays a 34-year-old James, and Casey Affleck is also around ten years older than the real Ford. It doesn’t matter much – we get the drift. Pitt plays James as a little mad, a little bad, a legend already in his own eyes, a paranoid man growing increasingly keen on staying alive rather than risking all for glory and cash. We’re following him through the last stretch of his life, when, much like a film star, he is hemmed in all sides, his reputation preceding him, his options limited though he still lives a life many would envy. Pitt plays James in the way Burt Reynolds might have done a generation back, all smiles, white shirt and bluff masculinity, a touch smug. It’s a good performance, possibly one of his best, but Casey Affleck’s is better: he’s urgent, alive, as Ford, the “coward” who did him in.

Andrew Dominik’s film is as long as the title suggests, similarly flowery and its goal of accuracy was initially resisted by the studio, who eventually relented (because Pitt backed Dominik). Maybe they had originally expected something more like Dominik’s aggressive madhouse Chopper. Well they didn’t get it.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is the banner statement that ends The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Dominik has that movie in mind with his frequent cutaways to remind us that American pulp fiction was immortalising James even before he was dead. It’s a framing device that isn’t necessary and it slows the film down. But its existence does add a bit of weight to the idea that the entire film at a meta level is about stardom, the onerous responsibility of it all, the noblesse oblige – watch again the scene in which Ford kills James and how James, Christ-like, approaches it in a “they will be done” manner. Oh, the humanity. And again notice how meaningless and routine Ford’s life becomes once James is gone. At this level the film is either much more interesting, or as big a laugh as it’s possible to have, depending on your point of view. Brad, we don’t deserve you. Either way, Roger Deakins’s cinematography – surely this is one of the best-looking westerns ever made – would have you incline to the former.

Why Watch?

  • Deakins’s cinematography
  • Brilliant performances – Pitt great; Affleck better
  • The period detail
  • Pompous? The argument starts here

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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