The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



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






Eric Bana as Chopper Read in Chopper


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



17 November



Chopper Read born, 1954

On this day in 1954, Mark Brandon Read was born, in Melbourne, Australia. The son of an army father and a Seventh-day Adventist mother, he spent the first five years of his life in children’s homes before returning home, where he was often beaten by his father. A street fighter already as a teenager, he began his criminal career by robbing drug dealers, then went on to kidnap and torture members of the criminal underworld, in order to extort money out of them. He gained a reputation for brutality – bolt-cutting (hence the “Chopper” nickname) and blowtorching his way to notoriety. Between the age of 20 and 38 he spent almost all of his life in prison, serving terms for armed robbery, assault, arson, kidnapping and other less serious crimes. While in prison Chopper had his ears chopped off by a fellow inmate, at Chopper’s instigation. The reason why remains unclear. Chopper was stabbed by his own gang while in prison, for reasons which also remain unclear. “Look, honestly, I haven’t killed that many people,” Chopper told the New York Times in April 2013. “Probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it.” Though the number is probably closer to 20, it’s Read’s disarming mix of honesty and bravado – “depending on how you look at it” – that made him a celebrity, beginning with his 1991 book, Chopper: From the Inside, a collection of anecdotes on prison life based on letters he’d written from jail. Building on the success of the book, Read went on to become an author of fiction and a media celebrity. Read died in October 2013, aged 58. Having contracted hepatitis C in prison, he needed a liver transplant but refused all efforts to provide him with one, insisting that there were more deserving cases than his. His stance remained unchanged when he discovered he had liver cancer in 2012.



Chopper (2000, dir: Andrew Dominik)

“I’m just a normal bloke, a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture,” cackles Chopper Read as we meet him in this largely prison-based biopic of Australia’s most charming cold-blooded killer. For non-Australians, the movie Chopper delivered first glimpses of two new talents – writer/director Andrew Dominik and star Eric Bana. For all the talents of both, neither has been as starkly effective since. Based on Read’s own books, Dominik and Bana present us with a view of Australian culture that’s familiar, but steroidally stoked. The blokes are all ocker, the Sheilas are all randy and the criminals are lairy to the point of psychopathy. It’s a world of overwhelming menace, with Bana frighteningly capable of portraying Chopper Read as the guy who stands at the top of the heap, a weapon in each hand. As opposed to the loquacious gangsters of Tarantino in the US, or Guy Ritchie’s Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweeps in the UK, this Australian vision of criminality is not glamorous – it’s dirty, sweaty, ugly, though filtered through the self-aggrandising persona of a man who is a lot more self-aware than he lets on. It has its funny moments, in other words. Bana was, amazingly, known as a comedian before he took the role but there’s no trace of a comedian’s tendency to court approval in his portrayal of a psychopath with the energy of a furnace. Unlike other films about criminals, Chopper does not try to explain, or forgive, but it does have a stab (if that’s the right word) at mapping the territory, internal and external, that provided the landscape for Chopper Read’s brutal life. It has the hallmarks of the early noughties film, the zip-edits, dense filtration and cross-processing, and Dominik pulls the same trick – piling on the gruesome – about twice too often, but in Bana we have one of the most menacing performances you will ever see on screen. Don’t let him catch you eyeballing him.



Why Watch?


  • Eric Bana’s breakthrough
  • It was Chopper Read who suggested Bana for the role
  • The ear-chopping scene – nice
  • Take-no-prisoners hard-as-nails movie-making


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Chopper – at Amazon