Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children, they were brave,
But the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.
The ballad Jesse James acknowledges that Jesse James “killed many a man” himself, though it sheds no tears for their widows and orphans. Robert Ford, the song alleges, “came along like a thief in the night” and “shot poor Jesse on the sly” — but then it was quite literally as a thief in the night that James (or “Mr. Howard,” a name James adopted in ordinary life) committed his murders, nor was he above shooting a man from behind.
Perhaps Ford’s crime was betraying a trusted friend? For “he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed / Then laid poor Jesse in his grave.” But again, James himself killed a number of his own gang members in his later years, when mounting paranoia led him to fear betrayal from every corner. He probably would have killed Bob and Charley Ford sooner or later; certainly they were convinced that was the case.
What, then, was Ford’s crime? Why does the ballad celebrate James and excoriate Ford? Apparently, the crucial difference between the two men is that James was a legend, and Ford was not. James, the song tells us, was “a friend to the poor” who “stole from the rich and he gave to the poor” — just like Robin Hood, and with about as much historical veracity. James was larger than life, a figure of romance and adventure. Ford’s crime — and perhaps his reason for committing it — was that he was just a man, an ordinary man in the shadow of one who was somehow more than that.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the best name for a western of any film in history. It’s the second half of the title that does it — the editorial moralizing, redolent of a 19th-century dime novel or monograph. The kind of thing that boys like young Bob Ford eagerly devoured in their beds at night as they dreamed of being daring and admired like Jesse James.
The title comes from the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, and it’s almost a wonder that writer–director Andrew Dominik’s faithful, lyrical adaptation has been released with the splendid second half of its title in place, when studio marketing execs easily might have insisted on shortening it, the way Lt. Gen. Hal Moore’s book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young was rebranded We Were Soldiers for the screen.
Ford’s name has not been dropped from the film title, though it remains a footnote to the man he killed, as it was throughout his later years when he was known at all. James’ epitaph, composed by the outlaw’s mother, identifies Ford only as “a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.” Ford’s own epitaph, whatever it says, has not been as well remembered.
In his boyhood, the story reveals, Ford was much struck by the similarities between himself and the celebrated outlaw: They were both the youngest son of a pastor, with various similarities in their family structures, of the same height and eye color, and so forth. Ford saw himself as cut from the same cloth as James, but James had the applause and the notoriety Ford wanted but never got. No young boys ever grew up wanting to be like Robert Ford.
“Many’s the night I’ve stayed up with my mouth open and my eyes jumping out, reading about your escapades,” Ford (Casey Affleck) confides eagerly to James (Brad Pitt) as they sit smoking cigars after the opening train robbery — the last robbery James will ever commit.
James is silent a moment. “They’re all lies, you know,” he observes laconically.
Surprise, chagrin, and affected nonchalance flicker across Ford’s face. It it were any other man saying it, he would take umbrage — but he could hardly bear to be at odds with James, even if the latter weren’t the definitive authority on the subject. “Yeah… ’course they are,” he manages reluctantly.
It’s a painful moment — one in which Ford must choose between his loyalty to the fictionalized hero of his boyhood dreams and the flesh-and-blood man that is the reality behind the stories. He cannot reject the real man, for that would be to admit that the hero has no existence. Yet if he rejects the boyhood stories, can he still regard the real man as a hero? Worse, if Ford’s hero turns out to have no substance, where does that leave Ford? If we can hardly say who Jesse James is, what can possibly be said for Bob Ford?
Yet certainly the film is aware of something at the bottom of the legend — a reason James is celebrated and Ford is not. James is quick and decisive, a charismatic, forceful personality, with a flair for the dramatic — everything Ford wanted to be, and wasn’t. The more Ford tries to live up to his hero, the more he can’t live it down. Both Pitt and Affleck are shrewdly cast, Pitt as the enigmatic, aging golden boy, Affleck as the lightweight, ingratiating wanna‑be implicitly convinced of his own potential for greatness.
Ford’s brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) does his best to stand up for the younger Ford’s ambitions. “There’s about two tons of sand” in his brother, Charley assures James at one point. “Smart too — about as intricate as they come.”
“You’re forgetting,” James witheringly replies, “I’ve met the boy.” No, the inexorable truth is that Ford is about as intricate as a puppy, even if he sees himself as a lone wolf.
In the post-war South, James, a Confederate veteran who was shot and seriously wounded after the war while allegedly attempting to surrender to Union soldiers, became an icon of heroic resistance to Reconstruction. “You’ll hear some fools say he’s getting back at Republicans and Union men,” scoffs the governor of Missouri (James Carville — yes, that James Carville), “but his victims have scarcely ever been selected with reference to their political views.”
Though a folk hero, in life James was no more celebrated than his brother Frank or the Younger brothers (they were collectively known as the James–Younger gang). That all changed when Ford shot James, turning him from a hero to a martyr, or even something more. James was shot during Passion week of 1882, only one birthday past 33. Between his larger-than-life image and his pseudonymous existence, it was inevitable that rumors would circulate that James hadn’t really died, although his death was amply and morbidly well-documented and corroborated. One character in the film even expressly compares James’s widow Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) to the Madonna.
If James was a quasi-messianic figure, Ford yearned to be the Johannine intimate; and, if he had to be a Judas figure, he would have wanted to be a grand one. Modern interpretations of Judas almost invariably portray him as intelligent, idealistic, complex — almost the ideal disciple, but for some tragic flaw, fate or misunderstanding. It may make for interesting drama, but, as Jesse James illustrates, reality is often more banal and straightforward.
Was Ford a coward? The manner in which he shot James would widely be considered indicative of an act of cowardice. Curiously, Ford not only didn’t see it that way, he didn’t even seem to realize that others would perceive it that way. In the life that he sought to make for himself on the notoriety of having killed James, he played himself in a stage reenactment of the shooting, hundreds of times pointing a gun at an actor standing in the very helpless position in which James died and proclaiming to hundreds of audience members, “That’s how I killed Jesse James.” It was his bid for legendary status, and he didn’t seem to realize how it would play out.
Jesse James comes to theaters two weeks after another big-screen Western, 3:10 to Yuma, with which it shares a number of thematic similarities. Both films are about a protagonist who is overshadowed by a legendary outlaw, one who inspires adoration in his coterie and hero-worship in young boys who read pulp novels about him. (Both also depict a bored, sensual young woman far removed from lively society who is willingly and cheerfully ravished by a bold rogue she has only just met — an encounter that later spells trouble for the rogue.)
Yet the two films couldn’t be more different. Where 3:10 to Yuma itself fell under the spell of Russell Crowe’s charismatic bad guy, essentially celebrating his manly prowess and freedom from restraint, Jesse James sees the legendary outlaw at a respectful distance, as a bright but enigmatic cipher. Hugh Ross’s crisp narration (often drawn, like much of the dialogue, verbatim from the book) lends a documentary-like quality, peeling away the layers of mythology while also situating James firmly in the now-distant past.
Stylistically, where 3:10 to Yuma is all pumped-up action and suspense, Jesse James is slow and thoughtful, reasonably earning comparisons to the films of Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The New World). An untraditional but haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis contributes to the dreamy, moody atmosphere, which like Malick will likely to appeal powerfully to some while leaving others cold.
Dominick and cinematographer Roger Deakins create images of poetic beauty and striking force while avoiding much of the traditional iconography of the old West. The nighttime approach of the train at Blue Cut looks like the ominous arrival of a UFO, with the beams from the locomotive lamp flashing between the trees. James’s messianic legend is ironically evoked and debunked in a fleeting image in which James’s corpse rises, but not from the dead.
Link to this item
The review contains this sentence “Like its hero Maximus — the squinting, beefy, unassuming…”
What is the point of mentioning he squints? I squint because of light sensitivity and find that the word is often used in a negative context. People dont usually mention squinting unless they want to put someone down. So what are you trying to say about his character when you mention he squints?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.