True Story of Jesse James (1957)



Director: Nicholas Ray

Starring:  Robert Wagner (Jesse James),  Jeffrey Hunter (Frank James),  Hope Lange (Zee James), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Samuel, mother of Jesse and Frank), Alan Hale (Cole Younger),  John Carradine ( the Preacher),  Alax Baxter (Remington), Carl Thayler (Robby Ford), Frank Gorshin (Charley Ford).

This is a remake of the 1939 movie, Jesse James. They actually used some stock footage from the original film.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"The tragic War Between the States spawned much that was good, much that was evil.  No person better symbolized that curious mixture than a quiet Missouri farm boy named Jesse James who became America's most notorious outlaw.  Much that you will see here is fact and much is as close to what actually happened as any man can testify."

Northfield, Minnesota.  September 7, 1876.  The James brothers are holding up the bank.   A number of the gang are killed and some wounded.  Sheriff Hillstrom takes a look at the face of one gang member laying in the street dead.  He then hurries over to the telegraph office and wires that the gang will be coming toward Douglas.  They are to gather as many men as they can and head the gang off.  There were nine gang members, of which two are killed and one got away.  The gang shot an unarmed Swedish horse-trader and Mr. Burnside, the bank cashier.  The gang is 400 miles from its home and they have a chance of a lifetime to catch Jesse James.  The sheriff gets a posse together and goes after the gang.  From a high cliff Frank and Jesse jump their horses into a river to get away. 

A printer at a newspaper asks a reporter to write an obituary for Jesses James, but the reporter won't because they haven't even caught up to the James brothers.  Barney Remington, head of a detective agency, shouts out for Sheriff Hillstrom.  Hillstrom comes over and tells Remington that they got the gang trapped.  They charged the gang this morning, but lost too many men, so they had to regroup.  He sent a fellow to get some blasting powder.  As soon as the rain lets up, they will attack again. 

The rain stops and the men hurry over to a cave in the side of a hill.  They throw dynamite into the cave and out comes not Jesse or Frank but an outlaw named Sam Wells.  The posse now goes after Jesse and Frank. The problem is that they don't know exactly where they are.  Some of the posse members decide they don't want to be going through the swampy and marshy areas ahead and Hillstrom threatens a fellow sheriffs to get his men in line or else.  Barney Remington decides to raise the reward from $25,000 dollars to $30,000 dollars to give the men more incentive.  They will all go. 

A posse member climbs a tree to see if he can see anything, but he is shot down out of the tree.  He is dead.  The posse rushes to the area where the shot came from.  A couple more of their men are shot.  One of the outlaws is down and another one stands up only to collapse to the ground.  The youngest man has been wounded.  The posse hurries over to the outlaws and discover that its the Younger boys:  Jim, Cole and Bob. 

Jesse, Frank and an outlaw named Tucker are up in the mountains.  They can hear the dogs barking as they follow their scent trail.  They decide to hole up overnight and move again in the morning.  Jesse is still talking about robbing the Northfield bank. 

At the home of Jesse's mother, their mother, Mrs. Samuel, is sick and in bed.  Dr. Samuel and Jesse's wife Zee is with her.  She says that the Yankees drove Jesse to do it.  She says he is a good boy, a gentle boy.  Mom asks to see Reverend Bailey so he can help her pray for Jesse and Frank.  Dr. Samuel goes downstairs to tell a young man named Robby Ford to fetch the preacher.

Alone with Zee, mom starts talking about how the Yankees descended on their farm.  Their neighbors came and dragged mother from the house. 

Flashback.  The Yankee soldiers and the neighbors search the buildings on the farm. They are looking for Frank James and ask Mrs. Samuel where is he?  She says he's where he should be -- "fighting for the South".  The Union officer tells her that Missouri has now sided with the North and any man who fights against the union is a traitor. Neighbor Arkew tells her that he saw Frank pass by his farm last night.  Mrs. Samuel scolds Arkew for spying on her family.  The officer tells Mrs. Samuel that for aiding the enemy, he has the right to burn down the entire farm and kill everyone living on it. 

Just then soldiers bring in a tied-up Jesse.  Jesse says he can trust the union officer, but not his neighbor Arkew.  He spits in Arkew's face and Arkew knocks him down.  From the ground Jesse says they sure are making a fuss over just one soldier, but the officer points out that Frank is not with the Confederate army but with Quantrill's Raiders.  And it's Quantrill they are after.  (Quantrill was helping primarily himself and his gang and was considered an outlaw, not a soldier, and could be shot on sight.)  Jesse won't answer any questions, so the officers turn to Arkew for assistance.  The neighbor takes off his belt, pulls the back of Jesse's shirt down and start wailing on him.  After three or four strokes, the officer tells him to stop.  They have to get going.  Jesse indicates that one day Jesse will be coming after Arkew for what he did. 

After the Yankees leave, Jesse and his friend farm boy Hughie jump on two horses and ride out to join with Frank.  Mrs. Samuel hates to see the boys go, but as narrator she says Jesse served the South well.  Frank brings his wounded brother Jesse back to their farm.  along the way, they have to stop because Jesse is so weak.  So they stop at relative Rufus Cobb's farm.  Zee is there and she rushes out to see Jesse.  Frank says they were trying to surrender using a white flag, but as outlaws they were fired upon and Jesse was wounded.  Major Cobb doesn't want them to bring Jesse into his house, but Frank says he will pay for the care Jesse receives, so Cobb doesn't say anything when Frank carries Jesse into the house.  Zee nurses Jesse back to health.

When Jesse is getting ready to leave, he asks Major Cobb for Zee's hand in marriage.  Zee's sister is thrilled, but Major Cobb wants to know if Jesse has any money in savings?  No.  Cobb says that Zee has been with them for a year and he wants to be compensated for taking care of his sister-in-law before he will consent to the marriage.  Jesse tells him that he will be paid.  The Cobbs and Zee are going to stay at the James farm and they will all harvest the crop and the marriage of Zee and Jesse will take place there. 

Back to the present.  Robby Ford brings the preacher to the James farm.  The pastor starts a quarrel almost immediately with the family when he says he will pray for Mrs. Samuel but not for Jesse and Frank.  He says:  "As for your sons, treading the path of the unrighteous, breaking God's laws as well as man's, steeped in sin beyond redemption . . ."  Zee gets after the reverend for saying that.  The preacher says that following his baptism, Jesse let Satan enter him, there is no other explanation.  Zee says that the preacher is just wrong and she will tell him what happened that night.

Flashback.   Zee and Jesse are baptized in the river by the preacher.  The Cole brothers are there with lots of other to see the baptism.  Jesse wanted to be a peaceful man but their neighbors, union sympathizers, throw rocks through one of their windows.  The two brothers trade shots with the neighbors and chase the neighbors off.  The neighbors also hung Hughie with a sign around his neck, saying that Hughie rode with Quantrill and that Frank and Jesses are next. 

Frank calls together their friends who rode for Quantrill.  Jesse says that all the banks around here are run by Northerners and he's set on getting some of that Northern money.  Cole Younger wants to hear from Frank.  Frank says yes.  He also says that Jesse will be the leader.  Cole doesn't like Jesse as leader, but Jesse has been thinking of this for awhile and already has a plan to strike the bank at Liberty.  So the men agree to ride with Jesse as leader. 

Originally, Jesse said they were going to rob just two banks to get enough to get their farms back into good working order.  But it didn't stop at two banks.  Zee didn't hear from Jesse for awhile, but one night the gang stops by Zee's sister's farm.  Jesse and Zee rush to each other and kiss.  He throws a bag of money to Major Cobb and says he is marrying Zee. 

So they marry and go to live in St. Joseph, in today's Buchanan County, northwest Missouri.  The seven-room house is right in the city.  Under the name Tom Howard, Jesse and Zee act like proper middle-class people, but Jesse is still very active as an outlaw. 

Back to the present.  Zee tells the preacher:  "There is no devil in Jesse's heart."  She now says goodbye to Mother Samuel  and Dr. Samuel. 

Jesse is trying to figure out just went wrong in Northfield.  He asks Turner when did he cut the telegraph wires?  Turner says at 2:30 in the afternoon just like Jesse said.  Jesse checks on the man's watch, but there's nothing wrong with it.  Then he sees a red garter that Turner has and demands to know where he got it.  He says it's a present for a gal, but Jesse says no, Turner got the garter from a gal in the area to whom he took a fancy.  That's why he didn't cut the wires at 2:30  --he was delayed by the gal.  Jesse prepares to shoot Turner, but Frank intervenes to stop his brother.  He tells Turner to get higher up in the hills to be a lookout. 

Frank tells Jesse that they were ten men when they started this job and now there are only three left.  Turner listens to their conversation.  He hears Frank tell Jesse to lay off of Turner, because the man could shoot Jesse in the back for the reward money.  Frank also says that Jesse likes killing.  Jesse says that Frank has done his share of killing.  The difference between them is that Frank is not proud of what he did, but Jesse is.  Jesse says they've got the Northern bankers quaking in their boots.  Frank replies that Jesse didn't just stick to bank robbing -- he had to go into robbing trains and that's when their luck turned bad. 

Flashback.  Jesse rides his horse up to the caboose of a train and gets on to a ladder that takes him to the top of the caboose.  He then works his way up to the locomotive cabin and with covered face and a pistol he tells the engineer and his assistant that this is a holdup.  The engineer has to stop the train.  There waiting for Jesse is the rest of the gang.  They rob the safe on the train.  The men then go to an inn.  In the morning they have breakfast and have a good laugh over a dime novel that says Jesse is no criminal.  He's just misunderstood.  He robs the rich to give to the poor.  The old lady running the inn says she sure wished Jesse would rob some rich people on the train and give all the money to her.  She owes $600 dollars on her place and doesn't have six cents to her name.  She says she may have to return to Davis County. 

Cole tells one of the guys that he can get Jesse to give the woman the $600 dollars she needs.  He goes over to the old woman and asks her what he owes her.  It's ten cents.  And how much for a ticket?  $8.00 dollars.  He gives her $20 dollars and tells her that when people talk about Cole Younger, tell them that he's not such a bad guy.  The woman is excited about having Cole Younger at her place.  Now Jesse asks the woman how much does she need to keep the inn?  $600 dollars.  So Jesse gives her the $600 dollars and tells her it's compliments of Jesse James.  He tells her to be sure and get a receipt for the money.

As the gang leaves the place, they see the banker go in to ask the lady for his $600 dollars.  Cole and the man in on the joke start laughing about how Jesse had to pay $600 dollars for some good publicity.  The banker comes out and Jesse goes over and robs him of the $600 dollars plus however much the man had of his own money in his wallet.  The gang now splits up to go their separate ways, but one of the guys, Bill Ryan, is grabbed by a posse.  He is found guilty at his trial and the judge congratulates everyone on carrying out the first trial ever to convict a member of the James Gang.  (Jesse and the rest of the gang are up in the gallery of the courthouse.)  Bill's sentence is 25 years in the state penitentiary. 

After Ryan is taken away, Jesse and Frank as Mr. Howard and Mr. Woodson speak with the prosecutor, a Mr. Walker, who knows Mr. Howard.  The prosecutor tells Jesse to be sure and come back for the trial of Jessie and Frank James.

Jesse and Zee stop to speak with Frank and Anne.  Mr. Walker and Mr. Remington come over to speak to Mr. Howard and Mr. Woodson.  Remington wants to get the word out that he is out to get the James boys.  The actual James boys say they hear that the boys are not all that bad.  Of course, Mr. Remington disagrees with them.  After the two families leave, Remington says it seems he has to fight public opinion also.  Mr. Walker says yes, Jesse has become a legend because "Jesse James is the shooting spokesman for everyone whose life is quietly desperate."   

The two families are on the railway and only about a mile from the Samuel home, when the train stops.  A bunch of horsemen ride past the families.  They figure that the Samuels may be in for some big trouble.  Frank and Jesse get off the train and run to the Samuels place.  They arrive just before one of the posse members throws a bunch of dynamite sticks stuck together in through a window in the Samuel home.  There is a terrific explosion inside the house.  Now the house is rushed. 

Frank and Jesse hide as the very large posse passes by them.  At the Arkew farm Mr. Remington says thanks to Mr. Arkew for his help and then leaves.  Jesse and Frank go to see the damage.  The boy Archie Samuel is dead and Mrs. Samuel is badly shaken up.

Mr. Samuel in a buggy stops to tell the James brothers that they are being offered amnesty.  He sees them eyeing Mr. Arkew and tells them they can't afford to do something bad now.  Jesse rides his horse over to Mr. Arkew and shoots him in the back five times.  There goes their amnesty.  As narrator Frank says,  this act by Jesse kept them tied to their criminal career and assured their trip up to Northfield, Minnesota and disaster.

The men get together for another bank robbery, this one in Northfield, Minnesota.  The place is 420 miles away.  Bill Stiles has scouted the trails all the way up to Northfield.  When do they start?  Right now.  Jesse tells his wife that this will be the very last robbery. 

On the road Frank is a bit worried about the job. He asks Jesse to call it off.   

Northfield is half a mile ahead.  Tucker gets interested in a pretty gal and rides over to talk with her.  Jesse rides up to Tucker and asks what's his assignment?  To cut the telegraph wires at 2:30 p.m.  Jesse tells him if he fails to cut the wires on time, he swears he will kill Tucker.  The men ride into town in groups but get together in town.  That's a lot of men in long white overcoats.  Three bad guys go into the bank and start to rob it.  They tell Mr. Burnside to open the save but he says no and starts yelling robbery.  With their guns the robbers inside the bank knock out the two men behind the counter.  Cole Younger puts his pistol into the belly of a Swedish horse trader who doesn't understand English and tells him just to stay still.  The Swede grabs Cole around the neck, so Cole shoots him. 

The word is out and a fire fight breaks out.  Some men block the streets.  Down goes one robber.  Frank comes in the bank on his horse and tells his comrades they can't hold the townspeople back.  They've got to go.  Jesse comes out, but the bank cashier tries to shoot him.  Jesse shoots the man first.  Jesse and Frank run into a street blockade and then another.  They finally just crash their horses through a store window and head out the back way. 

When they get a chance to rest Jesse blames everything on Tucker.  Frank says it wasn't Tucker's fault because everything went wrong.  The boys break up over the issue of what just went wrong.  Frank decides that they should go their separate ways.  Frank leaves.  When Jesse comes out of the cave Tucker tries to shoot him, but Jesse shoots Tucker twice. The posse is close by and they start shooting.  They work their way up to the cave area and find a dead man.  They think it's Jesse James because he has a watch engraved with the initials: JWJ.  They conclude that they got Jesse James.

The headlines in the local papers say that Jesse James has been killed by the posse chasing him.  Zee is going to go to identify the body as Jesse.  They are about to take her to the train when Jesse comes stumbling into the house.  Later he tells Frank that Northfield is the end for him.  He says he will satisfy Zee's wish to have their own farm.  Frank says he and mom have some money saved and they will give it to him for a farm. 

Jesse and the family start packing.  Robby and his brother Charley Ford are visiting with them.  Jesse takes off his pistols and gives one to Robby and another to Charley. They talk about the $30,000 dollar reward for Jesse dead or alive.  As he prepares to straighten out a picture on a wall, Jesse says to Robby and Charley:  "If you don't think I expect someone to try to put a bullet in me, you're wrong."    Robby responds:  "He'll never get a chance."  Jesses asks:  "What makes you so sure?"  He's sure because he shoots Jesse in the back. 

Robby and Charley run out of the house as Zee comes to check on her husband.  They get half a block along the road and Robby stops to shout:  "I just killed Jesse James!  Me!  Robert Ford!"  With the news out people start running for the Howard house.  Frank is driving a buggy with his mother and Mr. Samuel in the back.  They hear the news and see everyone rushing to the house.  Frank drives up to the house and everyone gets out of the buggy.  They have to fight through the crowd to get to Jesse.  A little later Frank pushes almost everyone out of the house.  

A man outside asks Mr. Woodside if they got Frank too?  Frank says:  "No, but I expect he'll give himself up now."  A blind man sings a song of Jesse James and the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and has laid poor Jesse in his grave.   


As a western about Jesse James, this one is a bit fairer to the true story, but they still go too easy on James. Nevertheless, Jesse does shoot a lot of innocent people.  Robert Wagner as Jesse and Jeffrey Hunter as Frank James were both good in the film.  Pretty good film. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

For the Historical Background, see review for Jesse James (1939).


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