Jesse James (1939)



Director:     Henry King.

Starring:    Tyrone Power (Jesse James), Henry Fonda (Frank James), Nancy Kelly (Zeralda Cobb), Randolph Scott (Sheriff Wright), Henry Hull, Slim Summerville (jailer), John Carradine (Bob Ford), Jane Darwell (the mother of the James boys), Brian Donlevy (railroad agent).

Very loosely based on the life of the infamous outlaw Jesse James.



Spoiler warning:  the following tells the entire story. 

Fairly good film.  It is the usual Robin Hood myth flick with the nasty railroad being justifiably punished by the James boys.  The St. Louis Midland Railroad agents are cheating the people along the intended railway route by giving them only $1 per acre when the land is worth something like $15 per acre.  If they can't trick the farmers into selling their land (telling them the government will take it and give them nothing so they better sign with the railroad), then they intimidate them into selling their land.  But when the agents come to the James house, it's a different story.  Frank and Jesse James run the railway bastards off.

The railway men get the law on their side and come after the James boys, in the process converting them into outlaws.  The railway men try to capture the James brothers at their farm house, but only manage to kill their mother instead.  Jesse comes after those responsible and kills two of them in a gun fight in a bar in the town of Liberty, Missouri.  The railway puts out a $1,000 reward for Jesse. 

Sheriff Wright shows up.  He is interested in Jesse's gal, Zerelda Cobb.  One night he runs into Jesse at Zerelda's home and suspects the man's real identity, but does not try to capture him. 

Jesse marries Zerelda.  Shortly afterward, he turns himself in to the sheriff for the head of the railway, Mr. McCoy, has promised leniency if Jesse surrenders.  When Jesse is locked up in jail, he soon realizes that it was a trick.  McCoy real plans are to hang Jesse.  Frank and some of the gang get Jesse out of jail.  Now the reward for Jesse goes up to $25,000. 

Zerelda and Jesse move around the region avoiding the law.  Zerelda has a child in St. Joseph, Missouri.  When Jesse does not show up at St. Joseph as promised, Zerelda takes her child, Jesse Jr., and returns to Liberty. 

The governor of Missouri now offers amnesty to any James gang member who kills Jesse James.  A Mr. Remington arrives in Liberty to contact Bob Ford, a relative and associate of the James boys, in order to tell him about the amnesty for the killer of Jesse.

When Jesse plans a bank robbery up in Northfield, Minnesota, Bob Ford tells Mr. Remington of the plan.  Mr. Remington heads to Northfiield to set a trap for the James gang.  The gang carries out the raid, but two of the gang are killed and four captured.  Jesse is wounded, but he and Frank get away.  Jesse makes his way back to Liberty. 

Back together with Zerelda and his son, the family now starts making plans to go to California.  Bob Ford and his brother Charlie show up at Jesse's house.  As Jesse starts to take a framed "God Bless our Home" sign down from the wall, Bob shoots Jesse dead. 

It's an o.k. movie, entertaining enough.  It's just that I'm a bit prejudiced against Jesse James knowing that he was a brutal, murdering psychopath.  Contrast the movie plot with the truth in the Historical Background section.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

1842 -- Robert James (father of Jesse and Frank) moves from his native Kentucky to Clay County, MO

1847 -- Jesse James born in Kearney, Missouri (not far from Kansas City)

1850 --Robert James dies in California during the gold rush

Jesse joins the pro-Confederate guerrillas under the notorious William Quantrill during the Civil War (1861-1865).  Also rode with Bloody Bill Anderson.  Famous raider Todd killed by a Union bullet in skirmishing near Independence.

After the war, Frank and Jesse James rob a Liberty, MO bank (not far from their home).  One man is killed.  This starts a 15 year campaign of robbery.

Jesse liked to write letters to the sympathetic papers - sympathetic because Jesse was anti-Reconstruction like they were.

September 7, 1876 --  the James gang, along with the Younger brothers, rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota.  The alarm goes out and the townspeople meet the robbers with a hail of gunfire.  All except Frank and Jesse James are killed or wounded and captured.  

winter of 1882 -- with the help of Bob and Charlie Ford, Jesse robs the Platte City bank in order to get the money to buy a small farm in Nebraska

April 3, 1882 --  for the reward money, Bob Ford shoots Jesse in the back of the head as he stands on a chair in the family home (at 1318 Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, MO) to dust and straighten a picture.  

Number of Killings:

1) Riding with Fletch Taylor & Archie Clement one of his closest friends boasted of how Jesse & Frank killed a local Unionist just after the death of Dagley.

2&3) Jesse (possibly with Archie Clement) on a ride home kills two militiamen picking apples from a tree.

4&5) with Archie Clement & rebels ambushes a patrol near Huntsville, killing two.

6-28) 1864 with Bloody Bill Anderson, Centralia, MO assisted with murder of 22 unarmed Federal soldiers and one passenger coming in on the train. Kills Major A. V. E. Johnston while being chased by a battalion of mounted infantrymen.

29&30) with Anderson murders a Unionist named Baynes & then an elderly man named Farran.

31-54) With Clement on raids while coming back from Sherman, Texas fired four bullets into postmaster Leroy Duncan in Kingsville.  On the raid 8 others killed; going into Lafayete County they murdered 15 more civilians.

55) with bushwhacker Jim Green & company on murder spree in October 1864.

56) December 7, 1869 Daviess County Savings Association; Gallatin, MO killed the cashier, John W. Sheets, thinking he was Samuel P. Cox who killed Archie Clement.

57) vicinity of Columbia; during bank robbery shoots cashier R. A. C. Martin.

58) Pinkerton detective J. W. Whicher killed.

59) near mother Zerelda's house murdered neighbor Daniel H. Askew for cooperating with the authorities.

60) 1876 Northfield, MN during bank robbery kills cashier J. L. Heywood.

61) sometime in 1880 kills colleague Ed Miller thinking he might turn against him.

62) east of Winston during train robbery a shot kills conductor William Westfall.


Source: Stiles, T. J. 2002. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


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