An Unlikely Medium: Comparing Film and Reality in ‘Jesse James’
Criticism of movies based on history, such as Jesse James, raises an interesting point about the purpose of moviemaking. Those who panned the film for being “notorious for its historical inaccuracy” overlooked the entertainment factor, which, after all, overrides all other artistic considerations. Even a “historical” film such as Lawrence of Arabia, widely considered one of the finest movies ever made, is more concerned with adventure and exploring the chaos that can arise from the ambiguities of human morality than with a strictly linear recounting of events in the Middle East during World War I. Narrative filmmaking is, by definition, storytelling. As such, it is a process in which history is purposely altered in order to engage the audience emotionally and intellectually. Upon viewing Birth of a Nation, President Woodrow Wilson remarked that what he had just seen was “like writing history with lightning” (Benbow, 2011). History books and academic journals may make for enlightening articles but do not translate into entertaining cinema. The purpose of Jesse James is to entertain, not inform or educate – this is why there are differences between the film and reality.
The structure of Jesse James offers an instructive example. The movie begins with an extensive foreword, setting a scene that, while fundamentally correct, leaves out historical facts concerning Jesse and Frank James, their exploits and the motivations for their actions. True, farmers and other pioneers were victimized by unscrupulous bankers and railroad magnates, as scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson’s foreword explains: “Simple, hardy and God-fearing pioneers, real owners of the land from which all manner of life sustenance sprang, found themselves victimized by the ever-growing ogre, The Iron Horse” (Smyth, 128). In this manner, Johnson
offers up a version of the James brothers which, while appealing, bears little resemblance to reality because the fictional version of Jesse James’s life is assumed to be more entertaining to audiences. It is part of the classic Hollywood milieu in which the “little guy” fights for survival in the face of overwhelming odds.
Which leads to the question of whether watching movies is a good way to learn history. One response to that question might begin with the old adage that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. If one learns history through a skewed representation of events or an actual person, such as Jesse James, there is a risk that people will not learn from the mistakes of the past - for instance, that violence does not solve problems, it creates more. A romanticized version of history, like Jesse James, is a case in point for why learning history from movies is inadvisable. Entertainment plays an important role as escapism, but as a venue for imparting facts and historical concepts, it is completely unsuitable because the commercially motivated motion picture industry and the safeguarding of historical accuracy are mutually incompatible.
Director Henry King’s film presents Jesse and Frank James as beleaguered victims of an unscrupulous railroad employee named Barshee, who is responsible for the death of the James brothers’ mother (King, 1939). Jesse and his brother kill Barshee in revenge, which forces them to flee the law. It is a highly romanticized version of the James brothers, who headed an opportunistic gang for which robbery, extortion and violence were a way of life. The interaction between Barshee and the Jameses is an example of the unreality inherent in most scriptwriting. After the conflict with Barshee, arrest warrants are issued for the James brothers, who are warned by Jesse’s paramour, Zerelda, and her uncle. The script transforms Jesse and Frank into
19th century Robin Hoods, set against the looming power of the railroad. It is the deadly rivalry between outlaw and railroad that informs most of the film, and which represents perhaps the film’s greatest historical inaccuracy: that the James gang was primarily motivated by a kind of moral revenge, rather than the desire to rob and plunder in the interest of sheer financial gain (Film4, 2012).
The confrontation between Jesse and Frank prior to the infamous Northfield, Minn., bank robbery offers an interesting glimpse into what might have been a more accurate portrayal of Jesse’s character and the nature of his relationship with his brother. In the scene, Jesse is harsh and dictatorial toward the members of the gang. Angered over their questioning of his leadership, he boasts that he could get “1,000 men to ride with Jesse James,” then orders them all outside to talk it over (King, 1939). Frank plays the role of mediator between his younger brother and the other gang members, offering to talk with Jesse in hopes that he will prove reasonable. The subsequent scene between Henry Fonda, as Frank James, and Tyrone Power, as Jesse, is one of the most emotionally charged of the entire movie. Frank succeeds in calming his brother, who relents and consents to a more conciliatory approach.
Henry King and Nunnally Johnson crafted a unique juxtaposition in which we see a characterization that probably was much closer to the historical Jesse James. Tyrone Power’s performance reflects a true desperado, a man feeling the pressure of holding his gang together while constantly trying to stay a step ahead of the law. The historical incongruity of the scene is its comparatively neat resolution, in which Frank is thoroughly successful at making his little brother “see sense.” It is difficult to imagine Jesse resisting the impulse to violence, either
toward his compatriots or his brother, or both. The Northfield raid was the end of the line for the James gang and, as such, Jesse (and probably others) would either have avoided the confrontation portrayed in the movie, or resolved it in a more violent manner. Here again, the need to entertain supersedes other concerns. The audience must “like” Jesse, therefore he is seen as an essentially reasonable character able to reflect on his own shortcomings in the interest of the good of the group. Turner Classic Movie’s review of Jesse James said of Jesse that “the film loves him and so do we” (Arnold, 2012).
One of the reasons that 1939 audiences loved Jesse was the film’s setting, which so clearly reflected the harsh economic realities of Depression-era America, in which rapacious bankers routinely foreclosed on farmers and powerless homeowners (Rafferty, 2007). This theme bolsters the historically inaccurate portrayal of Jesse James as, somehow, a man of the people whose actions could be excused on the grounds that they were aimed at even greater “outlaws” than himself. In the film’s climax, Jesse is eulogized in such a way that we are left to think that every man he ever killed somehow “had it coming.” Jesse’s rhapsodic eulogist assures us that Jesse “wasn’t altogether to blame for what his times made him” (2007). In a world where “big business” turns ordinary people into common thieves in order to survive and to save their families, a man such as Jesse James becomes a hero figure, a man willing to risk everything so that he can make those responsible pay. Here again, the script plays on a legend that does not match the facts. It does so in the interests of a great story and an entertaining motion picture adaptation, bearing out the maxim that “historically based films often reveal more about the time in which they were made than about their historical subjects” (Loftin, 2000).
Jesse James embodies other historical incongruities that are more superficial than thematic. The characters, particularly the lead character played by Power and Fonda, are remarkably well-clothed and cleaned for desperate outlaws fleeing justice. This is another cinematic custom of the era, in which it was thought characters had to look more or less respectable in order to be liked and accepted by audiences.
Consequently, Jesse and Frank James are not portrayed wearing soiled clothing, nor are they seen as unkempt or unhygienic, except for well-trimmed beards and mustaches. This is in direct contrast to later film versions of their lives, such as The Long Riders, which presents a more gritty and realistic image of the life and look of a 19th-century outlaw. With director and scriptwriter concerned with presenting heroic images, the historical reality of a dangerous and dirty subversive lifestyle was sacrificed in favor of an alternate “entertainment” pseudo-reality.
Seen in this light, it must be concluded that if one is concerned with history, with the responsible and truthful presentation of fact, then movies are not a good medium in which to learn history. Film is decidedly a vehicle for entertainment, and for generating profits for the film industry. A film is, by nature, more propaganda than history, an instrument for manipulating feeling rather than a tool concerned with educating the general public. A film such as Jesse James is, in its way, also an elaborate non-intellectual appeal to pathos. Twentieth Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck wrote that Jesse James was a movie that “gave us a definite emotional feeling about the story” (Behlmer, 27). Indeed, one may find oneself supporting, if only surreptitiously, the James brothers, “rooting for the underdog,” because that is the film’s aim. Consequently, Jesse James is a poor substitute for a fact-based approach to learning about late 19th-century America.
¹ M. Benbow, “Birth of a Quotation: Woodrow Wilson and ‘Like Writing History with Lightning.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 9 (2011).
² J.E. Smyth, Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane. (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky), 128.
³ H. King, Jesse James (United States: Twentieth Century Fox), 1939.
4 “The True Story of Jesse James – Review.” Channel Four. http://www.film4.com.
5 H. King, Jesse James (United States: Twentieth Century Fox), 1939.
6 J. Arnold, “Jesse James (1939).” Turner Classic Movies. http://www.tcm.com
7 T. Rafferty, “Jesse James, an Outlaw for All Seasons.” The New York Times. 16 September 2007.
8 C.S. Loftin, “Seeing the Past: Jesse James and American History in Motion Pictures.” Masters Thesis, May 2000.
9 R. Behlmer, Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox. (New York: Grove Press), 27.
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