The current film, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, faithfully based on the novel by Ron Hansen, is a fascinating capper on the work and research The Midnight Company did preparing their play, THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES.
While the film focuses on the very last days of Jesse’s life, the Midnight play tried to tell the whole story, using an aging Frank James and old gang member Cole Younger to tell the tale after Jesse’s death.
Both the film and our play make similar points about Jesse, some more direct than others, via narration, etc: both make clear Jesse saw himself as more than an outlaw, more a Southern man still fighting the civil war; both reflect and/or expound on the dangerous nature of celebrity; and both make very clear Jesse’s weariness of the outlaw life as his life neared its end.
The movie is able to focus on Jesse’s imagined personality (as well as Bob Ford’s) and presents an unsettling and unique rendition of a Jesse who projects supernatural powers over the people around him, and, successfully, the audience of the film.
It’s fascinating to chart the enduring power and popularity of Jesse as an historical figure and as an icon.
Jesse’s power as a name and an icon is defined (at the time of his death he and Mark Twain - both from Missouri - were probably the two best known live people on the planet – they would soon be joined by another Missouri native – Walt Disney and his friend Mickey Mouse.)
Jesse has been played in films and tv through the years by an amazing array of actors:
Brad Pitt, of course, and Colin Farrell just recently; Robert Duvall and James Keach in major films of the last few years, Kris Kristofferson and Rob Lowe in minor films during the same period; Iconic Hollywood figures like James Coburn and Lee Van Cleef; Leading Hollywood men like Tyrone Power and Robert Wagner; Musicians like Ricky Nelson and JD Souther; actors who became household names playing other characters, like George Reeves (Superman), Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger), Roy Rogers (himself), and Audie Murphy (who didn’t just play but actuallywas a WW II medal of honor winner, as well as a successful B western movie star); the original cult teen idol, James Dean, and one of many wannabes, Christopher Jones; and by Jesse James Jr, Jesse’s son.
It appears Jesse James’ name and appeal will never disappear. He symbolizes another time in our history, and represents another part of our national character: the natural rebel.
Maybe it’s because he came out of the Civil War – a terrible period that a lot of us probably have trouble absorbing – but a period that still shakes us somewhere down in our bones.
Though truly a farmer, then a soldier, from the Midwest, Jesse is our nation’s most celebrated representative of the Cowboy – who really worked in the West – and of the Outlaw, the mythical bad boy (usually given a heart of gold by friends and neighbors and friendly biographers.)
If you visit Kearney, MO, home of the James Farm (where The Midnight Company performed THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES twice), folks in that small, out-of-the-way corner of Missouri don’t talk about the outlaws, or the legends – they talk about Mrs. James boys, and refer in the direction of the Farm. The boys are still alive for them.
And for audiences and enthusiasts around the world.
By the way, don’t miss the film. It is very good.