The railroads are squeezing farmers off their land. When a railroad agent kills their mother, Frank and Jesse James take up robbing banks and trains. The public regard them as heroes. When Jesse retires his erstwhile friend Robert Ford shoots him in the back to get the reward.
Tyrone Power ... Jesse Woodson James
Henry Fonda ... Frank James
Nancy Kelly ... Zerelda 'Zee' Cobb, later Zerelda 'Zee' James
Randolph Scott ... Marshall Will Wright
Henry Hull ... Major Rufus Cobb
Slim Summerville ... Jailer
J. Edward Bromberg ... Mr. Runyan
Brian Donlevy ... Barshee
John Carradine ... Bob Ford
A real life legend of the Old West comes to life in this 1939 film, which may not be historically accurate or honest enough for purists, but nevertheless tells a good story while leaving any moral judgments up to the audience. `Jesse James,' directed by Henry King, stars Tyrone Power as the man heralded by some as the Robin Hood of cowboys. Whether or not he was actually a hero is debatable, and what this movie does is supply the motivation for the wrong-doing on Jesse's part-- at least up to a point. At the time this film was made, it was necessary for the filmmaker to present a story like this in a way that reflected a reckoning of sorts for a character engaged in any form of moral turpitude; and this film is no exception. But in this case, it's done with subtlety, and in a way that still allows the viewer's sympathies to be with the protagonist, regardless of his crimes.
At the heart of the matter is basically another version of the oft-told David and Goliath tale. In this story, Goliath is the railroad, expanding ever-westward and growing bigger and stronger by the day. When they encounter the farm on which Jesse, his brother, Frank (Henry Fonda) and their mother (Jane Darwell) reside and make their living, the railroad does what any self-respecting conglomerate would do-- they take it, pay the owners a pittance and lay their rail without giving it another thought. Only this time, the railroad messed with the wrong people. Not one to take it lying down, Jesse forms a gang-- which includes Frank-- and strikes back in the only way he knows how: By robbing the trains. And, just as Bonnie and Clyde would become, in a sense, local heroes a few years later, many began looking up to James as something of a redeemer; the man who stood up for all the others who were either unwilling or unable to do it for themselves after being wronged, as well, by the ruthless machinery of progress.
Power gives an outstanding performance as Jesse James, to whom he brings an intensity that seethes beneath his rugged good looks and determined attitude. Like Beatty did with Clyde, Power makes Jesse an outlaw you can't help but like, and actually admire. Because the James Power presents is nothing more nor less than a good man seeking reparation for the injury visited not only upon himself, but upon his family, to whom he feels justice is now due. It's a very credible and believable portrayal, though under close scrutiny his Jesse may come across as somewhat idealistically unflawed. Then again, within the time frame of this story, we are seeing a man adamant and single-minded of purpose, and the depth Power brings to the character more than accounts for what may be construed as a flawless nature.
As Frank James, Henry Fonda presents a man perhaps more laid-back than his brother, but every bit as volatile and adamant in his quest for justice. There's a coolness in his eyes and in his manner that belies the tenacity of his character. Fonda conveys the sense that Frank is a lion; he's no trouble without provocation, but once aroused he will demand satisfaction and stay with the scent until he has it. And it's that sense of dogged determination that Fonda and Power bring to their respective characters that makes them so engaging and accessible. Goliath is the real bad guy here, and you want to see him fall; and these are the guys you want to see bring him down.
In a supporting role, John Carradine gives a noteworthy performance as Jesse's own personal Judas, Bob Ford, a man who made history by demonstrating that there is, indeed, no honor among thieves. Carradine brings Ford to life in a sly and sinister way that leaves no doubt as to who the real villain of the story is.
The supporting cast includes Nancy Kelly (Zee), Randolph Scott (Will), Slim Summerville (Jailer), Brian Donlevy (Barshee), Donald Meek (McCoy), Charles Tannen (Charlie Ford), Claire Du Brey (Mrs. Ford) and Henry Hull, in an energetic and memorable performance as Major Rufus Cobb. Compared to many of the westerns made in the past couple of decades or so, this film is rather antiseptic in it's presentation; that is to say it lacks the graphic visuals of say, `The Wild Bunch' or Eastwood's `Unforgiven.' But `Jesse James' is satisfying entertainment that doesn't require or rely upon shocking realism to tell the story, but rather the talent and finesse of a great cast and a savvy director. It's a movie that will keep you involved, and Power and Fonda make it an especially enriching cinematic experience. In a very classic sense, this is the magic of the movies.
* A scene in which a horse falls to its death from a cliff, and the subsequent public outcry, led to the American Humane Association (AHA) overseeing filmmaking through its new Film and TV Unit. Eventually they introduced the now-familiar AHA certification, "No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture."
* Irving Cummings filled in as director from 14 October 1938 to 24 October 1938, when Henry King was bed-ridden from a swelling in his ear.
* The film shows both Jesse and Frank going off the cliff on horseback. In reality the stunt was performed once and shot with two cameras.
* In the scene where a wagon and its two horses go over the edge of a 75-foot cliff into the river below, the stuntman driving the wagon wasn't hurt, but the two horses were killed.
* While shooting his role in the Ozarks, Lon Chaney Jr. fell off his horse during a chase and was trampled by the horse behind him. He was not injured badly - he managed to finish his scenes that day. But director Henry King, blaming Chaney's nightly drinking for the mishap, fired him, and he was dropped by his studio (20th Century Fox.)