Brad Pitt and Jesse James

We watched Brad Pitt’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford this weekend. Rob just wanted to see if he could recognize the settings because some of the movie was filmed here at Fort Edmonton. It’s based on a book about James’ last train robbery and the last months of his life.

Jesse and his older brother Frank were Confederate Civil War veterans. They rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and like many who fought for the southern states, they never got over the idea that they were an oppressed minority. Jesse liked to claim that they targeted banks and rails owned by Republicans and other with pro-Northern sympathies, but the facts don’t really square with this.

The truth is that the James brothers found it easier to make a living by stealing and their military experience made it a preferred profession for them. Jesse in particular was an erratic person who had a hard time fitting into civilized society and these traits were likely not helped much by his war experiences.

Bob Ford was the younger brother of Charley, a fellow who was riding with the James at the end of their career. Bob’s family and many of their friends rode with or were related to the James brothers and he grew up idolizing Jesse and wanting to be an outlaw.

Ford eventually becomes disenchanted enough that he betrays some of the gang members to the authorities in Missouri where Jesse lived under an assumed name. He finally ends up killing Jesse himself, shooting him in the back of the head which was somewhat fitting as James seemed to prefer killing people by shooting them from behind.

Ford collected a large reward and for a time made a living re-enacting his deed on the stage. Eventually, however, public opinion turned against him. He was branded a traitor and Jesse James went on to become a Robin Hood like outlaw.

The film hasn’t much to recommend it. It’s typical of movies anymore that prize character studies* over plot line. The scenery is quite nice, but the glacial pace and the waste of more than a few actors (Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard and Zooey Deschanel to name a few)** prompts to me dub this a library check-out only because no one should waste money in addition to time on it.

I found myself objecting to the “coward” title being hung on Ford’s neck. He, and the others around Jesse, were clearly terrorized by and terrified of him. It’s classic abuser/abusee and not at all a surprise that one of them finally kills James. Jesse is as far from heroic as a person could get. He was a sociopath with paranoid tendencies who has been glamorized far too much in American culture which seems to prize the charmingly violent even a hundred plus years later.

To cap off our study of Civil War veterans, Rob and I watched The Outlaw Josey Wales as well. Was it a better movie? I reckon so.

* And Pitt does a credible job despite being too visibly old for the part.

** Parker plays Jesse’s wife and has probably a handful of lines at best. She is most used like a prop. Shepard is gone within twenty minutes having said little as well. Deschanel shows up in the last ten minutes as another human prop.

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