The Assassination of Jesse James

by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

 

 

 

 

Director:     Andrew Dominik. 

Starring:      Brad Pitt (Jesse James),  Mary-Louise Parker (Zee James),  Brooklynn Proulx (Mary James),  Dustin Bollinger (Tim James),  Casey Affleck (Robert Ford),  Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford),  Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite),  Sam Shepard (Frank James),   Garret Dillahunt (Ed Miller),   Paul Schneider (Dick Liddil),  Joel McNichol (Express Messenger),  James Defelice (Baggagemaster),  Alison Elliott (Martha Bolton),  Kailin See (Sarah Hite),  Tom Aldredge (Major George Hite),  Jesse Frechette (Albert Ford),  Michael Parks (Henry Craig),  Ted Levine (Sheriff Timberlake),  James Carville (Governor Crittenden).

shows James as a bit of a psychopath, but still portrays him somewhat sympathetically

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

 

Jesse James is now middle-aged and is living in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri.  He is married with two small children, a boy and a girl.  The children don't even know Jesse's name.  He calls himself a cattleman or a commodities investor.  Jesse has two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh.  He has already lost the numb of his left middle finger.  He has no regrets about his robberies or the 17 murders he committed.  On September 5, 1881, he was 34 years old. 

Blue Cut, Missouri.  Bob Ford walks among the outlaws of the James gang.  He sees Jesse James talking with his cousin Wood and Bob's brother Charley Ford.  They are setting up for a train robbery.  Bob goes closer to the railway tracks to check on Frank James.  Frank finds Bob very strange and he doesn't like him.  Bob says he's special, Frank tells him he isn't.  Franks tells Bob to stay away from him because he gives him the willies.  Bob is so dense, that Frank has to pull his gun on him to get the young fellow to leave him alone.  Bob walks back to the gang. 

Charley Ford, Wood Hite, Ed Miller and Dick Liddil talk about squaws and sex.  Bob come up to tell Jesse happy birthday.  He also tells Jesse that he had a real nice chat with his brother over yonder. 

From 1867 to 1881, the James Gang committed over 25 bank, train and stagecoach robberies.  Other than Frank and Jesse, all the original members of the gang are dead or in prison.  The job at Blue Cut is supposed to be the last robbery for the James brothers.  They had to recruit gang members who were petty thieves and/or country rubes.  The men build up a big obstacle to stop the train.  At night Jesse puts his ear to the track and shouts out that the train is right on schedule.  

The train stops before hitting the obstacle.  The men rush the train.  Jesse and some of his gang members break into the mail car.  He tells the attendant to open up the safe.  The man doesn't move, so Jesse bops him over the head with the butt of his pistol   The now bloody man opens the safe.  The money is pulled out, but it certainly isn't the $100,000 dollars Jesse thought they would get.   Jesse gets mean and slugs the attendant again.  He is going to kill the man, but one of the gang objects to any killing.  The newspapers from Chicago say that only Missouri would tolerate 12 years of the James gang. 

Bob convinces his brother Charley to speak with Frank James about them being their sidekicks.  Frank is about as disturbed about this as he was when Bob himself presented the idea.  Bob speaks with Jesse.  He is a real fan of the James brothers and has by his bed a copy of The Train Robbers, or, A Story of the James Boys by. R. W. Stevens.  Jesses just says it's all lies. 

Frank was in Baltimore when he read of the assassination of his brother.  It caused him to be upset and despondent.

Jesse tells Bob to go get Wood and Charley.  They are to head out.  Bob is staying with Jesse.  Bob and Jesse are together a lot.  One day Jesse asks Bob:  "Do you wanna be like me . . . or do you wanna be me?"  The next day Jesse sends Bob away.  He rides the 40 miles to his sister's farm from Kansas City.  His sister is the widow Mrs. Martha Bolton.  She makes good money providing lodging for her many brothers and to members of the James Gang. 

Dick Liddil talks with Bob about his teaming up with Cummins.  He is worried that if Jesse finds out, he may come after them with a cleaver.  Dick puts a pistol barrel in Bob's face and threatens him against saying anything about this to Jesse.  Later Bob finds Wood and Charley looking through his box of memorabilia and clippings about the James brothers.  They are laughing and having a good time at Bob's expense.  Bob gets really angry and takes the memorabilia from them. 

Jesse and his family suddenly vanish from Kansas City.   A few days later four of the James Gang are arrested in shacks near Glendale. 

Wood and Dick are leaving.  In the morning Wood sees Dick kissing Martha.  Wood at one time had a crush on Martha and he doesn't like seeing Dike with her.  Wood pushes Dick out the door.  They argue all the way through Kentucky until they get to Russellville, the home of Wood's father Major George Hite.  The Major is also the uncle of Frank and Jesse James.  Wood warns Dick about flirting with his father's young wife.  But soon enough there is an attraction between the wife and Dick.  Wood, however, is right there to break up any chats between the two of them. 

During the night, Dick says he has to go to the privy.  In the privy he finds the wife.  They have sex (off camera). 

Ed Miller sees Jesse James riding toward his farm.  This makes him very nervous.  Jesse notices this and tells Ed that he is acting queer.  Ed tells Jesse that Jim Cummins came by the farm.  Jim told him that Jesse was planning to kill those from the Blue Cut robbery that were recently caught.  Jesse just asks Ed why would he do that?  Ed admits he's scared because he thought that Jesse may have heard something about Jim coming to talk with him and maybe Jesse would think they were planning to kill him for the reward money. 

Jesse says he's leaving, but then he asks Ed to come take a ride with him downtown and get some dinner.  Ed goes with him. 

Dick hears some noise downstairs.  He grabs his pistol and goes downstairs.  It scares him a bit when he see Jesse sitting at the small table.  Jesse asks Dick to take a ride with him.  He then asks Dick if he has seen Ed Miller lately?  No, he hasn't.  Jesse really makes Dick nervous when he asks him would they go down this road if they were going to see Jim Cummins?  Yes.  Dick and Jesse go to the Cummins place. A young Ford cousin, Albert, is there at the farm. Jesse starts beating the hell out of Albert when the young guy says Cummins has been gone since August and now it's winter and he has no idea where Cummins is.  Dick keeps telling Jesse that the kid doesn't know anything, but Jesse keeps beating him.  Finally, Dick makes Jesse let go of Albertr, who tells Jesse off and then runs away from him.  Jesse walks to his horse and starts crying.  Dick finds this strange.  Jesse gets on his horse and rides out by himself. 

Wood comes to Martha's place.  Martha is curious why Wood should just suddenly show up.  Wood and Dick got into a shooting scrape a few months earlier.  Wood explains to Martha that Dick tampered with his father's wife.  Bob Ford upstairs hears Wood's voice.  He goes over to wake Dick and tells him that Wood is here.  Wood charges up the stairs, but doesn't open the door right away.  Dick points his pistol at the door.  Bob also has a pistol in his hand.  Suddenly Wood throws open the door from his position flat up next to the wall.  The shooting begins.  Charley Ford jumps out of the second floor window to safety (except that he got banged up falling onto the snow covered ground).  Most of the shots between Dick and Wood are misses, but finally, Wood hits Dick in the leg and Dick hits Wood in the right forearm.  Dick tries to fire his pistol again, but it's out of ammunition.  Wood retrieves his pistol and puts it to Dick's head.  He's about to shoot Dick, when Bob from behind shoots Wood in the head killing him instantly

Charley and Martha talk about how to get rid of Wood's body.  Charley is afraid that Jesse might find out about his cousin and come after the Fords.  Later some of the guys take Wood's body and throw it into a ditch.

Jesse arrives.  Bob comes down to speak with Jesse.  Charley is there too.  Jesse asks Charley how he hurt himself.  Charley comes up with some lame reason, but Jesse doesn't seem to think much about it.  Charley starts telling funny stories about some of the crazy things Bob has done.  Bob doesn't like being the butt of the jokes.  Jesse asks Bob for some more "conversations".  Charley tells Bob to tell Jesse about all the similarities between him (Bob) and Jesse.  Bob rattles off a few of the similarities.  Jesse tells a story about a man who said he was similar to Jesse in order to get into the gang.  But this fellow had a grudge against Jesse.  Well, one day the man rode into the outlaw camp and 20 guns opened up on him.  Jesse says the man only had one eye and it takes two eyes to get Jesse.   Bob doesn't like the story, saying that they are making fun of him.  He leaves.  Before he goes, Jesse tells the Fords that he came here to have one of the Ford brothers go with him on a journey.  He then says it will be Charley, since Bob is so cranky these days. 

St. Joseph, Missouri.  Jessie and Charley go to Jesse's home.  Jesse asks Charley if he has seen Wood around?  Charley says no.  Jesse's wife tells Jessie that George Hite has not "seen hide nor hair" of his son lately.  At night when Charley is sleeping, Jessie comes to question him about Wood.  But first Jessie tells Charley that he killed Ed Miller.  There is a flashback scene of the murder.   And now Jesse asks Charley to tell him a tale, something that needs to be confessed.  Maybe something about Wood Hite?  Wisely, Charley keeps his mouth shut about what really happened to Wood.   

Bob walks over to the police station to tell them that Dick Liddil is sleeping over at the rented farmhouse.  The police surround the place.  Bob comes out first.  The police go into the house and find Dick.  None of this stops Bob from presenting himself to Governor Crittenden at the Craig Rifles Ball.    At the ball the governor praises Captain Henry Craig who, he says, is helping  rid the area of the James Gang.  When Bob goes up to present himself to Crittenden, the police grab him and take him out into the hall.  Captain Craig says that Bob is more trouble than what he is worth.  He is not the belle of the ball. 

Later the governor comes to see Bob.  In the same room with Bob is Dick Liddil.  The governor has promised a partial amnesty for Dick.  He tells the two bandits that Jesse threatened to kill him, but he is going to get to Jesse before Jesse can even get to him. 

Out on the iced-over lake Jesse shoots at fish that he can see below the ice surface.  Charley asks Jesse if Bob can be a part of their gang.  The narrator says Jesse would conceive up more robbery plans, but never carry them out.   Meanwhile, Capt. Craig told Bob Ford to return to Elias' Grocery Store in Richmond.  He is supposed to await instructions from Sheriff James Timberlake.  One day the sheriff comes into the grocery store where Bob is working.  He asks Bob if knows where Jesse is living now?  No.  The sheriff warns Bob that Jesse will kill him if he gets a chance.  But Bob is not going to back down.  He is tried of being a nobody.  Before the sheriff leaves, he says:  "Don't let yourself be found alone with him, and do not let him get behind you." 

Jesse and Charley show up one day at the grocery store.  Jesse says Bob has been chosen as one of the gang members.  Charley warns Bob that Jesse killed Ed Miller for some little piddly thing he did.  Jesse keeps close watch over the two Fords.  Bob finally gets a little alone time with his brother.  He tells him that the sheriff gave him ten days in which to arrest Jesse.  Charley is very skeptical.  And ,he says, Jesse is a friend.  Bob disagrees with this.  He says that Jesse is going around killing whoever is left of the Blue Cut gang. 

Jesse finds the guys talking alone and warns them:  "From now on, you two won't go anywhere without me."  The brothers don't say a word. 

Jesse and the Fords go to Jesse's home that sits on a little hill.  Jesse grabs his kids and seems very happy to see them.  Zee Howard, however, is not happy to see Bob and Charley.   Jesse says they are going to ride down to Platte City for a job.  Bob asks him the exact time, which makes Jesse suspicious of him.  The famous outlaw says Charley is really easy to be around, but Bob is certainly not easy to be around.  Jesse says maybe Bob thinks less of him now.  Charley comes in and breaks the mood and Jesse smiles once again.  But then Jesse plays a mean joke on Bob.  He grabs him and holds a knife to his throat.  He releases Bob after awhile and starts laughing his head off.  He is especially tickled by how white Bob's face has become. 

Jesse makes Bob sleep up in the children's bedroom at night.  When Bob tries to go outside to the privy, Jesse cocks his pistol in his right hand and tells Bob that he doesn't need to go.  Bob sinks back into the bed.

Bob begins to think that Jesse knows all about his plans and is just playing along with Bob to lull him into carelessness.  But then Jesse gives Bob a present to make up for his churlish behavior.  It's a brand new pistol.  He says this is his way of apologizing to Bob. 

The day before Jesse is killed, it is Palm Sunday.  When the Howards go to church, Bob investigates the whole house.  He imagines himself at 34 and in a coffin. 

At night Bob finds Charley crying.  He tells Charley:  "He' not gonna kill us."  Charley responds:  "Yeah, he is."  He also tells Bob that there will be no Platte City, that Jesse is just playing around with them. 

April 3, 1882.  Charley is feeling very low in the morning.  Bob tells Mrs. Howard that he's feeling kind of peculiar.  He watches as Jesse comes back to his house.  He picks up his daughter and brings her inside.  He throws the morning paper on the couch.  Bob looks at it and sees a story entitled:  "The Arrest and Confession of Dick Liddil."  This scares Bob to his core.  He doesn't want Jesse to see that article, so he places that section of the paper underneath some pillows on the couch. 

Breakfast is served.  After awhile, Jesse gets up and goes over to the couch.  He only sees two sections of the paper and so looks and finds the section hidden by Bob.  Bob is really scared now.  Jesse comes back over, sits down and starts reading the paper.  He sees the article about Dick Liddil.  Jesse comments:  "That's very strange.  Says here Dick surrendered three weeks ago."  He turns to Bob and says:  "Well, you must have been right in the neighborhood."  Bob is really scared now and leaves the table to go into the living room and sit down.  Charley goes into the living room too.  Jesse comes out.  He takes off his pistols so the neighbors won't see him wearing them. 

Jesse comments that a horse picture on a wall of his home looks really filthy.  He gets a chair and stands on it to dust the picture a bit.  Charley and Bob don't say a word.  Bob gets behind Jesse, while Charley is on the side of Jesse.  Charley takes his pistol out, but Bob quickly takes his pistol out and shoots Jesse in the back of the head.  Jesses goes down like a pile of bricks.  His wife comes out to cry over Jesse's body.  She asks Bob if he did this and Bob says he swears to God that he didn't.  Charley comes over to get Bob and he out of the house.  Charley tells the wife that it was an accident.  The gun went off accidentally. 

Bob writes a telegram to the governor saying he killed Jesse James.  Jesse becomes a folk hero, despite his being a psychopathic killer.  Bob gives 800 performances of the day he killed Jesse James.  At one particular performance, someone in the audience heckles Bob calling him a murderer, cur and a coward.  Bob flings himself into the audience and starts socking quite a few of the men.  Charley shoots himself to death. 

Bob especially dislikes the popular song that says:  "That dirty little coward, who shot Mr. Howard, and put 'ol Jesse in his grave."

Creede, Colorado, 1892.  Bob started confiding in a fan dancer named Dorothy Evans.  He told her that he killed Jesse because he was afraid Jesse would kill him and his brother.  And, yes, he also did it for the reward money.  He says he had expected applause, but he didn't get it.  He came to regret killing Jesse James. 

Bob became a saloon owner.  And then Edward O'Kelly marches into Bob's Saloon and shoots Bob with a shotgun.  He was found guilty of second-degree murder and sent to prison on a life sentence.  In 1902, Governor James B. Orman pardoned O'Kelly. 

 

In one way this version of the Jess James legend is the most accurate.  The fellow was a psychopathic killer and not a great hero for non-criminals to glorify.  In this film Jesse is someone to be very afraid of.  His very presence was a threat to the lives of the gang members on his last train robbery in Blue Cut, Missouri.  Jesse kills Ed Miller with no real proof that the man might have been plotting to kill him.  And if he found out that Bob Ford killed Jesse's cousin Wood Hite, Jesse certainly would have killed Bob, and, probably, Charley Ford.  Bob and Charley came to believe that Jesse was out to kill all the members of the gang who did the Blue Cut job.  The actual day of the killing is portrayed as the result of the great fear of what Jesse might do after reading a newspaper article about the arrest and confession of gang member Dick Liddil.  Bob, after all, had ratted on Dick. 

It bugs me a little that they call Bob a coward.  He was certainly braver than his brother Charley.  And the film itself says that Bob almost acted out of self-defense.  Sure he wanted the reward too, but that's no crime.  And he wanted to be famous and that's not a crime.  One can only really feel sympathy for Jesse, if one doesn't know the truth about the man and mistakenly believes that he was another Robin Hood.  It's just so strange that people can prefer the lie to the truth and make a psychopath into a hero.  So I am happy this film was made. 

Oh, the other beef I have is about the film saying that Bob Ford became totally forgotten by the public.  Then why does Bob get a whole film devoted to his act, if he was so forgettable?  No, the name of Robert Ford will always be associated with the story of Jesse James and certainly no real historian would forget that or even want to forget it. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

 

 

 

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