Kansas Raiders (1950)



Director:     Ray Enright. 

Starring:     Audie Murphy (Jesse James),  Brian Donlevy (William Clarke Quantrill),  Marguerite Chapman (Kate Clarke),  Scott Brady (Bill Anderson),  Tony Curtis (Kit Dalton),  Richard Arlen (Union captain),  Richard Long (Frank James),  James Best (Cole Younger),  John Kellogg (Red Leg leader),  Dewey Martin (James Younger),  George Chandler (Willie),  Charles Delaney (Pell),  Richard Egan (First lieutenant),  David Wolfe (Rudolph Tate).

A lot of desperadoes came out of Missouri, like the James brothers.  There was a reason for this -- the great brutality of the fighting there during the Civil War.  There was considerable debate about whether or not Quantrill was a soldier or just an outlaw, but he did only hit targets associated with the Northern cause.  But, regardless of his motivations, Quantrill was a very bloody and brutal operator. The movie deals with a planned attack on a Kansas arsenal.


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

Four years of the American Civil War, 1861-1865.  In addition to the armies of the North and South, there was also an outlaw army of guerrillas "masquerading under the flags of both sides."  They would pillage, burn and kill for private gains.  The most terrible of these groups were the men with William Clarke Quantrill. 

A group of five men (including Frank and Jesse James) discuss whether they are going to ride through Lawrence, Kansas or bypass it.  They are a bit concerned about the Union troops there and the redlegs (that is, a group of men who refused to join units officially sanctioned by the U.S. Army).  After some discussion they decide to ride through the town.  In town the guys learn the latest news:  scores counted dead in the New York City draft riots; the fall of Vicksburg and the opening of the Mississippi River to Union forces; and Quantrill's guerillas strike the Kansas border with fire and sword. 

A large group of redlegs surrounds the fellows.  They accuse the men of riding with Quantrill and coming into to town to do some spying for him.  Jesse tells the men they don't know Quantrill.  Things get heated and the leader socks Jesse, who in turn socks the leader right back.  The redlegs grab the five men and take them to the leader of the local group.  With the James brothers are Jim and Cole Younger and Kip Dalton.  (All these men became famous bank and/or train robbers.)  The local leader says that the five men have a choice between joining the Union army or being hanged.  The US army arrives and intervenes.  The Captain forces the redlegs to release the men. The army officer warns the men not to join with Quantrill because "Quantrill and what's left of his guerrillas are as good as hung right now." 

At camp at night the guys discuss Quantrill.  Jim Younger says that Quantrill and his 50 men whipped a whole regiment at Gainesville.  The guys figure that it's o.k. to rob Yankee banks with Quantrill and get rich doing it.  The fellows hear some funny noises and while checking it out find a dead man hanging from a tree limb with a sign on his body:  "Death to traitors. Quantrill." 

The next morning the guys save a damsel in distress.  They ride after and stop two runaway horses pulling a young woman's buggy.  She thanks them but asks if they are headed to Quantrill's gang.  They indicate their interest and she says with disgust:  "More recruits for the butcher brigade."     

At Quantrill's headquarters, the men wait for Quantrill and his raiders to return.  The James gang is there already.  Six captured Union soldiers are marched over to a ranch house.  Quantrill comes out wearing a confederate uniform and a black hat.  The soldiers are accused of being spies.  They deny this saying that there were ambushed by Quantrill's men while on a scouting mission.  The men are condemned to be hung by Quantrill.  Jesse and the gang see the woman they saved at the ranch house. 

Quantrill turns his attention to the James boys and a captured rancher.  The rancher says Quantrill's raiders murdered his wife and children and only then did he fire on them.  He says his "soldiers" are nothing but "cowardly, thieving killers!"  The rancher makes a break for it and is shot in the back.  The five newcomers says they want to join up and Quantrill welcomes them.  He introduces them to his second in command, Anderson (soon to be known as "Bloody Bill" Anderson).  His third in command is Rudolph Tate. 

Tate is given the job of showing the fellows around, but he soon gets into a fight with the guys.  Jesse says he will fight the man and asks for two knives.  Jesse wins the fight and then he knifes Tate in the belly, killing him.  The woman comes over to tell Jesse that Tate wasn't going to kill him.  Quantrill told him to pick a fight to test their mettle.  Jesse says he doesn't believe it.  She advises the fellows to go on back home.  (It turns out that Rudolph Tate was a spy for the Union army and the captain is waiting to hear from him about the missing patrol and the whereabouts of Quantrill's headquarters.) 

The fellows are sworn in.  Quantrill then brings Jesse into the ranch house to meet Kate.  He tells the young man that the Union has the Confederacy surrounded from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean.  He adds that the war will be won out in the west for Lee eventually will have to break out into the west and gather his forces for the great counter-attack that will drive the Union army into the sea.  Kate gets mad at Quantrill for getting himself and Jesse drunk.  She asks him what is he trying to do to "that boy"?  Quantrill says the boy is a born leader and may someday share power with him.  Kate is very bold and tells Quantrill that everyday he becomes more of a blood-thirsty murderer. 

The Union Captain sends a messenger to the Union Colonel to ask for reinforcements for Lawrence. 

Quantrill is taking his men on a raid.  He announces that Jesse will replace the late Mr. Tate.  Anderson tells Quantrill that the men ain't gonna like it.  Quantrill dismisses that concern.  He sends Jesse into the ranch house to get some breakfast from Kate.  She tries to talk to him again, but he only wants to do some killing of the people that "deserve" to be killed.  

Quantrill is raiding a farmhouse where there are supposed to be a bunch of Union soldiers quartered.  The attack begins.  The men soon surround the "soldiers" and kill most of them.  They then loot the house and barn.  Jesse asks where are the Union soldiers Quantrill told them about and a fellow tells him to grow up.  Quantrill always tells them the same thing each time before a raid to make himself feel like a real colonel.  There are no Union soldiers.  There is, however, a large group of captured ranch hands. They are lined up and then shot to death by the men.  Jesse is shocked by the brutality of it all. 

Jesse sees two raiders kill an unarmed man.  He tells the shooter that he is going to kill him.  Jesse tells him to draw and he does so.  Jesse is quicker and kills the man.  His partner also draws his weapon, but Quantrill shoots him dead.  He tells Jesse:  "Fortunes of war, Mr. James."   

The First Lieutenant is in the area with some men and he hears the bugle call used by Quantrill for assembly.  He heads for the ranch as Quantrill's men leave. 

Back at headquarters Jesse's gang is worried about him.  Ever since they came back from that last raid he has hardly spoken to them.  Kate comes over to talk to Jesse.  She asks him how he liked Quantrill's brand of warfare and he indicates that it's not warfare at all.  Kate says maybe Jesse is different from the others.  Jesse says he ain't riding with Quantrill no more.  Kate tells Jesse that now's a good time to tell that to Quantrill.  Jesse does so and Anderson tries to kill him for it, but Quantrill stops him.  Quantrill just tells Jesse that he better stay behind on this raid. 

Jesse talks with Kate some more.  She tells him that she once believed everything Quantrill told her, but then she saw what he was doing first-hand. Kate tells Jesse to get out of here and take her with him because it's the only way she can get away from Quantrill.  Jesse is hesitant.  Kate and Jesse kiss. 

Quantrill and his men return from another raid.  He returns to the ranch house and tells Jesse to leave.  He has something to say to Kate who is now wearing a necklace that Jesse gave her.  She asks him to let Jesse go.  Quantrill tells her to stay away from Jesse.  He goes out and talks with Jesse.  Quantrill gives him a sob story about his not actually wanting to lead this rabble.  And, he says, he doesn't condone the men's brutality.  But Lee needs him, and through him, Lee needs Jesse.  Jesse says he will stay with Quantrill as long as what happened on the previous raid doesn't happen again.  Quantrill agrees with Jesse's demand and they shake hands.

Quantrill tells Jesse the next raid will be a major one and of the utmost importance.  They will raid the town of Lawrence, Kansas.  Kate was listening to their conversation and now she comes out to scold Jesse.  The naive Jesse says that Quantrill has given him his word of honor. 

The attack on Lawrence begins.  Jesse is given the assignment of robbing the bank.  There is a lot of shooting and killing before Jesse and his gang go into the bank.  As the gang leaves the bank after getting the money, they see a woman crying over a man.  She looks up and sees Jesse and his gang and screams:  "Murderers!  Murderers!"  Quantrill's men are doing the same thing they always do.  Anderson comes up to Jesse with the Captain as his prisoner.  Jesse tells him he will take his prisoner.  Anderson says no and starts to pull his pistol, but Jesse is too fast for him and shoots him down.  Jesse releases the Captain. 

Jesse now goes over to the hotel to speak with Quantrill.  He is busy taking the money off the people assembled there.  Jesse walks up to him to say that his men are killing unarmed civilians.  Quantrill tells him to speak to Anderson.  Jesse tells Quantrill that Anderson is dead and that he killed him.  Their talk is interrupted by the announcement that a large unit of cavalry is headed their way.  Before leaving the town, the raiders burn it. 

Back at the ranch, Jesse tells his gang that he's leaving.  The gang sets to work on him telling him that this is the good life.  Jesse tells them he will stay on a while longer. 

Quantrill continues his killing, looting and pillaging, but the US army slowly cuts down the size of his band.  The guerilla Colonel decides to fight the cavalry to the last man, but his men won't stay with him and die.  One of the men says that the whole state of Kansas is now after them and after Lee turned against Quantrill they figure it's time to quit.  Quantrill thinks about it for a moment and then tells them to get out.  All but the James gang leaves him. 

When the gang reaches the ranch hide-out they find it badly damaged.  Kate is still there.  A small group of cavalry descend on the men.  There's a short but lively shoot-out.  Quantrill is hit in the eyes with fragments knocked off a tree by a Yankee bullet.  He is bleeding and can't see.  Cole gets Kate and they leave.  Kate nurses Quantrill.  He feels better, but he still can't see.  Quantrill turns over command to Jesse. 

The gang rides around and around but keep running into Union forces.  They stop at a badly burned ranch house to rest.  It was the house that Jesse helped burn on his first raid with Quantrill.  There they see a poster announcing a $10,000 dollar reward for the capture of Quantrill or any member of his gang dead or alive.   Kate tells Jesse that he has to leave or he and his friend's fates will be the same as Quantrill's.  Jesse tells Kate that he wants her.  Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the cavalry.  The gang retreats into the cabin.  The Captain knocks on the door and Jesse answers.  The Captain recognizes Jesse and tells him that the cabin is surrounded.  He will give them until sunup to decide what to do.  If they don't give up the Colonel, they will be coming in after him. 

 The gang speaks to Jesse about turning in Quantrill and collecting the reward money.  Jesses just says no.  He is going to wait and then they are going to sneak out the back and come around to the horses and make their escape.  Jesse lets one out after another using the back door.  Jesse is the last one in the house.  He is going to stay.  Quantrill tells him to leave.  He then orders him to leave.  Jesse refuses to go without him.  So Quantrill agrees to leave.  Jesse starts to leave and Quantrill pushes him out the door and locks Jesse out.  He then goes to the front door and walks out into the open.  He draws his pistols and starts firing.  He is shot down by the soldiers. 

Kit decides to go back to his brothers, but the Youngers will stay with the James boys.  Kate will not go with Jesse.  Jesse gives her a good kiss before she leaves. 

"And so into the pages of crime history rode five young men, Kit Dalton, Cole and Jim Younger, Frank and Jesse James.  Five whose warped lives were to be a heritage from their teacher, William Clarke Quantrill. 


Pretty good movie, even though a lot of license was taken with the true history.  "Bloody Bill" did not die in Lawrence, Kansas at the hands of Jesse James nor did Quantrill die after hiding out with Jesse and his boys.  But, on the other hand, I was just grateful that they didn't try to make Quantrill into a war hero.   There are still racists in this country who believe Quantrill was a Confederate hero and are still trying to convince us that the South's cause was a just one.  The film flatly calls the war criminal just a man profiting off of killing and looting for his own private gain, but wrapping himself in the Confederate cause to justify his crimes against humanity.  One bad thing was that the film perpetuates the belief in the psychopath Jesse James as a kind of Robin Hood figure.  He was a cold-blooded killer who never had any qualms about riding with Quantrill.  Was glad, however, that the film referred to the "warped lives" of Jesse and his gang.  Audie Murphy was good as Jesse James because he did convey the naiveté that the director and screen writers wanted.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


see "Quantrill's Raiders"


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