Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882) was an American outlaw in the state of Missouri and the most famous member of the James-Younger Gang. Already a grand celebrity when he was alive, he became a legendary figure of the Wild West after his death. Recent scholars place him in the context of regional insurgencies of ex-Confederates following the American Civil War rather than a manifestation of frontier lawlessness or economic justice.
The James brothers, Frank and Jesse, were Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War, during which they were accused of participating in atrocities committed against Union soldiers. After the war, as members of one or another gang, they perpetrated many bank robberies which often resulted in the murder of bank employees or bystanders. They also waylaid stagecoaches and trains.
Although James has often been mythically portrayed, even prior to his death, as a kind of Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, this is incorrect. His robberies enriched only him and his gang.
There have been numerous portrayals of Jesse James in film and television, including two wherein Jesse James, Jr. depicts his father. In many of the films, James is portrayed as a Robin Hood-like character.
1921: Jesse James Under the Black Flag, played by Jesse James, Jr.
1921: Jesse James as the Outlaw, played by Jesse James, Jr.
1927: Jesse James, played by Fred Thomson
1939: Jesse James, played by Tyrone Power with Henry Fonda as Frank James and John Carradine as Bob Ford
1939: Days of Jesse James, played by Don ‘Red’ Barry
1941: Jesse James at Bay, played by Roy Rogers
1947: Jesse James Rides Again, played by Clayton Moore
1949: I Shot Jesse James, played by Reed Hadley
1950: Kansas Raiders, played by Audie Murphy
1951: The Great Missouri Raid, played by Macdonald Carey
1957: True Story of Jesse James, played by Robert Wagner
1959: Alias Jesse James, played by Wendell Corey in a comedy starring Bob Hope
1960: Young Jesse James, played by Ray Stricklyn
1965: The Legend of Jesse James, TV series starred by Allen Case
1966: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, played by John Lupton
1969: A Time for Dying, played by Audie Murphy
1972: The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, played by Robert Duvall
1980: The Long Riders, played by James Keach
1986: The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James, played by Kris Kristofferson with Johnny Cash as Frank James and Willie Nelson as Gen. Jo Shelby
1994: Frank and Jesse, played by Rob Lowe
1999: Purgatory, played by J.D. Souther
2001: American Outlaws, played by Colin Farrell
2005: Just like Jesse James is the title of a movie that appears in Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, in which Sam Shepard plays an aging western movie star whose first success was with that movie.
2005: Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist (Discovery HD), played by Daniel Lennox
2007: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, played by Brad Pitt, with Casey Affleck as Bob Ford
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007) Directed by Andrew Domink, starred Brad Pitt as Jesse, Sam Shepard as Frank James, Casey Afflect as Bob Ford, Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford, and Mary-Louise Parker as Zee James. This is an a grandly realized film of that last few months of Jesse’s life, focusing mostly on Robert Ford. Casey Affleck’s Oscar nomination was well deserved.
AMERICAN OUTLAWS (2001) Directed by Les Mayfield, starred Colin Farrell as Jesse, Gabriel Macht as Frank James, Scott Caan as Cole Younger, Ali Larter as Zee, Kathy Bates as Ma James, with Timothy Dalton, Ronny Cox, Terry O’Quinn, and Harris Yulin. Although this film romanticized the myth, Colin Farrell made a strong impression as Jesse, and the Civil War action was intense. This is an odd but enjoyable film.
PURGATORY (1999) TV movie Directed by Uli Edel, starring Sam Shepard as the Sheriff (Wild Bill Hickok), with J.D. Souther as Jesse James, with Randy Quaid, Eric Roberts, Peter Stormare, Donnie Wahlberg, R. G. Armstrong. This is an interesting kind of Twilight Zone metaphysical slant on things. An outlaw band flees a posse and rides into Refuge, a small town where no one carries a gun, drinks, or swears. The town is actually Purgatory, and the peaceful inhabitants are all famous dead outlaws and criminals such as Doc Holiday and Wild Bill Hickok who must redeem themselves before gaining admittance to Heaven…or screw up and go to Hell. The residents must either defend themselves against the outlaws and risk eternal damnation… or die a second time.
FRANK AND JESSE (1994) Directed by Robert Boris, starring Rob Lowe as Jesse James, Bill Paxton as Frank James, and Randy Travis as Cole Younger, with Luke Askew, Sean Patrick Flannery, and William Atherton. This is a rather pedestrian retelling of the saga, without too much depth, angst, or grit. Enjoyable but lightweight.
THE LAST DAYS OF FRANK AND JESSE JAMES (1986) TV movie Director William A. Graham, starring Kris Kristofferson as Jesse James, Johnny Cash as Frank James, Willie Nelson in a cameo, with June Carter Cash as Mother James. Four country music greats team up to make an expensive home movie is what we get here; nothing new–part of a series of mostly mundane poorly produced Westerns that country music stars cranked out, bankrolling them for fun.
THE LONG RIDERS (1980) Directed by Walter Hill, starring James Keach as Jesse James, Stacy Keach as Frank James, David Carradine as Cole Younger, Keith Carradine as Jim Younger, Robert Carradine as Bob Younger, Randy Quaid as Clell Miller, Dennis Quaid as Ed Miller, Christopher Guest as Charly Ford, and Nicholas Guest as Bob Ford. This is the action packed epic film of this genre, my personal favorite, with Ry Cooder’s incredible slide guitar score, and David Carradine nearly stealing the picture as Cole Younger. Four sets of real brothers playing four sets of historical brothers; not easily done again.
THE GREAT NORTHFIELD, MINNESOTA RAID ( 1972) Directed by Philip Kaufman, starring Robert Duvall as Jesse James, Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger, Robert Pearce as Frank James, Luke Askew as Cole Younger, R. G. Armstrong as Clell Miller, Matt Clark as Bob Younger, with Donald Moffet, Dana Elcar, Elisha Cook Jr., and Royal Dano. This was a very well done rendition of the legend, of the raid that nearly did the gang in. Cliff Robertson had most of the focus, and outshined Duvall in this one.
A TIME FOR DYING (1969) Directed by Budd Boetticher, starring Audie Murphy as Jesse James, Victor Jory as Judge Roy Bean, with Emile Meyer, This was a bit of a “B” programer, but watchable; Audie Murphy’s final film, and Boetticher’s final western.
JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER (1966) Directed by William Beaudine, starring John Lupton as Jesse James, with Jim Davis at Marshall McPhee. Legendary outlaw of the Old West Jesse James, on the run from Marshal MacPhee, hides out in the castle of Baron Frankenstein’s granddaughter Maria, who proceeds to transform Jesse’s slow-witted pal Hank into a bald zombie, which she names Igor. This one is so bad is it beyond camp, into the ilk of Ed Wood.
ALIAS JESSE JAMES (1959) Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, zany western spoof with Bob Hope, Rhonda Fleming, with Wendall Corey as Jesse James, Jim Davis as Frank James, with Glenn Strange, Mike Mazurki, with cameos by James Arness, Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Ward Bond, Bing Crosby, Scatman Crothers, Gail Davis, Hugh O’Brian, Fess Parker, and Jay Silverheels.
TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES (1957) Directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Robert Wagner as Jesse James, Jeffrey Hunter as Frank James, Hope Lange as Zee, Agnes Moorehead as Ma James, Alan Hale Jr.as Cole Younger, with Frank Gorshin as Charley Ford, and Carl Thayler as Bob Ford. A minor film in the Ray canon, still very watchable. It covered from the Civil War to the assassination of Jesse.
JESSE JAMES’ WOMEN (1954) Directed/written by Don “Red” Barry, starring Don “Red” Barry as Jesse James, Jack Buetel as Frank James, Michael Carr as Bob Ford, and Sam Keller as Cole Younger. This clunker is a stab at a soap oater with some sex appeal.
THE GREAT MISSOURI RAID (1951) Directed by Gordon Douglas, starring Macdonald Carey as Jesse James, Wendall Corey as Frank James, Ellen Drew as Zee, Anne Revere as Mother James, Bruce Bennett as Cole Younger, Bill Williams as Jim Younger, with Ward Bond. This is a well made “B” film, worth the watch.
KANSAS RAIDERS (1950) Directed by Ray Enright, starring Audie Murphy as Jesse James, Richard Long as Frank James, James Best as Cole Younger, Dewey Martin as Jim Younger, with Brian Donlvey, Marguerite Chapman, Scott Brady, Tony Curtis, Richard Egan, and Richard Arlen. Another fine programer, with the fiery Murphy as Jesse, if you can find a copy to view.
I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949) Directed by the great Samuel Fuller, starring Reed Hadley as Jesse James, John Ireland as Bob Ford, Tom Tyler as Frank James, with Preston Foster, and Barbara Britton. Film focuses on Bob Ford, and his plight after he shot Jesse.
JESSE JAMES RIDES AGAIN (1947) Director(s) Fred C. Brannon & Thomas Carr, starring Clayton Moore (pre-LONE RANGER), with Roy Barcroft. This is a 180 minute, 13 episode serial.
JESSE JAMES AT BAY (1941) Directed by Joseph Kane, starring Roy Rogers as both Jesse James & Clint Burns, with George “Gabby” Hayes, Gail Storm, and Roy Barcroft. This one has Jesse fighting a no-good look alike feller who was soiling Jesse’s rep.
DAYS OF JESSE JAMES (1939) Directed by Joseph Kane, with Don “Red” Barry as Jesse James, and Glenn Strange as Cole Younger, starring Roy Rogers, and George “Gabby” Hayes. Roy has to solve a bank robbery; and it wasn’t Jesse done it.
JESSE JAMES (1939) Directed by Henry King, starring Tyrone Power as Jesse James, Henry Fonda as Frank James, John Carradine as Bob Ford, Jane Darwell as Mother James, Nancy Kelly as Zee, with Randolph Scott, Henry Hull, and Brian Donlevy. This is still considered the best film about the James Gang.
There are no real records left of the two silent films that Jesse James Jr. appeared in. There is a little bit on IMDb on JESSE JAMES (1927) Directed by Lloyd Ingraham, starring Fred Thomson as Jesse James, James Pierce as Frank James, Harry Woody as Bob Ford, and Nora Lane as Zee.