"Jesse James," 1939, "The Return of Frank James," 1940, "Badman's Territory," 1946, "Best of the Badmen," 1951, "The True Story of Jesse James," 1957, "The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid," 1972, and the best of the lot, "The Long Riders," 1980. The common thread is obvious: Frank and Jesse James make great screen personalities. Ever since dime novels and silent movies, writers have mythologized the rogues of the Old West, and none were more roguish than the James boys and their pals, the Youngers.
What makes "Frank and Jesse" special is not that it's any better or any more historically accurate than the other films about the James gang, but that it's so amiable. It makes us like the brothers not as heroes or legends but as simple people, common folk, in spite of their violent ways.
If you think you've seen it all before, you have. "Frank and Jesse" recounts the exploits of the celebrated outlaws from just after the Civil War to Jesse's death in 1882. Rob Lowe plays Jesse, Bill Paxton plays Frank, and country star Randy Travis plays Cole Younger. Relentlessly pursuing them is William Atherton as Allan Pinkerton, head of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, hired by the railroad to bring the James gang in, dead or alive.
As you might expect, the story sympathizes with the robbers and demonizes Pinkerton. The high points of the film include the brothers' personal and family lives; their relationships with the people of Missouri, who helped them for years to escape the law; and, of course, their daring holdups, right up to the disastrous shoot-out in Northfield, Minnesota.
The film stays pretty close to fact most of the time, hypothesizing occasionally to fill in the gaps, and passing on some folklore along the way. The film ends just after Bob Ford shoots Jesse in the back while Jesse is straightening a picture on the wall of his house. But as he does with many things in the film, screenwriter and director Robert Boris gives the famous scene a new twist. Let me just say that the circumstances surrounding Bob's killing of Jesse are fictionalized in an unusual, yet wholly reasonable, way.
Travis adds a few musical notes here and there and combined with a semisweet musical track they provide good background continuity to the story. The music isn't in the same league as Ry Cooder's work on "The Long Riders," but it's worth listening to for its own sake. The acting is uniformly excellent, even though the film cannot boast a strong screen presence like Henry Fonda or Tyronne Power in the lead roles. However, Lowe makes a credible if somewhat rancorous Jesse, Paxton is his usual whiny but likable self, and Atherton is a supremely confident and ruthless upholder of justice.
The photography, mostly shot on location, contributes to the film's sense of reality, and the people and places look appropriately gritty for the post Civil War era.
The film looks attractive in its theatrical widescreen ratio, 1.85:1, its largely outdoor scenery showing up well in what appears to be a near-perfect DVD transfer. It is certainly a far cry from my first watching of the film on cable TV.
The two-channel stereo sound is nothing to brag about, somewhat bland actually, and except for some intermittent gunplay doesn't give the back speakers much to do. Like most things in the film, the sound does its job with a minimum of fuss.
Trimark include a couple of subtitle choices, a little cast and crew information, scene access, and trailer. Since there isn't much in the way of bonus materials to make the disc stand out in a crowd, the film itself will have to do.
"Frank and Jesse" is a low-key picture whose principal characters grow on you over the course of time. Part history, part legend, the film does a faithful job capturing the spirit of America's most famous Western outlaws. The James gang were loved by the people of their day and hated by lawmen, bankers, and railroad presidents. The gang will no doubt continue to capture the imagination of future generations, whether or not such desperadoes deserve the honor.
I suspect most people will not have heard of this film, but I've seen it twice now and enjoyed it both times. It's not especially innovative, just likable.