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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) -vs- The Long Riders (1980)

Jay AmicarellaThe Smackdown

“Kill all the lawyers!”  That’s one of the first lines from the classic 1939 version of “Jesse James,” starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as the title character, and his brother, Frank.

The saga of the real-life James Boys, their friends, the Youngers, Millers, and (hiss) the Fords has been a Hollywood staple for almost a century, and for every film, there has been a different interpretation of the legendary Missouri outlaw.  Jesse has been depicted in wildly differing films as outgoing, stoic, easygoing, stern, voluble, and taciturn.  “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” dares to suggest that the man that newspapers of the day compared to Robin Hood was no more than a vicious thug, who may have been going mad from the stresses of being hunted 24/7.

In 1980, “The Long Riders” put forth the idea that Jesse James was at his core, a devoted family man, and his robbing of trains, coaches, and banks was just a bad habit, like smoking.  Since — to today’s average movie-goer — the James gang may as well have ridden over two millennia ago, it doesn’t really matter what he was actually like.  Historical accuracy is, at this stage, unimportant, because, ultimately, he was no more than a curiosity in an era where the local media didn’t have enough news to write about.  The question for us is which film does its best to entertain, and advance the beloved genre of The Western.

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The Challenger

Film buffs refer to classic films, sometimes, by their initials, so “Gone With the Wind” becomes “GWTW.”  So what the hell am I supposed to do with this? TAOJJBTCRF?  It’s way too long, and, at two hours, forty minutes, so is this film.  From the title, I guess I was expecting a rollicking action yarn, both poking fun and reveling in the genre; not a somber, deliberate to the point of inert, character study.  “Coward Robert Ford” is not interested in entertaining us, and also takes pains to show it is not to be categorized as ‘Western.’  It does attempt to examine two men, Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), their motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and their uncomfortable similarities in temper and vanity.  The story begins during the waning days of Jesse James’ life.  The colorful Youngers and the rest of Jesse’s merry band are either dead, or in jail, and he is left with the Miller and Ford boys, and some others, the dregs of Missouri lawbreakers.  Frank James (Sam Shephard) warns Jesse that Robert Ford is not to be trusted, but, like many egocentrics before and after him, Jesse needs a sycophant, and young, weasely Bob Ford fills the bill. Plus, there is a homoerotic subtext driving the two men’s fatal attraction. And, of course, Jesse pays the ultimate price for his weakness, and lack of judgment.  Clearly we’re not in John Wayne territory, here, and that’s fine, but why the pacing of a crawl?  Scenes that should have taken no more than a minute are drawn out forever, with endless close-ups of the actors’ slow, mute reactions to somebody else’s fraught-with-meaning lines.  And there is a needless narration, drawn from the text of the book on which the movie is based, that sounds like a Ken Burns’ documentary series.  You know, those ten-hour tributes to Baseball or the Civil War?  “Coward Robert Ford” feels longer.

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The Defending Champion

“The Long Riders” is a family affair in both story and production.  The brothers of the James, Younger and Miller families are portrayed by real-life siblings, making the proceedings much more authentic, and involving, than they might have been, otherwise.  James and Stacy Keach play Jesse and Frank James; Randy and Dennis Quaid are Clell and Ed Miller, and most of the Carridine Clan (Dad John portrayed Bob Ford in the ’39 version) is on hand as the Youngers.  And the family connections don’t stop there.  Nicholas and Christopher Guest have the thankless task of embodying Bob and Charlie Ford; legendary Harry Carry’s son, Harry, jr, is in the cast as a tribute to The Hollywood Western, and James Whitmore, jr, son of the great character actor, portrays the head of the Pinkertons assigned to bring the outlaws to justice.  The writing credits also reflect the clannish nature of the film; both Keaches and Director Walter Hill contributed to Bill Bryden’s and Steven Smith’s script.  Making a movie in this fashion could have been a disaster, (nothing like too many writers to spoil the script, for one) but the result is one of the best Westerns to come out, ever.  “The Long Riders” both pays tribute to The Western, with exciting action set pieces, and advances it, by replacing the familiar iconic, lone hero with a close-knit community that is like one, big family.  It also is raised to another level by guitarist Ry Cooder’s excellent, period-evocative score (I guess he doesn’t have a brother).  But, in the end, it is director Walter Hill’s decision to assign equal importance to all of the involved families, and all of their members, instead of just focusing on Jesse and Frank, that looks like genius.  Though similar because of bloodlines, each character is etched separately, with unique personalities and ambitions.

The Scorecard

There’s a segment of the population still mad at “What Brad did to Jen.”  Me, I could care less about star’s private lives, as long as I don’t have to hear about them, and make judgments.  I want my actors to be like characters in a novel.  They should appear when I open a book, and disappear when I close it.  I’m mad at Brad Pitt because he, as producer, allowed two of my favorite actors, the delicious Mary Louise-Parker, and the wry Sam Shephard, to languish in “Coward Robert Ford” with barely a scene or a line.  What a waste.  The makers must have also thought a music score would have distracted from the supposedly enthralling duel of wits between Jesse and Bob Ford, so there is almost none, until one suddenly swells from the speakers near the end, waking up a few patrons who’d dropped off an hour before.  Granted, Pitt and costar Affleck are very adept at fleshing out who may have been the ‘real’  Jesse and Bob, and Sam Rockwell is always a treat to watch, as Charlie Ford, but the movie is pretentious and ‘arty,’ and glacial in its movement.  ‘The Long Riders,” as different from “Coward Robert Ford” as a movie can be, was writer/director Walter Hill at the height of his creative powers.  He’d already mightily impressed me with 1975’s “Hard Times,” where he invented the “Guy Movie” subgenre, and followed it with the now-classic 1979 “The Warriors,” ‘The Driver,” and many others. His recent triumphs, cables’ “Deadwood” series, and 2006’s made-for-cable movie “Broken Trail,” all attest to a career that allows Hill to be called one of our best writer/directors.

The Decision

Okay, there are worse movies than “Coward Robert Ford” out there. Even worse Jesse James movies.  Director William “One-shot” Beaudine’s “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter,” for example, fails to engross. And that Andy Warhol movie that spends seven hours looking at one shot of the Empire State Building moves slower.  For Brad Pitt, this is another “Meet Joe Black,” without all the charm.  “The Long Riders,”  thanks to a brilliant execution of a new idea, the familial slant on the Western, not only wins this edition of Smackdown!, but takes its place among the best of its genre.

5 Comments on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) -vs- The Long Riders (1980)

  1. Im Robert Ford and I shot that sucker right behind the ear and
    he went down like a bitch.

    I was told to kill him and had no choice cause I had the feeling
    he was gonna do the same thing to me and to my older brother

    So am I coward for getting rid of a very dangerous outlaw that
    killed innocent victims just for a few dollars?

    Uh no I dont think so.

    Besides what is the big deal anyways huh jeez it was the old
    west people shot each other all the time so get the hell over it

    Or I’ll shoot you in the back while you stand up on a chair and
    dust a picture that’s not even dusty!

  2. I’ve come up with a group of films I’m calling “Cliff Notes Movies.” For example, “The Godfather” is fine for those who know nothing about the underworld, “For Love of the Game” is fine for those who know nothing about Major League Baseball, “Any Given Sunday” is fine if you know squat about pro football, and “Coward Robert Ford” is fine if you know nothing about entertainment…I’m kidding (mostly), but I’ve also had it with movies with no soul, and not a single likable or relatable character. “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Coward Robert Ford” almost made me give up on seeing new movies. Say what you will about “Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s the reason I’m back in the theaters.

  3. Sherry… You’ve expressed what I was thinking but was too tired to figure out how to express myself when I wrote that. Now I know why I like it so much! Bryce

  4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was my very favorite film of 2007. I thought it was a really interesting meditation on fame more than the usual Hollywood glorification/vilification of the outlaw. Clearly, it’s not a film for everyone, but I’m a huge and diehard fan. I found its pacing elegiac and engrossing, its cinematography and locations absolutely beautiful, the supporting cast brilliant, every screen death (and there are many indeed) deeply affecting. The screenplay was poetic, the dialogue fresh. Sadly, watching it on the small screen is nowhere near the experience of seeing it as it was meant to be seen.

  5. Like both of these films. I really liked what I saw as the deliberate pace of THE ASSASSINATION… I thought it was moody and I liked seeing the period and the characters. It felt authentic to me. I’d see either one of them again… and, hey, having read this again, maybe I will!

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