“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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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.
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.
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.