The Sort of True Story of Jesse James
Now there are two things worth knowing, first up is that "The True Story of Jesse James" is in fact a remake and secondly how much true story there is is debatable as whilst we have pivotal events the drama of them, well I would say it's fictionalized. Anyway with those two points out of the way with what you have left is a rather ham fisted western biopic which feels like it's been directed by committee and lacks life. Oh it's interesting to learn a bit about Jesse James but beyond that and "The True Story of Jesse James" is just a functional and flawed western which whilst directed by Nicholas Ray doesn't feel like one of his movies.
After the planned bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota goes disastrously wrong with many of their gang dead, Jesse (Robert Wagner - Broken Lance) and Frank (Jeffrey Hunter - The Searchers) find themselves holed up in the Mountains trying to work out where it went wrong and wondering if they will make it back in time for their Ma's birthday. What follows is a series of flashbacks as those close to Jesse from his mother to his wife Zee (Hope Lange - Wild in the Country) reminisce about how he ended up becoming a notorious outlaw, hated by some whilst seen as hero by others. All of which leads us back to the Northfield robbery and Frank questioning Jesse's motives.
So as already mentioned "The True Story of Jesse James" is basically a biopic of Jesse James and picks up his story shortly after the failed Northfield robbery. We watch as Jesse and his brother Frank are pinned down in the mountains trying to work out whose fault it is that the robbery went wrong and many of the James gang being killed. All of this leads to a series of flashbacks from various people who aim to explain why Jesse became such a notorious outlaw with his Ma and his wife both reminiscing, even a man of a cloth reminisces. And the reminiscing extends to both Frank and James as it all builds up to the Northfield robbery as Frank blames Jesse for what has happened accusing him of robbing for the notoriety rather than for a decent purpose.
Part of this set up isn't bad and whilst not the most detailed look at someone's life the events shown are enough to suggest why Jesse became an Outlaw who couldn't trust anyone. But the trouble is that all these flashbacks, these snippets of Jesse going to war or robbing his first bank are all very flat. There is little excitement to them despite each one having action and it all feels very false, constructed drama rather than being natural. It doesn't help that the blurry pink clouds which signal a flashback are so ham fisted they become laughable. But it ends up feeling like "The True Story of Jesse James" has been directed by a committee who had differing ideas over what they wanted to see and it most certainly doesn't feel like a Nicholas Ray movie.
"The True Story of Jesse James" is not helped by some poor casting as neither Robert Wagner nor Jeffrey Hunter manage to deliver believable characters as Jesse and Frank. Whilst Robert Wagner may have the matinee idol looks to play Jesse as a hero, a Robin Hood type character as he is often referred to, his chemistry with those around him is missing. You watch as Wagner delivers his lines but there is no feeling, no emotion behind them and so when you expect Jesse to burst into a rage it's all very flat. And the same can be said of Jeffrey Hunter because he does the same thing, delivers his lines but never breathes life into his character. To be honest with the exception of Alan Hale Jr. who plays Cole Younger the rest of the cast are just as much to blame. It makes it a very stilted movie as if the actors are just going through the motions without any feeling for what they are doing.
What this all boils down to is that to be honest "The True Story of Jesse James" is a disappointing movie which whilst it attempts to paint a picture as to why Jesse James became a notorious outlaw ends up very lifeless. It doesn't help that it all feels very stilted and directed by committee and whilst Robert Wagner may have the looks of a matinee idol his delivery as Jesse James is surprisingly dull.