It’s interesting to speculate on what movies Andrew Dominik might have cast an eye over before embarking on his 160+ minute movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There have been more than a few that have ruminated over the Jesse James story. The title of the film suggests it might be trying to hew close to the known facts even though it’s based on a novel by Ron Hansen. But there’s not a lot of background. James career as a member of Quantrill’s Raiders is not featured prominently though his continuing aggravation at the outcome of the Civil War and the losses suffered by his family are plain. In an interesting piece in the New York Times which coincided with the US release of the new version Terence Rafferty mentions T J Stiles “excellent 2002 biography Jesse James:Last Rebel of the Civil War and it may be that you have to go the literature to find a complete portrait of an enigmatic figure whose reputation and legend is such that there are almost an infinite variety of representations. In Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid where the focus is actually on Cole Younger played as a jolly but cunning simpleton by Cliff Robertson, Jesse (Robert Duvall) is reduced to almost cameo staus and at one point acts so oddly for the suggestion to be made by one of the gang that he might be gay.
The background has indeed been portrayed very fancifully over time. In Henry King’s Jesse James, the lead is played by a fresh-faced Tyrone Power whose life of crime is provoked after his mother is ripped off her land by the advancing railroad. In that film most of Jesse’s criminal activity focuses on him taking revenge on the railroad company itself. Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James starts with the bungled bank robbery in Northfield Minnesota and presents a series of flashback recollections by third parties before the fateful moment when Jesse has his back to Ford while he adjusts an off-kilter picture on the wall. In a couple of instances the ‘picture’ is in fact one of those embroidered mottos. In Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James the picture is a portrait of some unknown person. In that film, and in Dominik’s, we are also given the information that Ford made a living for awhile by recreating the assassination on the stage and presenting it over and over again before wide-eyed audiences.
My friend Bruce Hodsdon remarked to me after seeing Dominik’s film that he thought the Fuller offers more ideas and, for its time, stylistic revision of classic Hollywood narrative (right from the start Fuller was creating his own genre) than Dominik does in these post-Malick times. Dominik’s film takes twice the viewing time and somewhere between 50 -100 times the budget (in real terms). To Bruce it seemed that Dominik is seeking to elevate ambiguity into an Art form which certainly has its limits and the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Bruce found the new film a trip not without interest though and thought it may be a suitable requiem for the James legend in the cinema.
It’s doubtful if this is the last word. There is probably already another film-maker out there who has just put his own script in a bottom drawer but may impatiently wait a decade or so before the story is successfully pitched to another money man. Some of those pitches in the past have been most imaginative. Perhaps the most conceited was Walter Hill’s version of the story The Long Riders which had various sets of acting brothers, Keachs, Carradines, Quaids and Guests playing the James, Youngers Millers and Fords who formed the gang that had that ill-fated crack at the Northfield Minnesota bank. The Carradines in fact have a long history with the James legend. John Carradine played Robert Ford in the Henry King version and re-appeared again in the Nicholas Ray film. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then you have to think that Philip Kaufman studied the Nicholas Ray version very hard indeed. The staging of the robbery in Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is eerily familiar to the way it’s handled in the Ray film.
One element that runs through the Fuller film, the Ray film and the Dominik film is the use of the traditional ballad. I have remembered since my first viewing of the Ray film the lines about the “dirty little coward who shot Mr Howard”. In Fuller's film the song is sing by a bar-room balladeer to Ford hilself and in Dominik's film Nick Cave has a similar duty and sings the whole song before a drunken Ford interrupts the proceedings in a New York tavern. I saw the Ray film again just recently on the American DVD and until then I was unaware that the famous scene in which Jesse and Frank ride their horses off a cliff top into a river to escape the chasing posse lifted the footage of that moment that was shot for the Henry King version way back in 1939.
But back to the present and Dominik’s film. After making a legend of Chopper Read in what was the best Australian film of its year, it’s taken him another seven years to get a second movie going. I presume it was his choice to attempt to deconstruct both the James and Ford legends. I must confess that young directors who wait out these sorts of periods don’t always do themselves a favour when they could be honing their craft if not their art on stuff that is less ambitious and less expensive. But I have no idea how Dominik has been spending his time and so shouldn’t be too prescriptive. As it is, he’s decided to pack a lot in to the 160 minutes he’s taken to tell the story. Part of that length may be related to the fact that commerce requires him to give as much attention to Brad Pitt as Jesse as it does to the far more interesting story of Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Thus after the assassination we then get a lengthy time devoted to Ford’s activities, his love life and how he did or didn’t cope with his celebrity and notoriety. The story is brilliantly told segment by segment. Each has some wonderful staging especially the scenes of Ford doing his theatre performances. Maybe however you just want to find a key to why Jesse was as he was rather than another incomplete and thus unsatisfactory interpretation of his short life.