The exploits of Frank and Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang have been a celebrated story in American history since they first began, and continue to be so to this day. Robert Boris’s 1995 film, Frank and Jesse is neither the first nor the last film concerning the outlaws; not by a long shot in either direction. In fact, it seems that there is usually at least one a decade, sometimes three or four. So any film attempting to depict the James brothers needs to find some way to distinguish itself.
Frank and Jesse takes some liberties with the history for the sake of telling a good story. It starts with the Jameses being rounded up along with other Confederate soldiers and being forced to take an oath of loyalty to the Union, swearing never again to take up arms against the United States. It doesn’t stick.
It is somewhat disingenuous to require someone to affirm that they make an oath without personal reservations while holding them at gunpoint.
Soon after, their family farm is attacked by a man working for the railroad. Jesse (Rob Lowe) tracks him down and kills him, and soon he and Frank (Bill Paxton) are on the run, assembling a gang from associates they knew from the Civil War: Cole Younger (Randy Travis) and his brother Bob (Todd Field); Clell Miller (John Pyper-Ferguson); Charlie Ford (Alexis Arquette); and Arch Clements (Nicholas Sadler). While all of these people were members of the gang at one time or other, it wasn’t the same line-up all the way through as depicted in the film (in fact, Clements was never a part of the James-Younger Gang proper; it is believed the Jameses and Youngers were members of his gang early on). Nevertheless, this simplification of history helps to keep the narrative focused on a small group of characters, and allows writer-director Boris to tell the story he wishes to tell.
The focus of the film, as might be hinted at by the name, is less on the robberies themselves and more on the relationships between the gang members and their families. Jesse is a hothead, making the situations they’re in more dangerous with his rash actions. Frank keeps the gang in line with careful planning, and worries about his younger brother’s actions. Both struggle to be together with their families while living the lives of outlaws. Cole Younger occasionally jockeys for leadership of the gang, and the film spends some time on the constantly-varying levels of trust within the group. While the spotlight is always on the James brothers, all of the actors playing members of the gang turn in solid, natural performances; there’s little need for any conscious suspension of disbelief while watching these actors.
It’s always good to know the members of your gang. That way you know who not to turn your back on.
The film also devotes a lot of time to the media’s portrayal of the James-Younger Gang. Frank notes early on that if they keep on the good side of the common people, the people will protect them from the law, the railroad company, banks, and Pinkerton agents. So the outlaws are polite as they commit their robberies, and avoid taking money from “the working man”. Frank sends letters to the papers in Jesse’s name making him look like even more of a Robin Hood hero, and newspaper reporter Zack Murphy (Sean Patrick Flanery) spins his reports with no small amount of sympathy for the outlaws. All of this infuriates Allen Pinkerton, who is given a more hands-on role in this film than in the actual history, again for the sake of making a more dramatic story. Of course, the film isn’t any more flattering to him than the folklore or the in-movie newspaper reports, painting him as a despotic zealot more bent on salvaging his pride than on keeping any sense of justice. It helps that he’s played by William Atherton, who seems to have made a career out of playing unlikeable authority figures. Allen Pinkerton may not be as pitiful as Walter Peck from Ghostbusters or as ineffectual as Professor Hathaway from Real Genius, but he’s every bit as smug and considerably more chilling.
There are some flaws with the directing of the film, and most of it comes in the form of just how the story is told. Part of this is due to the same divergences from history that are used to help build the drama; Robert Ford, who was of no small importance to the legend of Jesse James, wasn’t a long-time player in the history anyway, but here his role is abbreviated even further, to one small scene. It winds up seeming abrupt and perfunctory, and an audience who doesn’t know the history may even feel a bit cheated at the deed being done by what is essentially a walk-on role. Additionally, the film’s focus is on the relationships of the characters, but despite trying to stress the importance of the family lives for the James brothers, we’re shown little of why they and their wives are together in the first place. They’re more symbolic than actual characters. But what bothered me the most was the narration… it was completely absent from most of the film, but in the last act the voice of Cole Younger starts narrating a few scenes. It’s contrary to what the audience has come to expect from the film at that point, and it took me out of the movie.
Still, these flaws aside, Frank and Jesse is still an entertaining film, and a decent dramatic portrayal of the James-Younger Gang. There are almost certainly better films on the topic, but I don’t think anybody who picks this up to watch it is going to feel disappointed after.