Monday, 17 May 2010
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
This is another ‘Read the book watch the movie challenge.
Jesse James is a well known historical figure. He spent his youth fighting in the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. During the war he fell in with a band of Guerrillas infamous for committing atrocities against captured Union soldiers. When the war ended Jesse turned to crime and along with his older brother, Frank, formed the James-Younger gang.
Both the book and movie begin at the end of the glory days of the gang. Many of its members have been killed or captured. It is at this time that Robert Ford and his brother Charley join the gang for what was to be their final train robbery. The Ford brothers, inexperienced criminals, are keen to throw in their lot with the gang and prove themselves as capable, dangerous men. Robert (known as Bob) idolises Jesse and is particularly anxious to prove his worth to the famous bandit who was a hero in Bob’s eyes.
Bob was only 19 when he met Jesse for the first time. He had spent years reading about Jesse’s adventures in popular nickel books which portrayed the outlaw as a hero fighting for the values of the South. Bob was a naive youngster brought up on a farm who believed everything he read about Jesse although most of it wasn’t true. When he discovers Jesse is very different from the man he read about it has far reaching consequences.
The film is wonderful; it is one of my favourites. Full of beautiful imagery, well crafted characters and an engrossing story. Brad Pitt puts in one of the most convincing performances of his career to date and Casey Affleck is a brilliant Robert Ford, utterly convincing in every way. The music really matches the atmosphere of the film and adds a powerful element. A narrator appears from time to time which I feel adds a very human element to the film and provides some history and background to the story. In general the feel of the film is one of authenticity and the struggle for survival in harsh times. Great lengths must have been gone to in order to create this movie and it was worth the effort.
As the movie progresses Bob grows closer to Jesse and begins to see his hero in a different light. Slowly it dawns on Bob that Jesse is not a loveable, gun slinging rogue, bravely fighting for the independence of the Southern States but rather a violent, unpredictable, cold-blooded killer who murdered 17 people including innocents who had nothing to do with the money he was stealing.
Bob is probably my favourite character in the movie. No matter how much I think about him I cannot really fathom him. I cannot decide whether he was a nasty, violent opportunist or simply a naive, misled youth who thought he could make something of himself by associating with a famous outlaw. I suppose it is most likely a mixture of both either way I found his story the most compelling.
One aspect of the movie that surprised me is that, to me anyway, it seemed to dumb down the killing and violence executed by the gang. The 17 murders are mentioned but only in passing. On screen Jesse only kills one man; other murders are only hinted at. Jesse does assault other characters but again I never got a real idea of how dangerous and malicious this man was.
The book, written by Ron Hansen, goes into a lot more detail (as would be expected) it explains more of the background of the people involved especially Jesse and Bob’s. I enjoyed the book and it tells much the same tale as we see in the movie. More information about Jesse’s past is divulged and a good deal of what happened after Jesse’s death. Details of the crimes committed by Jesse and his gang are documented and we get more of an idea from the book of what a savage, merciless man Jesse was. We also see another side of Jesse as a devoted husband and father. I was left with no doubt he loved his children.
Oddly enough I feel one of the stories told in the book which most clearly shows the kind of wickedness Jesse was capable of does not involve murder at all. Jesse broke into a church on Christmas Eve and stole all the presents which had been donated by the people of the town to children who had nothing. He gave these presents to his own children. He even stole the Christmas tree.
The story is complex and powerful and well worth both watching the movie and (of course) reading the book!
Verdict; I would give the book 4/5 and the movie 5/5