The place is Northfield Minnesota and the notorious gang of outlaws led by Jesse James (Robert Wagner) might have met their match when a bank raid they have planned has gone very badly, leaving them not only with no money after the cashier refused to open the safe, but some of the gang dead when the townsfolk trap them. The surviving members escape, but there's a posse in hot pursuit, and not even leaping off a cliff into the local river will help them now. Jesse and his brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) mull over their predicament as the law close in, but Jesse won't admit defeat...
The True Story of Jesse James took its script from the earlier 1939 Tyrone Power film version, refashioned by Walter Newman into more of a work fitting auteur Nicholas Ray. The familiar tale of a young man twisted by society into breaking its rules is what he evidently saw the famous James story as, so Wagner must play one of Ray's rebels, but there's a tension between the folk hero side of the tale and the "true" aspect that depicts the outlaw as essentially a thug who caught the popular imagination.
What is it about the Jesse James story that so captures that American imagination anyway? Even as late as 2007 there was yet another version of the well worn events, with the Brad Pitt-starring The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and yes the most notorious picture straightening incident of all time is featured at the climax of this fifties telling. Perhaps it's the romanticising of the Old West, when men were men and women did as they were told, combined with the glamour of the legendary and daring rogue that appeals.
Whatever, the Jesse James in this film is by no means held up as a laudable figure, and any ambiguity about his character is down to the way his public persona contrasts with his actual personality. After he and his brother choose the losing side in the Civil War, they find themselves the victim of vindictive Northeners, which, we are led to believe, resulted in a serious lack of money for the James farm leaving them no choice but to turn to crime. However, Jesse prefers this life to honest work.
In a revealing sequence, after a train robbery the gang hole up in an old widow's farmhouse. One of the robbers has stolen a magazine that tells a Robin Hood style version of Jesse's life, which is noticeably at odds with reality. Flattered, Jesse pays off the widow's mortgage as if trying to live up to this image, but when made fun of by his fellows, he goes over to the bank representative who has collected the money and holds him up, stealing it back. Subversively for such a figure that fictionalisations have treated in the very way that magazine could be accused of, this time the protagonist, with Frank acting as his conscience, is a nasty piece of work deep down and it's only at the end he feels regret for the path he's taken and a wish for the more fairytale life that might have been available to him. Music by Leigh Harline.
[Optimum's Region 2 DVD has the film in its proper Cinemascope ratio, with a trailer as the only extra.]