Somehow this film is rated PG. Nevertheless, it has plenty of nasty content. Maybe the PG feeling or perception mostly concerns the way in which it is shown. For instance, four men hang in a barn. All the viewer sees of the dead are their legs from the knees down. There is no twisting around, gagging, or repentant tears. The executed had been pulled from a brothel in the middle of the day. Earlier, the James Gang and Cole Younger set out from the brothel to raid the First National Bank. In the hold-up’s aftermath, the townsfolk are enraged. The robbery turned sour. It resulted in gratuitous killing. So the men are dispatched just to make sure. Those who tie the rope are as good as the good guys get in this relatively late Western. I downloaded two books on Jesse James’s robbery of the Northfield First National Bank in Minnesota. My main goal was to read up on it, but also to distinguish between fact and fiction. Call it a personal mission without daggers. I love the movies, but I also love the historical record. I try not to go too far. If I do not see a pay phone on the Prairie or Great Plains, I’m generally okay with any rendition of the Wild West.
Consider Jesse James and Co. the bad guys by default. If so, they share that billing with the robber barons of the 19th century. It is said of Jay Gould, one of them, that after he made his first dollar, he never let it go. He then went on to accumulate more and more dollars. Money talks, so banks became willing accomplices in whatever scheme “barons” hatched, whether overcharging passengers, confiscating land, or defrauding investors. As it turns out, in the movie, based on a true event, the rails had almost nothing to do with the raid. The bank had exaggerated its holdings to attract deposits, and what little it had on hand was protected by a vault that caused the outlaws a great deal of consternation.
Bad as they were, the outlaws had a kind of swagger and skillfulness with guns that make them a welcome presence on the movie screen. According to the Kindle books I bought, they were mostly tall, intimidating, and experienced in gunfights. They began way back in Civil War Missouri. They had been bushwhackers for Colonel Quantrill, a legendary rapscallion who favored the South in a severely war-torn region. They were participants in the Lawrence, KS massacre. Kansas was already inured to the questionable technique of overdoing it. The bloodier the statement, the more seriously it is taken, or so its perpetrators would have the nation believe. Later, post-war amnesty set the James Gang free. Their subsequent bank robberies involved hefty sums. The movie material could not have been more dramatic. Deftly handled by an exceptional writer-director, Philip Kaufman, it nonetheless raises the question as to the limits of entertainment. It is right on the edge, saved by a PG rating it might actually have actively sought.
It is perhaps disappointing when a young film enthusiast discovers that despite all his or her admiration and affection, it is the same dollar bill the unscrupulous railroaders went after that motivates the beautiful people. But no blanket statement about this peculiar industry ever holds water. I liked seeing a movie that inspired me to do further research on a historical topic. I wish more Westerns were like this. After watching quite a few, one after the other, I can testify, personally, that the historical Western definitely stands out. I do not know how accurate Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Jesse James is, but it at least makes me curious enough to want to find out. Putting a film on a psychiatrist’s couch is never a good idea, but one cannot help but wonder, analytically, how much the film owed to Vietnam, its guerrilla component, and leadership in an enterprise that might have had to do with more than the skimpy returns of rice paddies.