September 21, 2007
Today's New York Times has a tepid review of the new Jesse James movie (it opens today in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto— Toronto?!). The reviewer, Manohla Dargis, gives us a familiar refrain: "The question of whether the world or cinema needs another monument to an American gangster, a thug who lived by the gun and repeatedly killed in cold blood, remains unanswered by the film and its makers." If this sounds familiar, it's because it's almost the same "question" written in the guest book at the recent Billy the Kid show in Albuquerque.
Meanwhile, I talked to the author of the book the movie is based on, Ron Hansen, yesterday. He saw the premiere in New York last Tuesday and I wondered what he thought of it. Here are my notes:
What Did They Get Right?
It is a rare day indeed when an author says, “They were very faithful to my book.” Ron Hansen is one of them. Filmed two years ago, and based on Hansen’s 1983 book, “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” the movie has a Byzantine history of its own: there have been a rumored 35 different cuts of the film, with four different film editors, including Ridley Scott’s editor, the problem was, they didn’t do rushes, and consequently had no cut until Jan. 2005, which left a small window for release.
Here’s a partial scorecard on what they got right (and what they changed):
• Everything in the house on the hill in Saint Jo is exact, right down to the floor plan. A slight ding for the master shot which shows the town of Saint Jo off in the distance, when the actual city was all around the hill. Jesse only had to walk a couple blocks to pick up newspapers to bring back to the rented house.
• The dates are right, and even the time of day is faithful to most of the events, however, they filmed in Canada in the fall, and the events surrounding Jesse’s demise took place in the spring, with his death in April.
• The Blue Cut train robbery is excellent, lots of people jostling in the cars, some not even speaking English. A passenger list was printed after the robbery showing the hometowns of victims and they list many far flung states and countries for the passengers.
• The costuming is excellent, with the movie makers often using actual 19th century clothes (Ron plays a reporter and said the costume designer “gave me a pocket watch even though it wouldn’t show. They just wanted us all to feel what it was like in 1882.”)
• The many wartime and outlaw injuries Jesse suffered from are much in evidence on actor Brad Pitt. As buffs know, the real Jesse was missing the middle digit of his left hand and Pitt wore a device that makes it appear his finger is clipped. A bath scene focuses on the outlaw’s body, documenting bullet wounds, mostly on his back, from the Civil War. One of the problems they had was that Brad is in too good physical shape to illustrate the broken down aspect of the real Jesse.
• Jesse and Frank wear bandanas over their faces in the Blue Cut Robbery (some reports stated “the leader” did not wear a mask), and the rest of the James Gang wear hooded sacks with eyeholes. The producers had a problem with this because in a key scene, one of the gang tells Jesse not to shoot the expresssman, (later Jesse kills the gang member) but he’s wearing a white sack over his head and viewers have a hard time making the connection. Still, the director insisted on erring on the side of historical accuracy.
• Weapons enthusiasts are harping about Jesse giving Bob Ford a pistol which Bob then dry fires (pulls the trigger on an empty chamber), a theatrical moment but gun afficionados claim that would hurt the firing pin and wouldn’t be done by real gun toters.
• Horse experts are criticizing a reference to an 85-miles in one day horseback ride, but Hansen says, in his defense that is the distance reported by several sources at the time of the event.
• There is a 25 years age difference between Sam Shepard (Frank James) and Brad Pitt, while Jesse and Frank were only a couple years apart, but no one has noticed this one.
And, for grins, here's a great photo of fellow-artist Jeff Prechtal's son Corey, who really resembles Jesse James, in my book:
"Silence is the only true religion in the world."
—Old Vaquero Saying
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