Case Number 12141


History Channel // 2007 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kent Dixon (Retired) // October 3rd, 2007

The Charge

"The James gang was without any question the most successful and long-lasting outlaw gang in history." -- Leon Metz, writer and historian

Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor,
He'd never rob a mother or a child.
There never was a man with the law in his hand
That could take Jesse James alive.

-- American folk song

The Case

I promise not to use the words "rootinist" or "tootinist" at any time during this review.

Almost like clockwork, Hollywood moves in cycles as one film genre or style builds in popularity, then fades into the background to make room for another as the cycle begins again. The early Nineties brought us a wealth of new iconic westerns, including Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, Tombstone, and Wyatt Earp, introducing us to new fictional characters and bringing new light to historical figures such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others.

Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Sitting Bull -- it's impossible to think of the Wild West and not have these names enter your mind. But possibly even more famous than these historical figures is the legendary outlaw and gunfighter Jesse James.

It seems Mr. James and his infamous gang get their shot (pardon the pun!) at having their story finally told in the new millennium, with the upcoming theatrical release of The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. The History Channel brings us a new documentary on the man and the legend of Jesse James in their new release The History Channel Presents: Jesse James: American Outlaw, timed nicely to ride the wave of hype that will doubtless follow the release of the feature film.

With a run time of 94 minutes, The History Channel Presents: Jesse James: American Outlaw takes a close look at Jesse James and his gang from two distinct angles through two features, "The Plot to Kill Jesse James" and "The James Gang." It is the sum of these two perspectives that gives the viewer with a fairly solid picture of Jesse James, some of the key individuals he interacted with, and his eventual murder.

"The Plot to Kill Jesse James" focuses on the life and times of Jesse James and his gang through the eyes of Robert Ford, delivering a strong balance of accounts by authors and historians, and dramatic reenactments. The people of the South saw Jesse and Frank James as heroes and freedom fighters, as they stood up to the Yankees and their oppressive controls. As a 10-year-old boy growing up, Robert Ford, or Bob as he was known, came to see Jesse James as one part superhero, one part Robin Hood, according to one historian. As he grew older, Ford's fascination with Jesse James began to border on obsession.

Desperate to gain recognition and harboring the hope that he will one day be invited to join the James gang, Ford committed criminal acts of his own and was finally invited to join the gang when James was looking for new members. Ford quickly realized that the other members of the gang had little more than disdain for him and, ultimately, accepted a deal with the governor of Missouri to bring James down in exchange for a bounty and immunity.

Ford got his chance when staying at James's home with his brother Charlie, planning a bank heist. After James removed his holster and turned his back to adjust a picture on the wall, Bob Ford shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Although Ford had been promised a bounty and immunity, none of that came to be, and Bob Ford himself was murdered some 10 years later as he tended bar in Creed, Colorado. Ironically, it was likely Ford's cowardly act that cemented Jesse James's reputation for good and also established his own reputation as a coward.

While recounting many of the same historical events, "The James Gang," the Biography segment included with this release, portrays both Jesse and Frank James as loving husbands and fathers who lived a life of adventure. They saw themselves not as common robbers, but as heroes of the South who were taking revenge against the Union. Although they had bounties on their heads for most of their lives, the James brothers and their friends the Youngers (Cole, Jim, John and Bob) always found safe haven in Missouri.

"The Plot to Kill Jesse James" fares much better on the audio and video side of things, likely because it was produced in late 2006. The colors are somewhat muted, but the picture remains clear throughout. The production takes an interesting approach at time, flashing sepia-toned pictures across the screen to emphasize key historical events. As this is a documentary, focusing the majority of the sound on dialogue with some music, the audio remains clear but is concentrated on the center and front channels.

The Biography feature "The James Gang" looks to have been shot in the mid to late Eighties and definitely fares more poorly in the picture department. Presented in full-frame, the image looks mildly pixilated at times and has a significantly processed look to it, likely looking the same or worse than it did when it originally aired. Again, as a documentary presentation with a lot of talking heads and reenactments, the audio presentation in this feature is less than dynamic.

There are no extras of any kind on this release, but in reality, the two included features stand well enough on their own.

If you consider the included features as two halves of the complete story, Jesse James: American Outlaw paints a seemingly accurate and definitely unbiased picture of Jesse James, who from 1860 to 1882 was at the center of what one historian called "the most feared band of outlaws in American history." At a time when most laborers were making only $1 a day, James and his gang had stolen an estimated $200,000 by the end of their career, and were the rootinist, tootinist (sorry, I tried!) outlaws that ever made the history books.

Not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2007 Kent Dixon; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 69
Audio: 70
Extras: 0
Acting: 75
Story: 90
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile
Studio: History Channel
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* None

Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* None

* IMDb for Jesse James: American Outlaw

* IMDb for The Plot to Kill Jesse James

* IMDb for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

* Wikipedia