True Story of Jesse James, The (1957): Nicholas Ray’s Western, Starring Pretty Boys Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter

“The True Story of Jesse James,” one of cult director Nicholas Ray’s weakest films, is a very loose remake of Henry King’s 1939 feature “Jesse James,” from which this version borrows some footage (both were made by Fox). 


As usual, Ray shapes the semi-factual and mythic material according to his own specifications to reflect his recurrent thematic motifs about self and society.


“True Story of Jesse James” suffers tremendously from the two lead performers, pretty boys Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter, as the famous criminal brothers.  Appealing but out of their depths, both actors are miscast, particularly Wagner as the notorious outlaw, Jesse James, who turns to crime with his brother Frank after the defeat of the South in the Civil War.


Ray made the picture right after his youth classic, “Rebel Without a Cause,” in 1955, with James Dean, who would have been a better choice to play Jesse as a rebel anti-hero.  Ray’s next choice was rock n’ roll singer Elvis Presley, who became a star after “Love Me Tender,” in 1956.


Lacking focus and point of view, the film depicts the troubled and complex relationship between the two James brothers during the last 18 years of Jesse’s life. 


Set in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1876, the yarn begins with Jesse and Frank riding with their gang for a raid. While robbing a bank, shoot out breaks out and two of the gang members are killed. The James Brothers and another gang member head out of town and hide out while investigators from the Remington Detective Agency search for James to receive the lucrative $30,000 reward.

While the three are hiding, the film tells the story of the James Brothers through a series of flashbacks, centering on different episodes in the siblings’ lives, including relationships with their poor mother Zerelda Cole James (Agnes Moorehead), and Jesse’s courtship of and marriage to Zerelda “Zee” James (Hope Lange).

The proud duo are humiliated and then shot at by Union forces, despite the surrender.  The brothers are further embittered and disappointed by their former Confederate neighbors, who quickly switch allegiance to the Union men, who take over their town.  Due to their Southern sympathies, they are denied employment, which serves as partial explanation for why they took to robberies and a criminal career.


However, the siblings, against the warnings of their mother and Jesse’s wife, find the criminal life exhilarating and become addicted to the danger and excitement that bank and train robberies bring. Predictably, the excitement declines and arguments between the two brothers ensue about whether or not and how to continue their outlaw lives. 

“True Story of Jesse Jameas” was the last picture that Nicholas Ray was contracted to do for Fox before leaving for Europe to shoot “Bitter Victory.” Tony Ray, the director’s own son, was cast as Bob Younger. 

John Carradine had appeared in the first Jesse James film as Bob Ford and appears in the 1957 version as Reverend Jethro Bailey.

Ray shot the movie in the then new technology of CinemaScope, and the movie features nice visuals in the exterior scenes.  Stock footage that had previously been used on the earlier James film was re-used and reconfigured for CinemaScope.[1]

The best film thus far about Jesse James is the magesterial Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James.