Sam Fuller’s first directorial effort was “I Shot Jesse James”, a fictional account of the outlaw life of Robert Ford. The film insinuates that Ford and Jesse were good friends for a long time, which they were not. Bob’s brother Charley was a member of the gang prior to Bob joining. As a young man, Bob admired Jesse and his criminal exploits, however by the end of 1881, the James gang had disintegrated, Frank James retired from a life of crime and many other members were dead, in prison, or just took off fearing the law was closing in on them. Jessie had planned to retire from the life himself but wanted to do one more robbery. He was living in St Joseph Mo. with his wife and family under the name of Robert Howard. The Ford Brothers were also living in St Joseph under the assumed name of Johnson, posing as relatives of the Howards. Jesse’s last robbery was to be of the Platte City Bank. Unknown to Jesse, the Ford Brothers had agreed to accept a $10,000 reward for killing Jesse that was being offered by the Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden. Ford was given ten days to kill Jesse and, in addition, would receive a full pardon. As portrayed in most films on Jesse James, Ford shot Jesse while he had his back turned standing on a stool straightening out a wall hanging. “I Shot Jesse James” uses some real life characters but pretty much fictionalizes how things really were. Preston Foster portrays a character named Kelley who becomes a sheriff and eventually shoots and kills Bob Ford. In real life, Kelley’s name was O’Kelley, and was an unsavory character and certainly never held a sheriff’s badge though he did kill Bob Ford. One day, using a shotgun he walked up to Ford and said “Hello Bob”, as Ford turned, he shot him. No one is sure why exactly he killed Ford though it has been said that Soapy Smith, another criminal may have convinced him he would be famous for killing Ford. In the film, Smith is portrayed as an old silver miner who takes Ford in with him and they strike it rich together. This is all pure fiction. Soapy was an organized gangster, a confidence man who ran saloons and built his own criminal empire.
All that said, Fuller gives us an alternate view of the Jesse James legend focusing on the “dirty little coward” Robert Ford. Fuller’s dark vision of Ford’s life is that of a man haunted by demons after the assassination. He is hunted by gunslingers who want be the man who kills the man who killed Jesse James. He finds himself haunted by his cowardly deed and is even unable to reenact the assassination on stage for money. He loses the girl that he loves who is repulsed by him since he killed Jesse in such a cowardly way. One of the most interesting scenes takes place in a bar when a troubadour enters singing “The Ballad of Jesse James” which includes the words “but that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard has laid poor Jesse in his grave.” Unbeknownst to him, Robert Ford is standing at the bar. When he recognizes Ford, he stops singing but Ford demands that he continues, listening to the words describing him as a traitor and a coward.
John Ireland, at thirty-five is a bit old to have played Robert Ford who was only twenty when he killed Jesse and thirty when he was murdered himself. The character of Kelley, portrayed by Preston Foster, is not clearly defined and seems to appear wherever Ford travels. As mentioned, the film takes a different slant on the Jesse James legend. Where most films focus on Jesse, here the focus is on the aftermath of the shooting. Definitely, worth a look as long as you are not looking for a history lesson.