The western, as far as the statistics show, was not Henry King’s forte. His mostly unseen early silents aside, he contributed very few entries to the genre. However, King’s revisionism and stylistic rigour made his westerns essential works: whether pioneer romance epic (The Winning of Barbara Worth), anti-capitalist outlaw western (Jesse James), anti-violence tragedy (The Gunfighter) or anti-vengeance drama (The Bravados).
Here, the myth of the James brothers is depicted sympathetically and as the title suggests, the more charismatic, tobacco-spitting Frank James (superbly acted by Henry Fonda) is a secondary character – pushed to the centre only later, in Fritz Lang’s sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940). There are other colourful supporting characters, such as the perpetually Judas-like John Carradine as Bob Ford; the ranting, cussing Henry Hull as a newspaperman; and Randolph Scott as the sympathetic sheriff. Yet, the film is less a character study than a record of events, whose historical accuracy King took great pride in. If John Ford got the story straight from the horse’s mouth by meeting Wyatt Earp, King spoke to Frank James’ son, then a retired attorney in Kearney, Missouri. Throughout the shoot, he tried to retain a sense of accuracy – in the props, realist use of colour and choice of locations. The latter also involved King’s skill in aviation, using his aeroplane to scout locations, which brought a sense of command over the space in his direction of action sequences, contributing enormously to his adventure films.
If one doesn’t consider historical facts as spoilers, then it would seem harmless to point out that Jesse gets shot in the back. Producer Zanuck disliked this ending, so much so that while King was in hospital, he asked director John Cromwell to shoot an alternative ending. Fortunately the result was disappointing, and the original was reinstated. Eventually a box-office hit, the film proved that “on some occasions it’s better to use a little common sense than a lot of manufactured fiction”, as King himself put it.
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Nunnally Johnson. F.: W. Howard Greene, George Barnes. M.: Barbara McLean. Scgf.: William S. Darling, George Dudley. Int.: Tyrone Power (Jesse James), Henry Fonda (Frank James), Nancy Kelly (Zerelda), Randolph Scott (Will Wright), Brian Donlevy (Barshee), Donald Meek (McCoy), Henry Hull (maggiore Rufus Cobb), John Carradine (Bob Ford), Slim Summerville (il carceriere), J. Edward Bromberg (Mr. Runyan). Prod.: Darryl F. Zanuck per Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.. 35mm. D.: 106’. Col.
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