Film / I Shot Jesse James

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Just because you kill the bad guy doesn't make you the good guy.

I Shot Jesse James is a 1949 Western, directed by Samuel Fuller in his directorial debut and the launching pad for his successful directing career. The story concerns that of Robert Ford, the infamous killer of famous outlaw Jesse James, and the personal aftereffects that the killing had on Ford. The film spans over ten years of time, beginning at Ford’s tenure in Jesse’s gang and ending at Ford’s residence in the city of Creede, Colorado. Ford’s main focus is to settle down with his best girl Cynthy, but he soon finds that killing the West’s most infamous outlaw brings him a nasty reputation that hinders him from moving on with his life.

The film is noticeably low key, focusing more on Ford’s own tortured emotions than the usual action scenes that filled Westerns of this era (though there’s still plenty of action in it). It also deals with complex themes like guilt, self-loathing, and the effects that taking another life can have on a person. Unlike many other Jesse James stories and films of the time, the film takes a sympathetic view of Robert Ford and portrays him as a victim of Western society’s double standards and how they romanticized outlaws.

It should also be noted, however, that the film has a very heavy case of Artistic License – History. Not only is there an added Love Interest for Robert Ford, but there are plenty of personal details about him and other real life people changed for the film’s benefit. This doesn’t make it a bad film, but it’s best to keep this in mind and not look at it as a definitive Biopic of Robert Ford.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: John Kelley’s real name was Edward Capehart O'Kelley. However, while the first name is blatantly changed, it should be noted that many publications of the era dropped the O in “O’Kelley”, so the writers may have thought that his name actually was “Kelley”.
  • Adaptation Origin Connection: There’s no evidence in real life to suggest that Robert Ford and Edward O’Kelley knew one another outside of Creede, Colorado. However, this film paints them as having a few run-ins when Bob was still a criminal in Illinois that helped to fuel their future feud.
  • Adaptational Wimp: Soapy here is portrayed as an old man that tends to drink too much and comes under the attack of various con men. In real life, Soapy Smith was a young gangster that ran plenty of rackets in Creede and would often be the one conning people out of their money.
  • Age Lift: Edward O’Kelley (known as John Kelley in this film) was around 25 years old in 1882 and 35 years old in 1892. Here, he’s played by 49 year-old Preston Foster in both time periods and treated as a significantly older man to Bob Ford.
    • The same goes for Soapy. The real Soapy Smith was in his twenties and thirties during this film’s timeframe. Here, he’s portrayed by Victor Kilian, who was 58 at the time and is treated as an old man by the rest of the cast.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: The general reaction to Jesse’s death. True, he was a killer and an outlaw, but many people think it rather low of Bob Ford to shoot him in the back in his own house and near his beloved wife.
  • All for Nothing: Killing Jesse James doesn’t give Bob any of the things he thought he’d receive. He’s stiffed with the reward, he’s considered a coward instead of a hero, and he doesn’t get the girl he did the killing for in the first place.
  • Ambition Is Evil: A rather subtle version. Bob Ford’s pursuit of silver and wealth makes him more possessive of Cynthy, whereas John Kelley’s resignation to being Town Marshal is portrayed as a positive and selfless decision.
  • Artistic License – History: Enough that it has earned its own page.
  • As Himself: In-Universe example. Bob Ford plays himself in the stage show that shows how he killed Jesse James. Truth in Television, as the real Robert Ford did participate in travelling shows that recreated the incident.
  • Avenging the Villain: Bob and others worry about this happening, as Jesse’s brother Frank is also a feared outlaw. Frank does eventually go through with it, but several years after Jesse’s death and he gets his revenge indirectly.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: During the bathtub scene, Bob stares at Jesse’s back with his new gun in hand. Jesse comments: “What are you waiting for, Bob? There’s my back.” Bob gains an Oh, Crap! face, thinking Jesse knows about his plans to turn on him. Turns out Jesse was just asking Bob to scrub his back with a brush.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: During one of their nighttime prospecting jobs, Soapy and Bob sit around a campfire to eat their meal. Suddenly, Bob pulls his gun on Soapy and stares intensely before firing at Soapy. Turns out he was shooting a mountain lion that had appeared behind Soapy.
  • Bandit Clan: The James brothers are definitely this, with the Ford brothers making up the rest of the clan at the beginning of the film.
  • Bank Robbery: The movie opens with the James clan robbing a Kansas bank. It goes south when a teller triggers an alarm.
  • Bank Teller: The opening scene involves the James clan robbing a trio of these, and the alarm they set off ruins their plans. The robbers shoot all of them dead in retaliation.
  • Bar Brawl: Kelley gets into one with two con men who try to get Soapy to sign over his gold stake. With a little help from Ford, Kelley manages to come out on top.
  • The Bartender: There’s one in the hotel in Creede, and it’s he who gives Kelley his Town Marshal badge.
  • Bathtub Scene: Jesse himself gets one, lying naked in a tub with Bob helping to scrub his back. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the movies greatest Ho Yay fuel.
  • Berserk Button: Bob can’t control himself when he suspects anyone else is finagling with Cynthy.
    • Also, don’t call Kelley a thief.
  • Best Served Cold: It's ten years after Jesse's death when his brother Frank comes to get his revenge on Bob. While he doesn't pull the trigger himself, he does manage to get his revenge indirectly.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Many fear that Frank James won’t take too kindly to hearing that Bob killed his younger brother Jesse. They’re right.
  • The Blacksmith: One gives Bob’s horse new shoes when he first arrives in Creede.
  • Blasting It out of Their Hands: When one of the con men pulls a gun on Kelley, Bob shoots it out of the man’s hands.
  • Boom Town: Creede, Colorado is one, being the focal point for a silver rush. Sadly, the town didn’t grow much after this point.
  • Butt Monkey: What Bob Ford becomes after Jesse’s death. Everybody sees him as a dirty coward and he has to work to gain respect from everybody, even his love interest.
  • Cats Are Mean: A mountain lion tries to attack Soapy and Bob during one of their prospecting jobs.
  • Celebrity Is Overrated: Bob finds this out very quickly when people start gunning for him, so that they can have the reputation of killing the man who killed Jesse James.
  • Chairman of the Brawl: One of the con men tries to break a chair over Kelley’s head. However, it just breaks into multiple pieces and doesn’t even faze Kelley.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A literal example. The Sawed-Off Shotgun that Kelley cleans midway through the film is the one he uses to shoot Bob in the final scene.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Bob has been in love with Cynthy “ever since I [Bob] could crawl”.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Bob shoots Jesse in the back while the latter is adjusting a hanging picture and is separated from his guns.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Bob Ford becomes this after he shoots Jesse, clinging to Cynthy and being willing to kill any man that he suspects is trying to win her hand.
  • Cruel Mercy: Frank James decides not to shoot Bob, but instead chooses to tell him that Cynthy is leaving him for Kelley.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Bob Ford finally achieves emotional closure when he is shot by Kelley and realizes how terrible it was to shoot his friend Jesse in the back.
  • Demonization: Bob is alienated by society because his murder of Jesse is considered cowardly.
  • Destructive Romance: Bob and Cynthy’s relationship is largely based on how afraid of Bob Cynthy is (largely because he killed a man just to be with her), and it continues to deteriorate from there.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Bob loses Cynthy to John Kelley, driving him to madness and getting him in a gunfight that causes his death.
  • Dirty Coward: How Bob Ford is perceived after he shoots Jesse.
  • Double Standard: Everybody despises Bob for shooting Jesse James in the back. Yet nobody seems to dwell on the fact that Jesse had killed plenty of helpless people himself during his criminal endeavors.
  • Downer Ending: Bob is killed by John Kelley over Cynthy, just after Bob had made his fortune and began to move on with his life.
  • Draco in Leather Pants: In-Universe; Jesse James is a ruthless outlaw who is shown murdering bank tellers when they fight back and is wanted for numerous other crimes. Yet after his death, people seem to paint him as a poor victim of Bob Ford’s betrayal, as well as a Robin Hood figure through the song “The Ballad of Jesse James”. Truth in Television; Jesse James was indeed romanticized as a noble outlaw (though he kept most of the money he stole). The song is also real, having covers of it done even today.
  • Dramatization: An In-Universe example. Bob takes part in a stage show that involves him demonstrating how he killed Jesse James.
  • The Dreaded: Jesse James is this to most of the world, being a brutal outlaw that robs people and banks with impunity. However, amongst the James clan itself, Frank James is actually the most feared. Both Charles Ford and Bob constantly worry about him taking revenge on them for killing Jesse, and part of Bob’s motivation of moving to Creede is to put distance between him and Frank.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Bob Ford is constantly disappointed by how many people look down on him for killing Jesse James.
  • Dude, Where's My Reward?: Bob Ford’s reaction when he learns he’s only getting $500 for killing Jesse instead of the promised $3000.
  • Dying Declaration of Love: An odd version. As he dies in the street, Bob Ford proclaims his love to Jesse James, instead of his Love Interest Cynthy (who, it should be noted, is the one holding Bob in her arms).
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Jesse has a wife and children, all of whom he seems rather fond of. This aspect is brought up in his ballad as a demonstration of his humanity and Bob Ford’s callousness.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Even though Jesse James was a notorious outlaw, most of the West thought it was low of Bob to shoot him in the back in his own house.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Frank James sneaks into Bob’s room in Creede to kill him, but accidentally overhears Cynthy’s confession of love to Kelley and her rejection of Bob. This comes in handy when Frank finally confronts Bob with this information in order to break him.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: What Frank James says he’s leaving Bob with when he tells Bob that Cynthy is staying with Kelley.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Bob and Jesse become this, having fought their way through numerous robberies with zeal and spent a lot of downtime with one another.
  • Flaw Exploitation: In the final scene, Kelley turns his back to Bob as the latter howls for his blood. Bob has an aversion to shooting people in the back, given the trauma shooting Jesse has caused him, so Bob can only pitiably scream for Kelley to turn around. Kelley does eventually, but draws his own shotgun to even the odds.
  • Foe Romance Subtext: Fuller openly stated in many interviews that he saw Jesse James and Robert Ford's relationship as homoerotic. This is made clear in the famous scene at the start where Robert gives Jesse James a bath, and it's made explicit in the film's final lines.
    Bob Ford: "I... I want to tell you something I ain't never told anyone. I'm sorry for what I done to Jess."
    Cynthy Waters: "Oh, Bob!"
    Bob Ford: "I loved him".
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anybody that knows the story of Jesse James knows that he’ll be dead soon. Hell, the movie’s title gives it away.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Bob completely loses it once Frank James tells him that Cynthy is leaving him for Kelley.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Bob Ford gets extremely jealous whenever he suspects Kelley is trying to move in on his girl.
  • The Gunfighter Wannabe: A young boy takes a shot at Bob Ford, but gives up when he runs out of bullets. Bob lets him go, but not before making sure the boy's gun is empty.
  • The Gunslinger: Everybody thinks Bob Ford is one, which leads to several others trying to kill him to make a reputation for themselves.
  • Henpecked Husband: Of all people, Jesse James is this. His wife Zerelda spends most of her screentime complaining about Bob Ford and urging him to quit the robbery business. James even tries to hide the map of his next robbery, just so she won’t get on his case anymore.
  • Hero Antagonist: John Kelley is a polite and well-liked fellow, to the point that Creede makes him the Town Marshal unanimously. However, he’s a constant thorn in Bob’s side and the one that helps push him towards his final madness.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: It might be a stretch to call Bob a ‘hero’, but he’s certainly not the scheming coward the world makes him out to be.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Jesse and Bob become this during their downtime in Illinois, though it's probably not entirely heterosexual on Bob's part if the film's final lines are any indication.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: In real life, Edward O’Kelley had a history of drunkenness and only beat Robert Ford when he surprised him in Ford’s tent. In the film, he’s able to take on two men at the same time and defeat Robert Ford in a duel by playing to Bob’s dislike of shooting men in the back.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Jesse James, Frank James, Robert Ford, and Edward Kelley (called John in the film) are all major characters.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • The man John Kelley is based off of, Edward O’Kelley, was far from the honorable fellow portrayed here. In reality, he murdered Bob Ford by surprising him in his tent and shooting him in the neck with a shotgun, not the self-defense shown in the film. He was also infamous for being a drunk and starting fights.
    • Also some with Robert Ford. The film portrays Robert Ford as earnestly trying to go straight and fervently staying on the straight and narrow. In real life, while Robert Ford did start a legitimate business (a saloon), he also had a history of heavy drinking and associating with local gangsters.
    • The process by which people make individuals into heroes is criticized in this film. It kind of avoids doing this with Jesse James mainly, since he's dispensed with in the opening section but it mocks, parodies and satirizes the people who glorify Jesse into a hero after branding him an Outlaw while he was alive and then tormenting and insulting the guy who actually did kill him.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: While Robert Ford did have a history as a troublemaker later in his life, he actually wasn’t the one who instigated the final fight with Kelley as the film shows. There’s also no evidence to show that he was ever insanely possessive over a woman as the film shows.
  • Hollywood Law: Once Frank James is acquitted of charges in Colorado, the jail immediately lets him go, even though they acknowledge he's wanted in other states like Kansas and Missouri. In reality, the Colorado authorities would’ve alerted the other states (telegrams were widespread by 1892, so there wouldn’t be a long delay) and kept Frank locked up until one of the states contacted them about extradition via the U.S. Marshals.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Bob Ford just wants to marry his sweetheart Cynthy and settle down on some farmland. Unfortunately, his reputation as Jesse James’s killer makes this hard to achieve.
  • In the Back: Bob Ford shoots Jesse James this way.
  • It's Personal: Frank James really wasn’t happy when Bob killed his brother Jesse.
  • Karma Houdini: Frank James, despite being as big a criminal as his brother Jesse, manages to be acquitted of wrongdoing by a Colorado court and isn’t sent to any states he is wanted in. Somewhat of a Truth in Television; Frank James was put in prison briefly for his crimes, but was soon released and lived the rest of his life in relative comfort.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Bob Ford, one of Jesse’s closest friends, is the one that kills Jesse himself. Fuller in interviews was rather explicit that Bob Ford's love for Jesse was not quite platonic.
  • Loophole Abuse: Frank James manages to get out of jail after his acquittal, despite being a wanted man. The excuse is that he’s wanted in other states, but not Colorado, so they can’t legally hold him. note 
  • Love Cannot Overcome: Even though Cynthy and Bob clearly have feelings for one another, they don’t get together.
  • Love Interest: Cynthy is this for Bob, being the main reason he kills Jesse James and leaves his life of banditry.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Everything Bob does is out of love for Cynthy. Killing Jesse James, attacking John Kelley, and his final duel are all attempts to win her hand at last.
  • Love Triangle: Both Bob and John Kelley have feelings toward Cynthy, and work toward earning her affection. Bob’s reputation as Jesse’s killer makes the triangle even more intense. In the end, she chooses to stay with John.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: This becomes Bob’s focus in the last few minutes of the film, as he’s gone mad with the news that Cynthy is staying with Kelley.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Bob’s reaction when he shoots Jesse James in the back. The feeling stays with him throughout the rest of the film.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: Bob is willing to shoot Jesse in the back to get the reward and get a pardon. Granted, he was extremely conflicted about it and felt guilty about it afterwards.
  • Nominal Hero: Bob is more than willing to kill Jesse James (and later, John Kelley) when he thinks it’ll get him Cynthy’s hand. However, he also has a sense of honor and seems decent enough in every other aspect of his life.
  • Not Good with Rejection: Bob, big time. He spends the final moments of the movie trying to kill Kelley because Cynthy chose him instead of Bob.
  • Oh, Crap!: Bob gets one in the bathtub scene when he thinks Jesse knows about his plan to betray him.
  • One Last Job: Jesse is planning one before he finally settles down with his family. Bob’s bullet cuts that short, however.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Bob is shot in the shoulder during the opening robbery, yet is able to ride several miles from Kansas to Missouri in only mild discomfort.
  • Outlaw: Jesse James is this naturally, as is the rest of his clan.
  • The Pardon: This is the main reason Bob betrays Jesse, as the Illinois governor promises one if one of the clan turns in Jesse. He gets it, but not the money that was promised.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Bob Ford shoots Jesse James, an infamous killer and outlaw, in the back.
  • The Piano Player: There’s one in the Creede Hotel, and he earns a dirty look from Bob when he starts playing “The Ballad of Jesse James”.
  • Price On Their Head: All of the James clan have one, but Jesse’s is the highest and the main motivation for Bob to turn on him.
  • Prospector: Creede is full of these, as the town is in the middle of a silver rush. Soapy is the most prominently seen one, and Bob’s partnership with him manages to earn him his fortune.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: More like villain’s journey to hero, then back to villain. Bob Ford starts out as just another outlaw, who then tries to go straight and get married. However, frontier society repeatedly shuns and shames him for killing Jesse, eventually leading to his final bout of madness when Cynthy decides to leave him.
  • Rags to Riches: Bob manages to go from being a wanted outlaw to a wealthy prospector over a few years. That doesn’t make him all that happy in the end, though.
  • Reformed Criminal: Bob Ford becomes this after his pardon, managing to work in legitimate businesses to make his fortune.
  • Reformed, but Rejected: Bob Ford makes an honest effort to readjust to society as an honest citizen, but most consider him a coward that deserves to be put down.
  • The Remnant: A brief mention of the James brothers’ service for the Confederacy is mentioned, and some theorize this is why they turned to banditry.
  • Retired Outlaw: Bob Ford becomes this once he kills Jesse and becomes pardoned for his crimes. Jesse planned on being this after one more job, but Bob managed to cut those plans short.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: What everybody fears Frank James will go on after Jesse’s death. It takes some time, but he does eventually come after Bob.
  • Sawed-Off Shotgun: Kelley carries one around with him the entire film, and it’s what he uses to kill Bob Ford.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Bob’s brother Charlie leaves Illinois (and the rest of the film) because he’s afraid Frank James will come after him for revenge.
  • The Sheriff: Kelley becomes one (though it’s referred to as “Town Marshal”), as he’s quite popular in Creede for being a fair and even-headed fellow.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Bob Ford never gets a chance to move on with his life, as his notorious reputation follows him wherever he goes. When he finally gets close to achieving what he wants, he loses the love of his life and dies in a gunfight.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Very firmly on the cynical side. Shoot a vicious outlaw, even though he’s your best friend? You’ll be ostracized from society and called a coward. On top of that, you’ll be plagued with guilt and lose everything you care about, just because of one poorly thought-out event in your life.
  • Starting a New Life: Both Jesse and Bob want to do this, settling down with a family and giving up their life of crime. However, Bob is the only one who does this, given how he kills Jesse before he gets the chance.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Even if Jesse James was a murderous outlaw, many people thought it was low of Bob Ford to kill him in his own house and with a shot in the back.
  • Time Skip: The opening of the film starts around 1882, when Jesse James was killed. About halfway through, the story skips forward ten years to 1892 and relocates to Creede, Colorado, as Bob attempts to make his fortune in gold prospecting.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Bob becomes nervous that he’ll become a victim of this if he stays around Missouri.
  • Trauma Conga Line: First, Bob kills his best friend Jesse James. Then he gets screwed out of the money he was owed. Then, he becomes the target of gunslingers everywhere. And finally, years later, after he’d made his fortune, his love rejects him, making all of his sacrifices for naught.
  • True Companions: Bob and Jesse become this throughout their outlaw careers, eventually becoming close friends. This makes Bob’s betrayal all the more heartbreaking.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: While broad strokes of the story are true (Robert Ford did kill Jesse James, move to Creede, and was killed by a man with the last name of Kelley), most of the story is fictional.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Jesse James’s death invokes more sympathy than relief, and people start booing Bob Ford for taking his life (while never bringing up the people Jesse had killed).
  • Villainous Valor: Jesse James may be an outlaw, but he sticks by anybody in his clan.
  • "Wanted!" Poster: The opening title sequence is featured around the poster for Jesse James.
  • What Were You Thinking?: Cynthy has this reaction towards Bob after he kills Jesse.
  • Wrongfully Accused: When Cynthy’s wedding ring goes missing, Bob thinks that Kelley stole it since they were sharing the room. Kelley eventually storms in a few days later and reveals the true culprit: the hotel clerk.
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: By killing Jesse, Bob unofficially becomes the top man on many gunslinger’s hit lists, as being the man who killed Jesse James makes him a prime target to demonstrate their skills.
  • You Make Me Sick: The general reaction to Bob Ford after he shoots Jesse. Almost everybody thinks of him as a coward and a sneak that doesn’t deserve to be walking around.
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