I Shot Jesse James (1949)

I Shot Jesse James (1949)

*Originally published on The News Hub


When we think of director Samuel Fuller we tend to think of films noir about displaced men, damaged women, criminals searching for redemption, and tabloid stories expanded to the level of mythology. Yet Fuller cut his teeth originally in the Western genre, with his first feature film I Shot Jesse James. This might seem like a strange starting for the crime reporter and veteran turned director, especially for those already acquainted with Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, but I Shot Jesse James shares remarkable affinities with those more perfected works of tabloid filmmaking.

I Shot Jesse James takes as its subject the now iconic shooting of Jesse James by his friend and fellow gang member Robert Ford. After being injured in a bank robbery, Ford (John Ireland) holes up in Jesse’s (Reed Hadley) house to recover. Ford is in love with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), a singer who keeps on refusing his marriage proposals because he can’t give her a stable existence. When Ford learns about the bounty on Jesse’s head, including a substantial reward and amnesty from imprisonment or execution, he chooses the coward’s way and decides to betray and murder his best friend.

James’s death is the catalyst for Ford’s narrative to truly begin, but the film is not particularly concerned with the relationship between the two men. In the aftermath of the killing, Ford finds himself vilified in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of Cynthy, who wants nothing more to do with him. He’s given only a fraction of the reward and forced to make a new living, branded a coward and a traitor. After a brief stint in which Ford re-enacts the murder onstage for an eager public, he heads out West to Colorado on a search for silver and gold, which he hopes will be the key to make Cynthy marry him.


I Shot Jesse James could have been a straightforward Western, but Fuller turns his attention to the internal, as Ford grapples with his cowardice, his anger, and his sense of betrayal. The murder of Jesse invigorates Ford’s nascent self-loathing. Far from a real villain, he keeps trying to take the easy way out, insisting on his love for Cynthy despite her consistent rejection of him, fooling himself into the belief that everything he did, he did for love. Ireland plays Robert Ford with a pathos tinged by hollowness – he seems to not quite understand why Cynthy would be horrified by him, or why the public would vilify him. While not an inherently likable character, his tragedy lies in the flaws that pushed him to murder Jesse in the first place. He’s a coward not because he’s afraid of Jesse James, but because he truly does love the man he murders and so cannot bring himself to look his victim or his crime squarely in the eye. In a particularly powerful sequence, Ford listens to a wandering singer sing “The Ballad of Jesse James,” detailing Jesse’s murder with references to Ford as “the dirty little coward/who shot Mr. Howard.” Each word is a bullet in his heart, and while the singer shakes with fear that Ford will kill him, the viewer sees Ford’s palpable pain. He sees himself as a coward just as much as anyone else, and it’s a stigma he must continue to carry with him, for all he does to eradicate it. He finds a short-lived redemption in the wilds of Colorado, but his continued obsession with Cynthy forces him back into the same pattern, grappling with flaws that will never be resolved.

Fuller’s usually indulgent cinematography is circumspect in I Shot Jesse James. There are no indulgent flourishes, explicit POV shots, or surreal sequences that will so palpably characterize later films like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. Fuller is beginning to develop his style, focalizing the narrative through Ford’s experience and forcing the viewer into a position of sympathy with an occasionally unsympathetic protagonist. Most powerful is the build-up to Jesse’s murder, as Ford contemplates the ease with which he can shoot his friend without even the smallest shred of danger to himself through numerous focalized shots of Jesse’s back.

There are flaws in I Shot Jesse James, though most of them can be put down to generic conventions. This is a B-movie, full of melodrama and heightened emotions, with actors screaming and crying rather than performing with subtlety. The film buys into the characterization of James as a Robin Hood, an outlaw who only kills when he has to, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor – a major departure from the actual history of the James Gang. But this is not a film concerned with history or even verisimilitude. This is the stuff of legend, the story of a legendary outlaw and a legendary coward. Ford’s story gains traction as the film reveals him as more complex, more tragic than the man he murdered. While it never compare favorably with a Bergman film, I Shot Jesse James doesn’t particularly want to. Robert Ford’s tragedy is a melodrama set for the stage.

Billy Jack (1971)

Billy Jack (1971)


The 1970s produced some rather unique films. The rise of independent filmmaking, coupled with the aggressive shifts in the culture that pitted youth against age, black against racist white, the minority against the majority in all its shapes and sizes, developed a cinematic culture vibrant, violent, and increasingly bizarre. The relative mainstream success of blaxsploitation films like Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song brought minority perspectives into cinemas – and while those films were occasionally poor or amateurish, they were never boring.

Billy Jack represents an entry into the small but rather fascinating genre that is basically (for lack of a better term) “redsploitation”: an American Indian version of the counterculture films that came out of the Black and Chicano power movements. The story centers around Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), a part white and part Navajo hero who, armed with badass Green Beret tactics and deadpan jokes, defends his reservation from racist townspeople. He’s further allied with the counterculture via his girlfriend Jean (Delores Taylor), who runs the “Freedom School” on the reservation, a school dedicated to giving a home to wayward young people otherwise living on the fringes of society. Billy’s main enemies come in the form of Bernard (David Roya), the nasty son of a local boss (Bert Freed), and his gang, who get their jollies by abusing anyone who comes in their paths, especially the students from the Freedom School. As violent acts pile up, Billy must prepare to fight the onslaught of town councils and the National Guard, all in the name of defending the defenseless.


Billy Jack is a free-floating film with only the nebulous beginnings of a central plot. Large swathes of the film are dedicated to the “psycho-drama” performances of Freedom School students, as they stage arguments with the local council over curfews, or prove the inherent hypocrisy of the system through street theater. The villains are dyed-in-the-wool racists, xenophobes, and sadists, with little to make them even close to sympathetic. Interestingly, the local sheriff is more on the side of Billy Jack and the students than he is with the white majority, as he tries to keep the peace and stop the escalating violence. There are recognizable scenes of sit-ins, including a lunch counter sequence in which the American Indian students are bullied by Bernard and his gang. Enter Billy Jack, who takes off his shoes and kicks everyone’s ass. The film later takes some decidedly dark turns, including featuring a sexual assault. The central theme also develops into a conflict of Billy Jack’s use of violence to stop the baddies, while Jean hangs onto her pacifism as the only way forward.

Billy Jack opened several years before the American Indian Movement’s stand at Wounded Knee, and in that sense the film is prescient in its final sequence. It’s a smorgasbord of the early 70s, incorporating counterculture ideology, nonviolence, and civil rights conflicts into a reversal of the typical western narrative. Here the Indians are the violated minority, while the townspeople endlessly encroach on their land and their freedom in fear of anything that is different. But the film provides no clear or easy answers to any of the questions it poses. Like sister films such as Sweet Sweetback, Medium Cool, and Easy Rider, the best that we can hope for is for the struggle to carry on.