The American West (2016), an eight-episode docu-drama series currently running Saturday evenings on AMC, has been exploring the subject of Jesse James thru its first four installments. The series has framed, as many historians have, the robberies of James and his gang as motivated by a mix of political statement and personal gain. In the post-Civil War years, Missourian Jesse James could strike against the North, viewed by many Southerners as occupiers, by targeting its wealth in the form of express (shipment) train cars and banks. In the series, James is skillfully played by David H. Stevens.
In the second episode of The American West, entitled “Two Front War”, a passenger train is stopped and robbed by the James gang. The following scene from that event is an excellent distillation of the Jesse James ethos, as has been transmitted both historically and mythically across the decades. The importance of Southern and family bonds is evident when James handles the watch of the train’s conductor. Learning that the conductor is from Kentucky, a border state in the Civil War and the same home state of his deceased preacher father, and that the watch was gift from the employee’s own “daddy”, Jesse returns the watch and tells him to take care of it.
Jesse moves on down the aisle of the passenger car and jokes with some frightened women that they will soon have a nice story to tell their friends – this is an echo of the fame that Jesse James had during his life. It is then that James comes to a well-dressed young man in a suit that catches the outlaw’s eye. Turning to his brother, Frank (Joseph Carlson), for his opinion on the suit, the brothers quickly conclude the man is not a local. Jesse asks where the man is from, and the reply is New York City.
Now identified as an Easterner and a Northerner, the oppositional nature of the two men is then dangerously heightened as James recognizes a “GAR” pin worn on the passenger’s lapel. The pin is an acronym for the victorious Grand Army of the Republic, and Jesse realizes that the young man was – and to him, still is – an enemy. He is also a symbol of the Union bullet James carries in his lung. James cocks his gun and the man hesitantly states that “the war is over”….to which James replies, “no, it’s not.” What Jesse decides to do is revealed at the end of the scene:
Stevens gives a strong performance as Jesse James. In addition to some similarity in features (narrowed eyes at the corners, an angular face), he personifies both the confidence and passionate rebelliousness of the mythic bandit. He calmly walks forward in the train car, doing so with self-assurance, hands resting at his belt. Stevens doesn’t rush his lines, creating the realism of someone thinking before speaking. The head tilt he gives upon the passenger’s response of “New York City” is an intriguing mix of interest and condescension toward the young man. As Jesse decides the traveler’s fate, the effort to keep his rage in check is ably expressed by Stevens – the eyes bore into the man and his face twitches slightly. After the outlaw has made his choice, he again walks evenly forward to leave the train car.
The next (5th) episode of The American West is Saturday, July 9th at 10pm (ET)/9pm (CT). Further information about the series, executive-produced by Robert Redford, can be found at the official link The American West.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)