American Experience: Jesse James – DVD Review

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Mark Zwonitzer

Michael Murphy….Narrator
Mitchell McCann….Jesse James
Brian Paulette….Frank James
Raleigh Craighead….Young Jesse James

PBS Home Video presents American Experience – Jesse James Screenplay by Mark Zwonitzer. Running time: 54 minutes. Unrated. Aired on Feb 6, 2006. DVD released Nov. 14, 2006.

The Show
During a game of cowboys in the playground, odds are that a kid will aim his cap pistols and declare, “Stick ’em up! I’m Jesse James.” That name holds power with visions of a wild west outlaw robbing trains with his brother Frank and the James Gang. It was fun to claim to be Jesse when robbing a bank that was formerly a refrigerator box.

Sometimes we believe too much of the myth that the man has absolutely no relevance to his name. PBS’s American Experience – Jesse James is a documentary the goes straight after the myth. It shows how Reconstruction Era newspaper writers with political agendas romanticized Jesse James beyond all proportions.

The real Jesse James was not a nice guy. That was pretty much a given since we knew he was a bank robber that didn’t mind shooting anyone that got between him and the money. But he was more than just an armed robber. He wasn’t a figure from the Wild West. He did most of his damage in Missouri. That’s not quite Texas or Arizona.

The documentary discusses how Jesse and Frank James got their first taste of the outlaw life during the Civil War. They didn’t join the Confederate army proper. Instead they were part of a guerrilla group that killed folks in Missouri that were anti-slavery and pro-Union. After the Civil War was over, Jesse and Frank didn’t want to give up terrorizing his neighbors and get a real job. They robbed banks that were connected to people they hated from the War. Newspapers writers that still held to the beliefs of the Confederacy turned their exploits into Robin Hood adventures. Jesse never shared his money to the poor. The experts point out that he blew a lot of his stolen loot gambling. The James Gang were protected by the Klu Klux Klan. What kid knew that this was Jesse James? .

Because of a lack of true archival material, the film relies heavily on recreated footage using actors. It’s not like there’s bank security cam footage of the James Gang in action. The recreated footage is used to illustrate the stories being told by the experts and the narrator. A majority of the time when there are photographs of gang members, it’s after they’ve been shot to death.

When Jesse meets his fateful end, you can’t feel sympathy for the guy. This was not a noble rebel being crushed by the evil corporations and politicians. He only killed unarmed men.This is essential viewing for any child with capgun outlaw ambitions.

The DVD:

The Video:

1:78:1 anamorphic picture.

The Audio:

The soundtrack is in stereo. There are no subtitles, but it is closed captioned.
Special Features:


The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for American Experience – Jesse James
(OUT OF 10)