Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Religion and Violence in Jesse James Films, 1972–2010

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Religion and Violence in Jesse James Films, 1972–2010

Article excerpt

Both Frank and Jesse were schooled deeply in the old-fashioned religion. Every Sunday the family drove to church and took part in the worship. . . . Jesse James remained thoroughly orthodox in his religious beliefs as long as he lived. This, perhaps, is a hard nutfor you to crack; but, being a simple statement of fact, it goes down upon the record. . . . Jesse James believed in a personal God and in a personal Devil-probably in a considerable number of the latter!... He expected to go to Heaven when he died, for he believed that he had lived the best life he possibly could live under all the circumstances, and that, therefore, he was entitled to salvation.

- Robertus Love, The Rise and Fall of Jesse James

Jesse James! The magical words are pregnant with romance.

- R. F. Dibble, "Jesse James"

One may easily speak of a mythic West, but not, with any precision, of a single, rigidly defined "Western myth. " The longing for a hero benefiting society through righteous violence brings forth lawmen-civilizers such as Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp-and glorifies outlaws such as the James brothers.

- Wayne Michael Sarf, God Bless You, Buffalo Bill

"This is the West, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend. " The . . . comment, long debated by film scholars, has several possible meanings. It could mean that at some point legend and fact become so intermingled they are indistinguishable. The lives and legends of western personalities such as Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid fit that interpretation. It could also mean that after a time it is better to perpetuate the legend, even at the cost of truth.

- R. Philip Loy, Westerns in a Changing America

Introduction: The Historical Jesse

Who was Jesse Woodson James? Was he the brilliant inventor of the bank robbery and perfecter of the train robbery?1 Was he a social bandit, a mythic Robin Hood?2 A heroic criminal?3 The quintessential American Bandit?4 A Bourgeois Bandit?5 A chivalrous and well-mannered gentleman?6 Or was he an empty myth, an exaggerated production of the "profane folkimagination"?7 Writers in both popular and scholarly senses have devoted thousands of pages of text to elucidate this mysterious figure. Dime novelists, comic book artists, screenwriters, filmmakers, directors, folklorists, cultural critics, biographers, and historians have all tried their hand at the task. From the disparate narratives, a convoluted image emerges whose ambiguity may reflect Jesse James's identity more accurately than one might first imagine. If popular cultural depictions get one thing wrong, it is the portrayal of Jesse James as a static character. The historical Jesse was anything but flat. From the fragmented historical records rise a conflicted, introspective Jesse James, a Jesse James given to self-crisis, deliberation, and internal negotiation. The so-called real Jesse-the Jesse who lived and died on the American frontier we now call the Midwest-was an exceedingly complex and multifaceted figure. After all, "the outlaw hero," writes Richard Meyer, "is good-natured, kind-hearted, and frequently pious."8 Part of the complexity arises because of the figure's dual identity as both a violent outlaw and morally emulative person.

On the subject of Jesse's religiosity, few solid facts exist. Yet from the tantalizing glimpses of Jesse's character a partial picture of his identity emerges. He was born into an ecstatically religious family, in a literal sense. Jesse's father was an ordained Baptist minister of the Second Great Awakening sort, famous for his passionate evangelistic rhetoric and successful revivalist endeavors. His preacher father was a proud slaveholder who saw the issue of slavery as nothing less than a religious issue. He held slaves because he submitted to God's just and righteous order, and it was in such a religio-political milieu Jesse grew up.9 A youthful Jesse fought at the end of the Civil War for the cause of the South, but his warmongering carried over the temporal boundaries set by history books into full-fledged terrorist activity in the troubled Missouri borderland that he considered home. …

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