Jesse James is a 1939 American Western film directed by Henry King and starring Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly and Randolph Scott. Written by Nunnally Johnson, the film is loosely based on the life of Jesse James, the outlaw from whom the film derives its name. The supporting cast features Henry Hull, John Carradine, Brian Donlevy, Jane Darwell and Lon Chaney, Jr..
The American Humane Association began to oversee filmmaking after a horse died when it was driven off a cliff on set. It has been described by the British Channel 4 website as being “notorious for its historical inaccuracy.
A railroad representative named Barshee (Brian Donlevy) forces farmers to give up the land the railroad is going to go through, giving them $1 per acre (much less than fair price) for it. When they come to Jesse’s home, Barshee is told by Jesse (Tyrone Power) that his mother Mrs Samuels (Jane Darwell) is the farm’s owner.
Barshee repeatedly tries to force her into selling, until her other son Frank James (Henry Fonda) gets involved. Frank fights and easily beats Barshee, but Jesse shoots Barshee in the hand, in self-defence. When arrest warrants are issued for Frank and Jesse, Major A. Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), an editor in nearby Liberty, Missouri and uncle of Zerelda (Zee) Cobb (Nancy Kelly), Jesse’s lover, quickly comes to tell them to leave.
Frank and Jesse learn that Barshee is responsible for the death of their mother and Jesse kills him in revenge. This begins Frank and Jesse’s career as outlaws. They are pursued relentlessly by the unscrupulous railway boss, McCoy (Donald Meek). Three years later, with a $5,000 reward on his head, Jesse marries Zee and turns himself in, at her insistence, having been promised a light sentence by Marshall Will Wright (Randolph Scott). But McCoy manages to manipulate the situation through his connections, by having the judge dismissed pre-trial, and installing a new judge, who is likely to favour McCoy’s recommendation of imposing the death penalty for Jesse.
Frank breaks Jesse out of jail, and the James gang continue their life of crime. Eventually Zee leaves him, taking their son Jesse Jr. with her. Years later, following an unsuccessful robbery, a wounded Jesse returns home and Zee joins him in the belief that they will escape to California. Meanwhile, Bob Ford (John Carradine), an old member of the James gang, together with his brother Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), contact Jesse, claiming that Frank sent them to ask Jesse to participate in their next robbery. They assert that the job will earn them all a large sum of money for very little risk. Jesse nevertheless refuses the Ford brothers’ offer, and the brothers exit the house. However, sensing an opportunity to claim the generous reward for Jesse’s death, Bob Ford sneaks back inside, and shoots Jesse in the back, thereby killing him.