10 June 2011

"The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James"

The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James
Starring: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, June Carter Cash, Willie Nelson
Written by William Stratton
Directed by William A. Graham
DVD Release Date: 20 May 2003
Currently Out of Print

There are really two things that any viewer needs to know about this.  Firstly, it's a TV movie from 1986 so you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.  Secondly, it stars Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the famed James brothers Frank and Jesse.  You're not watching for historical verisimilitude.  You're watching to see a pair of icons and close friends share the screen together in a story that suits their interests and personalities.

The myth of the James brothers has inspired countless films, TV shows, novels, songs, plays and any other form of art one could imagine.  The Last Days focuses exclusively on the build up to the notorious murder of Jesse at the hands of The Coward Robert Ford (as he is formally known), with all information about their youth relayed through expository dialog.  It's fairly clunky, particularly as William Stratton's script makes an effort to acknowledge various elements of the James mythology for which there's not only little evidence, but no real compelling reason within the story for opening those doors.  We see Frank trying to put his life of crime behind him, while Jesse can't quite kick the habit.  Going straight is expensive, and Jesse's used to placing his hands on large sums of cash at will.

Ultimately, fans of Cash and Kristofferson (joined by June Carter Cash, Willie Nelson and David Allen Coe in supporting roles) will find this an entertaining snapshot of their camaraderie.  James historians will likely be much less satisfied.  In fact, one almost wishes they had entirely fictionalized this story and invented a pair of outlaws perhaps suggestive of, but not intended to be, the James brothers.

The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 4:3, but there are no features on the DVD.  In fact, there are no language options--not even subtitles!  It's out of print, but should be fairly inexpensive if you come across a copy.

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