Facts About The Notorious Outlaw Jesse James And The Film About His Life

Released in 2007, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a semi-biographical Western film that follows the relationship between the outlaw Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who would eventually take his life. James started off as a guerrilla fighter for the Confederates during the Civil War. After the war, alongside his brother, Frank, he took to a life of crime, establishing several gangs with the most famous being the James-Younger Gang.

Robbing countless banks and stagecoaches over the years, he achieved nationwide fame for his crimes despite the violence that was involved. He was eventually betrayed and assassinated by Robert Ford, a member of his outfit, although his legend did not die with him. Take a look into some interesting facts about the film and the real life of the outlaw Jesse James.

Sam Rockwell Wanted The Role Of Robert Ford

Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Initially, actor Sam Rockwell auditioned for the role of Robert Ford. Instead, he was beaten out by Casey Affleck and moved on from the project. However, he was then offered the role of Charley Ford, Robert’s older brother, although turned it down numerous times.

Brad Pitt then visited Rockwell’s apartment in New York to try and convince him to take the role. After some badgering, Rockwell finally agreed, which was a relief to Pitt, who said he was too good to let go.

There Was Debate Over The Film’s Length

Andrew Dominik behind the scenes
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the final version clocking in at a lengthy 160 minutes, director Andrew Dominik had several disagreements with Warner Bros. when it came to editing the film. Warner wasn’t happy about the movie’s length and wanted more action, whereas Dominik wanted to deeply analyze the relationship between Jesse James and his eventual assassin.

In the end, Warner Bros. went with Domink’s vision, partly because the lead actor and producer Brad Pitt agreed with him, even though Dominik didn’t have the right to the final cut in his contract.

The Ballad Of Jesse James

Man with a guitar
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Toward the end of the film, when Robert is intoxicated at a bar, a minstrel is walking around singing a song in memory of Jesse James. The lyrics that he sings are based on the real-life poem titled “The Ballad of Jesse James.”

Numerous songs based on the poem have been recorded over the years, with some of the most notable artists being Woody Guthrie, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, and The Pogues. There’s little doubt there will be more in the future as well.

There Was A Meaning Behind Two Fake Names

Paul Schneider and Brad Pitt
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

When Jesse James and Dick Liddil go looking for Jim Cummings and come across the Fords’ younger cousin, they use fake names, but they aren’t completely random.

Jesse James says that his name is Dick Turpin, who was a legendary English highway robber in the 1730s who became a popular figure in the 18th and 19th centuries. Liddil, played by Paul Schneider, calls himself Matt Collins, a play on Mattie Collins, his wife’s name.

There Are A Lot Of References To The Christian Holy Week

Casey Affleck on a horse
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Throughout the film, there are several references to the Christian Holy Week. These references include when Jesse gives Robert a weapon, referring to Jesus giving Judas a piece of bread, and then Robert killing Jesse for money like Judas betraying Jesus.

Furthermore, Robert washes his hands when he decides to assassinate Jesse like Pontius Pilate when he did the same to Jesus. The last two are when Charley ends his own life due to his guilt just like Judas, and the actual assassination took place the day before Good Friday.

Dominik Originally Wanted A Female Narrator

Brad Pitt as Jesse James
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The narrator of the film is a man named Hugh Ross, who also worked as the assistant editor. Dominik initially had plans to use a female to narrate, and Ross was used as a temp track.

However, when Dominik heard Ross’ narration, he fell in love with it. Nobody could do it better than Ross, who got nervous when they tried to re-record it. So, most of what you hear in the film was Ross’ first shot at reading the script.

The Film Was Based On Both His Life And A Novel

Casey Affleck as Bob
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Although The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is loosely based on the life of Jesse James, the film is actually adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name.

Hansen even spent around a week on the set, appearing in a cameo and helping with editing. He was particularly impressed with Casey Affleck’s performance, claiming that he added his own flair to the character. “In some ways it feels like he was born to play this role,” Hansen said.

What Happened To James’ Missing Finger

the-assassination-of-jesse-james-by-the-coward-robert-ford_ac38b696
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

At the beginning of the film, when the narrator is describing James’ personality and physical appearance, it is mentioned that he is missing one of his middle fingers. It then shows a close-up of the missing finger for the audience to see.

Although the top of Pitt’s left middle finger is digitally erased in every scene, it’s never explained how it happened. As it turns out, James had shot the top of his finger off when cleaning his pistol. When it happened he explained “That’s the dod-dingus pistol I ever saw,” earning him the nickname “Dingus.”

A New Filming Technique Was Used

Two men on horses
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

There are scenes sprinkled throughout the movie that have a blurred effect around the borders of the frame. These shots were achieved by using old wide-angle lenses and mounting them to the front of several cameras. They were using Arri Marcos at the time.

The cinematographer, Roger Deakins, claims to have pioneered this technique, naming the combination of the lenses that he used “Deakinizers.” Deakin recalls, “Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera.”

Initially, The Film Was Four Hours Long

Pitt and Affleck
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The original cut of the film came out to be a whopping four hours long. However, at the rather reasonable request of the studio, they managed to cut it down to a still-extensive two hours and forty minutes.

At one point, Brad Pitt and executive producer Ridley Scott even worked together to make their own cut. However, when it tested poorly, they went back to director Andre Dominik’s cut. The four-hour version was shown only a few times with one of them being at the Venice Film Festival.

Jesse James Owes A Lot To John Newman Edwards

Picture of Jesse James
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

In real life, Jesse James owed the majority of his fame to John Newman Edwards, the editor at the Kansas City Times. Once a Confederate officer, he published several pro-James editorials, letters, and stories, claiming that they had been written by James, and turning him into a larger-than-life figure.

Edwards also pushed the myth that James was a Robin Hood-like bandit who robbed from the rich to give money to the poor. Yet, there’s no evidence that he ever gave any money away.

Jesse James Was The Son Of A Preacher

Jesse James as a boy
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847, in Clay County, Missouri. He was the son of Zerelda Cole James and Robert James, who was Baptist minister and a slave-owning hemp farmer.

In 1850, Robert James traveled to California to preach in the gold mining camps. However, not long after arriving, he fell ill and died. This led to James’ mother being married two other times, with her third husband moving onto Robert James’ farm with them. Even after Jesse and his brother Frank became outlaws, their mother still supported them.

His Body Was Exhumed From The Grave

Newspaper clipping
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Following his assassination, there was suspicion and rumors that he had faked his own death and that someone else had been buried in his grave. In the passing years, several men even stepped forward claiming to be the infamous James.

In 1995, scientists looking to see if it was truly James buried in his grave exhumed the remains from Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. The remains had been transferred there from the James family farm in 1902. After DNA testing, the scientists were positive that the remains belonged to James.

He Had Some Awful Accidents

Members of the gang
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Over the course of his criminal career, Jesse James did some terrible things on purpose and other things on accident. While robbing the Kansas City Exposition on September 26, 1872, a little girl was accidentally shot in the process.

He later wrote anonymously in a public letter that “It is true that I shot a little girl, though it was not intentional, and I am very sorry that the child was shot; and if the parents will give me their address through the columns of the Kansas City Weekly Times, I will send them money to pay her doctor’s bill.”

His Children Didn’t Even Know His Real Name

Portrait Of James
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Over the course of his life, James adopted several aliases to evade the authorities. Some of the names that he went under included Thomas Howard, John D. Howard, and William Campbell. He also supposedly acted as an Englishman named Charles Lawson “of Nottingham England,” although it’s debated whether he could pull off the accent.

His son, Jesse James Jr. was unaware of his father’s real name until after his death. He also recalled that James would sometimes walk with a cane and a limp when out in public.

His Actions Put His Mother And Brother In Grave Danger

GettyImages-515213442
Outlaw Jesse James with members of his gang, probably two of the Younger brothers.
Outlaw Jesse James with members of his gang, probably two of the Younger brothers.

In January 1874, the James-Younger gang robbed a train at Gads Hill, Missouri, leading authorities to call in a team of detectives founded and headed by Allan Pinkerton. As the detectives hunted down the criminals over many months, many of the detectives were killed by the gang.

This infuriated Pinkerton, who wanted to take revenge on James where he knew it would hurt him the most. In 1875, Pinkerton raided the James family farm and threw a combustible device inside. The explosion resulted in the death of James’ younger half-brother. His mother lost one of her arms in the attack.

He Was A Guerrilla Soldier In The Civil War

Wanted Poster
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Along with “Bloody” Bill Anderson, both Jesse and Frank James served under the famous Confederate leader William Quantrill during the Civil War. Quantrill and his raiders were despised by the Union for their guerrilla warrior tactics.

Quantrill taught James many of the things that he later used in his criminal life. At one point, James personally executed a bank employee who he thought led an attack against his unit during the war. As it turns out, it wasn’t the right man.

The Gang Met A Bloody End

Drawing of James
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

In September of 1876, the James-Younger Gang conducted a botched robbery attempt on a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. During their escape, the people of Northfield fought against the bandits by grabbing weapons from the local hardware store.

Caught off guard and outnumbered, James and his brother Frank were the only two to make an escape. They were arrested, and the remaining men were either killed or captured, signaling an end to their reign.

He Refused To Stop Fighting

Portrait of James his brother and mother
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In a historical moment in 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Unsurprisingly, the surrender meant little to James and a number of others who continued ruthlessly killing Union soldiers a full month after the initial surrender.

His inability to call it quits almost got himself killed in the process. In a skirmish outside of Lexington, Missouri, James was shot in the chest, nearly taking his life.

He Rebuilt His Gang Only To Have It Fall Apart Once Again

James waving down a train
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After the James-Younger Gang had been taken out, James established a new gang. Yet, despite a string of successful robberies, it just wasn’t the same. The new gang eventually began to turn on each other, and by 1881, the authorities were on their tail once again.

Once again, Jesse and his brother Frank were the only survivors. Jesse and Frank eventually went their own ways with Jesse hiring Robert and Charley Ford to protect him and his family. This would turn out to be a fateful decision.