Brad Pitt as Jesse James, legendary outlaw
Missouri, Fall 1881 through Spring 1882
Film: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Release Date: September 21, 2007
Director: Andrew Dominik
Costume Designer: Patricia Norris
An old adage advises us to never meet our heroes, as they’re sure to disappoint. This theme permeates one of my favorite Westerns, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, depicting the months leading up to the titular betrayal that surprised the country 140 years ago today.
All these years later, Jesse James remains a household name, wisely portrayed on screen by A-lister Brad Pitt to reinforce to audiences the presence that the bandit would have commanded during his heyday. But, just as Jesse’s mentee-turned-murderer grew disillusioned by getting too close to the man, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford subverts our own expectations of such a titanic American outlaw by introducing him not triumphantly on horseback, blazing away in a gunfight, or in the midst of a daring robbery, but instead living a quietly satisfying suburban life:
He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn’t know how their father made his living or why they so often moved. They didn’t even know their father’s name.
He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard, and he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch.
He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.
Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the 17 murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and, on September 5th in the year 1881, he was 34 years old.
About fifteen years have passed since ex-Confederate guerrillas Frank and Jesse James had revolutionized daylight bank robberies with their daring and dangerous holdups, enrapturing a nation, stoking post-Civil War resentment, and rising to become one of the first superstars of American crime, a seemingly oxymoronic phenomenon that has endured due to the romanticized exploits of the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger. Unlike some of the more sprawling accounts of their crimes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford focuses its narrative specifically on the last eight months of Jesse James’ life as well as the aftermath of his assassination.
With the infamous Younger brothers either behind bars or pushing daisies, the James gang is past its prime, churning out train robberies more for the sake of retaining their reputation than needing the cash, not unlike today’s blockbuster actors corrupting their filmographies with a litany of straight-to-streaming stinkers. As the older and wiser Frank James (Sam Shepard) considers retirement, Jesse (Brad Pitt) surrounds himself with trigger-happy fanboys like brothers Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), who had grown up admiring him… for all the wrong reasons.
The title could have been borrowed from a dime-store novel like those we see tucked away under Bob Ford’s bed, and while some have criticized its literary ambitions as “the first time we’ve been asked to watch a book on tape,” I feel that the slow-burning pace and master cinematographer Roger Deakins’ photography of the middle west’s vast emptiness only serve to paint the perfect backdrop of a time and place where a mere mortal—and a violently flawed one at that—could rise to such deification, creating the foundation for a tradition of toxic American hero worship.
The movie departs from Western tradition by this focus on the nature of fame, zeroing in on idol worship and the all-American adoration of toxic charisma, centered around the two figures named in the title. Bob is quick to point out the parallels—no matter how inane—that he’s identified between himself and Jesse:
Well, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I guess it is interesting, the many ways you and I overlap and whatnot. You begin with our daddies. Your daddy was a pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church; my daddy was a pastor of a church at Excelsior Springs. Um. You’re the youngest of the three James boys; I’m the youngest of the five Ford boys. Between Charley and me is another brother, Wilbur here, with six letters in his name; between Frank and you was a brother, Robert, also with six letters. Robert is my Christian name. You have blue eyes; I have blue eyes. You’re five feet eight inches tall; I’m five feet eight inches tall. Oh me, I must’ve had a list as long as your nightshirt when I was twelve, but I’ve lost some curiosities over the years.
Little could Jesse or Bob know in that humiliating moment that each would also meet their ends by men who shot them in the back, not long after being jettisoned by their steadier older brothers (Frank, by choosing honest work; Charley, by suicide.)
2007 saw a wave of excellent films that, while set in the west, challenge the traditional trappings of the genre, including No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The latter recalls earlier revisionist Westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller (and not just because of the big fur coats worn by Warren Beatty and Brad Pitt!), swapping stock characters, grandiose scores, and epic gunfights for quiet character studies, a sparsely effective score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and a realistically raw gunfight where our outlaws are too distracted by the smoky powder and immense power of their single-action hand cannons to cleanly land a hit while shooting at each other from across a small attic room.
Considered one of the most accurate cinematic portrayals of Jesse James’ much-chronicled life, the film’s adherence to truth naturally de-mythologizes the infamous outlaw while representing just how he maintained his “folk hero” image among the public and his own merry band of misfits, all brought to life by talented actors who add depth to even more limited roles like the wily Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), the laconic Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), the slow-witted Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Jesse’s long-suffering wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker). Unfolding like a docudrama to the straightforward narration of assistant editor Hugh Ross, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford finds a quiet, if brooding, poetry in depicting the tragedy of its title incident.
Don’t that picture look dusty?
What’d He Wear?
Dressing for Banditry
On the fifth anniversary of the James-Younger gang’s notoriously bloody attempt to rob two banks in Northfield, Minnesota, we catch up with Jesse—two days after turning 34—and Frank leading their new gang of hillbilly hoodlums in a more successful (if less ambitious) robbery of the Chicago & Alton train on a stretch of track known as “Blue Cut” near Glendale, Missouri. This new band barely resembles the hardened ex-guerillas of the James gang’s “glory days” and is now cobbled together of Southern sympathizers and inexperienced roughnecks like the 19-year-old Bob Ford with his pitiful homemade mask and “granddaddy Colt”.
As their leader, Jesse James looks the most professional of the bunch, specifically by wearing not a worn and ragged duster but a black wool double-breasted frock coat that creates a “badass longcoat” effect, particularly effective as we see his silhouette illuminated by the train lights as he strides up the rails.
Jesse layers the frock coat over a non-matching black single-breasted waistcoat (vest) with a shawl collar that meets at mid-chest, slightly lower than the dressier waistcoats that match his suits. The waistcoat has four sew-through buttons, which he wears fastened to the bottom but repurposes the second buttonhole to hook the T-bar attached to his gold pocket watch chain, worn “single Albert”-style with the watch carried in the right of the two welted pockets.
While also dark, his woolen trousers contrast with the frock coat and waistcoat with a double taupe stripe against the black ground, echoing the more formal “cashmere”-striped trousers worn with contemporary morning dress. These flat front trousers have double sets of black buttons at the top of the waistband, to which Jesse connects the loops of his tan fabric suspenders (braces), as well as slanted side pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms.
Throughout the movie, Jesse wears a pair of well-traveled black leather squared-toe boots with raised heels. Particularly when on the job, he appoints them with a set of steel spurs that fasten around each boot with a brown leather belted strap.
Jesse exclusively wears white cotton shirts that button up a front placket to a neckband that he more often than not wears unfastened and thus sans collar. During the train robbery sequence, he wears a shirt finished with single cuffs, fastened with a set of small gilt rectangular links.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford bucks Western tradition by dressing the James gang in headgear like bowler hats rather than the stereotypical cowboy hats. Jesse himself wears an all-black homburg, an apt choice to communicate his steady but villainous leadership as this particular style—once popularized by the future King Edward VII during an 1893 visit to Germany—would be associated with leaders both fictional (think Al Pacino as Michael Corleone) and real (like Winston Churchill). Jesse’s black felt homburg has a black grosgrain band and matching binding around the edges of the curled brim.
The Last Best West offers the Mister Howard Homburg, inspired by Jesse’s alias.
For the robbery, Jesse covers the lower half of his face with a dark brown paisley bandana, more understated than the red or blue paisley cotton kerchiefs associated with stereotypical wild west banditry.
Brown Herringbone at Home
For a few scenes chronicling Jesse’s home life, including one immediately following the robbery where he announces that Bob will be staying behind with Jesse’s family in St. Joseph, he wears a waistcoat and trousers made from matching dark brown herringbone wool.
The single-breasted waistcoat has short notch lapels and five self-covered buttons that rise to a much higher buttoning point over the chest. There are four welted pockets, with Jesse again keeping his gold pocket watch in the lower right-hand pocket, the single-Albert chain now looped through the fourth buttonhole. The flat front trousers, presumably also worn with suspenders, rise high enough that the waistband remains appropriately unseen under the waistcoat.
The Black Frock Suit
Through most of his latter scenes, including the titular killing on April 3, 1882, Jesse wears a black wool three-piece suit anchored by a dressier version of the frock coat he had worn for the opening robbery, though it subtly differs in the style such as the lapel stitching and the fact that the train robbery coat had two-button cuffs while this “town” frock coat has three-button cuffs. (An iCollector auction listing for this outfit confirms the color, material, usage, and the fact that it was provided by Western Costume.)
The frock coat was most accepted for daytime business dress through the mid-to-late 19th century, aligning with the setting of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Many in the James gang’s orbit may not have owned anything so formal, but Jesse’s wealth and his respectable veneer as St. Joseph businessman “Thomas Howard” would earn the garment its rightfully prominent place in his wardrobe.
Jesse’s frock coat features all of the traditional elements, including the close fit, waist suppression, and full knee-length skirt. The double-breasted configuration resembles the style popularized by Albert, prince consort to Queen Victoria, and thus known as a “Prince Albert” coat. The peak lapels and collar have been stitched together, separate from the body of the coat, with straight gorges. The lapels overlap at center chest, above the two parallel columns of three covered buttons each that flank a center seam extending down to the waist seam.
On the back, the waist seam is intersected by the curved seams extending down from the armholes, where two decorative covered buttons are shanked to the coat at the crest of the long tails carried over from the coat’s equestrian origins.
The matching black wool single-breasted waistcoat resembles the cut and styling of his brown herringbone waistcoat, with short notch lapels, a high-fastening front with five self-covered buttons, and four welted pockets. The back is lined in a black brick-patterned material, with an adjustable strap to cinch the waist.
Jesse’s black flat front trousers have plain-hemmed bottoms, side pockets, and two slanted set-in back pockets, each closed through a button on a scalloped flap. Though we see that the trousers are held up with Jesse’s usual tan fabric suspenders, they also have a cinch-strap over the back waistband—mirroring the waistcoat above it—that can adjust the fit by tightening or loosening through a silver-toned buckle.
Jesse wears several of his usual white cotton neckband shirts with his black frock suit, including one with button-fastened barrel cuffs when he’s killed and another with squared double (French) cuffs that he fastens with a set of silver octagonal links, each filled with a black enamel circle.
Jesse rarely dresses the shirt up with a collar and tie, but we do see him on occasion appointing it as such when squiring Bob Ford around St. Joseph in the early weeks of their association. His stiff wing collar has distinctively shaped wings with a subtly cut-out wave interrupting what would have otherwise been a straight edge and corner. His black silk tie has a unique side-twisted knot rather than the now-common four-in-hand.
The Looter in Winter
For wintry expeditions, Jesse layers with a black wool double-breasted coat with a broad squared collar in black astrakhan fur, made from the lush fleece of Karakul sheep that originated in central Asia. The coat has six brown nut buttons, plain cuffs, and large welted vertical-entry side pockets.
Jesse’s black leather gloves have black ribbed-knit woolen cuffs under the gauntlets that keep his wrists protected from the elements where they’d be otherwise uncovered by his coat-sleeves.
In especially cold weather, Jesse further embraces furry insulation by layering on a more dramatic full-fur coat, though I don’t profess to be expert enough in animal pelts to identify the mammal that sacrificed its hide for Jesse’s warmth.
Pitt’s Jesse James wears two gold rings, a smooth band on his right ring finger and another on his left pinky, with at least one of these presumably his wedding ring. (I tried to research whether or not the real Jesse James had worn rings, but the predominant search results were decade-old gossip columns driven by paparazzi photos of Sandra Bullock’s estranged ex-husband who shared his name with the outlaw.)
Seen under the unbuttoned neckbands of his dress shirts and while sleeping, Jesse wears an off-white cotton henley-style undershirt or union suit.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford establishes Jesse James’ preferred armament as the Single Action Army revolver, which was then made exclusively by Colt, though the screen-used revolvers were reportedly made by the now-defunct manufacturer U.S. Fire Arms Mfg. Co. (USFA), also based in Colt’s headquarters town of Hartford, Connecticut.
Jesse’s trio of Single Action Army revolvers include a pair with the full 7.5″-long Cavalry barrel and one with the shorter 5.5″ Artillery barrel, likely chambered in either .45 Long Colt or .44-40 Winchester Center Fire and provided for the production by armorer Thell Reed.
Cautious to the point of paranoia, Jesse rarely strays from his guns, even while bathing and sleeping at home. He sometimes carries his Peacemaker in a shoulder holster, or sometimes a butt-facing pair in his gunbelt, and occasionally both rigs together, resulting in a total of three guns… weighing in somewhere around eight pounds. Carrying this much artillery informs the need for well-made holster systems, for which the production turned to leather artists David Carrico and Will Ghormley.
Jesse’s shoulder rig consists of a wide black tooled leather strap over his left shoulder connected to a holster under his right arm, presumably for the shorter-barreled Artillery model Single Action Army, and looped over his right shoulder on a narrower smoother black leather strap. Carrico made this rig himself, reportedly based on one believed to be worn by the real Jesse James.
As outlined in an interview granted to Art Andrews, a member of The RPF, Ghormley explained that Carrico had asked him to design a gun belt based on the one retrieved from Jesse’s home on the day he was killed in April 1882. Accounting for the fact that the original belt and holster was likely made for a larger revolver, Ghormley designed the screen-ready belt and holsters to accommodate a Single Action Army and a Smith & Wesson Schofield, though ultimately only the former was chosen as Jesse’s on-screen armament.
The brown leather belt is a fold-over money belt and cartridge belt, with cartridge loops around the back and a “coffin”-ended billet overlaid across the front to close through a large squared silver-toned single-prong buckle. The two open-top brown tooled holsters are positioned so that Jesse would wear his Peacemakers butt-forward, in the cavalry tradition. These holsters were designed and carved by Ghormley, then sewn together and lined by Carrico on a belt that Carrico had made for the production.
Despite his infamy, or perhaps due to it, there’s been considerable argument on what firearms the real Jesse James preferred and was wearing when he died. As outlined in a brief dissection by Marshall Trimble for True West, Jesse has often been associated with the Smith & Wesson Schofield break-top revolver, though his preferences likely also ranged to percussion “cap-and-ball” Colts and Remingtons as well as the Colt Single Action Army, supported by the inventory found in his St. Joseph home the day he was killed. The debate has been additionally muddied by his mother, Zerelda, who reportedly would purchase revolvers and sell them to unsuspecting treasure hunters, claiming them to be her famous late son’s weaponry.
Though I still would hesitate to trust anyone purporting to have an authentic Jesse James revolver—especially at this late date—considerable provenance went into proving that he did once own at least one .45-caliber Colt Single Action Army with a 7.5″ Cavalry barrel. The Daily Mail reported that this six-shooter—produced by Colt in the summer of 1881, a year before Jesse was killed—was expected to fetch $1.6 million during a 2013 auction, though the Heritage Auctions description still lists the weapon as not sold as of April 2022.
Less questioned is the model of weapon used by Bob Ford to kill Jesse James in April 1882, as historical record has demonstrated that Bob fired a .44-caliber shot from a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 revolver.
The New Model No. 3 was Smith & Wesson’s evolution of the earlier Schofield that had been frequently associated with Jesse. Following the ceased production of older Model 3 revolvers like the Schofield in 1877, Smith & Wesson introduced the improved New Model No. 3 that maintained the signature top-break operation but with a longer cylinder.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford depicts Bob’s New Model No. 3 as a gift from Jesse to replace Bob’s nearly half-century old Paterson Colt percussion revolver.
How to Get the Look
There would be few situations in this day and age that call for a frock coat, but the late Patricia Norris’ costume design for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford neatly captures the actual fashions one might have seen in Jesse James’ closet 140 years ago, more a representation of latter Victorian day dress than the prototypical cowboy attire of wide-brimmed hats, denim, and paisley kerchiefs.
- Black wool double-breasted “Prince Albert”-style frock coat with split peak lapels, covered 6×3-button front, covered 3-button cuffs, and decorative 2-button back with tails
- Black wool single-breasted waistcoat/vest with short notch lapels, self-covered 5-button front, and four welted pockets
- Black wool flat front trousers with suspender buttons, side pockets, slanted scallop-flapped back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton neckband shirt with button-up placket and double/French cuffs
- Tan cloth suspenders
- Black leather squared-toe cowboy boots
- Black felt homburg with black grosgrain band and edges
- Gold pocket watch on single-Albert chain with bar
- Gold wedding ring
- Gold pinky ring
- Black tooled leather shoulder holster
- Brown leather billeted money/cartridge belt with large squared silver-toned single-prong buckle and two butt-forward tooled leather holsters
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I haven’t been acting correctly. I can’t hardly recognize myself sometimes when I’m greased. I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and my mean face, and I wonder about that man who’s gone so wrong. I’ve been becoming a problem to myself.