The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

One of the most anticipated films of the autumn, The Assassination of Jesse James has nonetheless been a long time in coming – nearly as long as its title, in fact. Originally set for a 2006 release, with filming completed more than two years ago, despite rave reviews from test screenings for the central performances of Brad Pitt (as James) and Ben’s little brother Casey Affleck (as Ford), the fact that the film is a Western seems to have given the studio a number of concerns.

Westerns, once such a staple of Hollywood movies as to be regarded by many as the defining film genre, have seen precious few big screen outings of late. Reaching their heyday in the 1950s, at the height of John Wayne’s fame, with a brief resurgence towards the end of the 1960s with the rise of Clint Eastwood, in the last 30 years hardly any major Westerns have hit our screens. While at their height Hollywood was turning out hundreds of cowboy and Indian flicks every year, in the last three decades the shift has instead been towards present-day action movies – horses, Stetsons and six-shooters seemingly having lost their once all-conquering allure.

Of course, there have been a few successful revivals of the genre, from Kevin Costner’s epic Dances With Wolves through to Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and in recent years the superbly foul-mouthed and violence-heavy television series Deadwood – now sadly cancelled – has won the Western new fans. But cinemas have rarely had the pleasure of screening those wide open expanses, despite the enduring popularity of the myths of the old West in the American consciousness.

The near-legendary gunslinger Jesse James has a part in the American national identity much akin to that of Robin Hood in that of Britain. A train-robbing bandit who lived from 1847 to 1882 and who certainly killed more than his fair share of people who got in his way, James was a showman who usually targeted the money of large banks and companies rather than simply holding up ordinary people. This, combined with his popular (if largely unfounded) association with the post-Civil War Confederate resistance, soon turned him into a legend in his own lifetime. And, as with all such figures, it was his untimely and unusual death that sealed his immortality – just as with the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, John Lennon, or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

There have been countless film and television portrayals of James, with actors ranging from Tyrone Power and Roy Rogers through to Robert Duval and Colin Farrell having taken on the part. Yet it is perhaps Pitt’s performance in this latest cinematic outing which has been the most anticipated, with numerous rumours that it might finally net that most A-list of A-listers a long-overdue Oscar.

Despite the delays in release caused by repeated re-editing at the behest of the studio, cutting the film from three to two-and-a-half hours, the end result has widely been hailed as a potential contender for the Best Picture Oscar. Nominated for the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (where Pitt also picked up Best Actor), critics and audiences alike have been raving about a beautifully-realised movie, which is as much about the modern culture of celebrity as about a popular but unarmed outlaw being shot in the back more than a century ago. Little wonder Pitt was attracted to the part – after the maulings he’s received in the tabloid press over the break-up of his marriage to Jennifer Aniston, doubtless he could relate.