Image Entertainment and The Discovery Channel have released Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist onto disc, a 2005 documentary that utilizes some finely filmed recreations, along with the questionable inclusion of some modern crime solvers, to look at not only the notorious outlaw's life story, but also the controversies about his death and where his gold is hidden.
Now I've written before about the killer Jesse James, from an excellent PBS documentary that came out on DVD some months back (please click here to read that review, and for more in-depth background on James' life), so I'm not going to go into detail about his actual biography. Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist does a pretty fair job of going over the signposts in the outlaw's career (although the PBS documentary was far more thorough). This documentary, though, features some particularly well-lit and shot reenactments that help bring this despicable criminal's story to life. Quite often, these kinds of History Channel or A & E documentaries feature recreations that are subpar, but here, the reenactments are beautifully rendered, with an attention to detail and smashing cinematography.
Where Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist goes wrong is in some of the choices in people speaking during the documentary. All of the historians are quite good, even though I question some of the statements and conclusions that are brought forth (I get tired of hearing about criminals who turn to a life of illegality because they "have no other choice"). But the inclusion of contemporary criminologists such as former police detective Tom Lange (of O.J. infamy) borders on the superfluous. Lange's a tough cookie, but his demonstration on why Jesse James couldn't stand on a chair to dust a picture is frankly ludicrous (somebody should have eliminated that scene from the final cut). When Lange looks into the camera and affirms that James' actions were indeed criminal, I have to wonder who in the audience didn't already know that.
Far more successful is Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist's final half hour, when James' lifestory is finished and two post-mortem threads are pursued: how Jesse may have died, and where he buried his gold. There's a fascinating look at Bob Brewer, a treasure hunter who spent years trying to decipher tree markings that may link James with the notorious Knights of the Golden Circle. And a ballistic examination of James' murder - and the contention that James was not really killed by Robert Ford - proves equally intriguing. Unfortunately, as I stated above, these two absorbing threads come at the very end of Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist. The first hour of Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist details James' life; it's well-done, but fairly routine; the final conspiracy section is far more interesting, and should have been the main focus of this documentary.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.