Response 1 – Jesse James: From Hero to Villain in the Eyes of One (2.1)

by Jessica Schreyer

This project utilizes an interesting combination of music, video, text, and still pictures; it moves at a slow pace, creating time for us to question our beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong, innocence and guilt. It asks the viewer to re-engage and reconsider the historical representation of Jesse James either as a folk hero or a cold-blooded killer. After several viewings, I still had chills when the first few ominous notes of lullaby-type music played.

The project demonstrates how our understanding of a person or idea changes not only as we learn more about that idea, but also as we gain a complexity of our understanding of the world over time. The creator remixed vintage Western videos portraying James, and the product allows the viewers to consider how history is also reconceptualized over time.

This project is reminiscent of an article featured in theSmithsonian a few years ago. Reston (2007) explained:

Jesse James was America’s Robin Hood; Theodore Roosevelt himself had proclaimed him such. Jamesrobbed from the rich–from flush banks and flourishing railroads–and gave to the poor. He was dashing and daring, with slicked-back hair, slouch hats, high leather boots, three-piece suits and fast stallions. As a teenager, I read comic books that had Jesse riding out of town, pistols blazing, as he rescued some damsel in distress.

While James’ looks may have aided in his representation as a folklore hero, Reston’s argument is that there is no evidence that James gave to the poor, and in fact, it was more likely that he greedily took until the end of his life, and killed with little, if any, remorse. Yet, as this project demonstrates, the legend continues. In response to the 2007 movie The Assassination of Jesse James featuring Brad Pitt, Reston (2007) noted:

If it is true that every generation reinterprets history in the light of its experience, it is also true that individuals reinterpret the myths of their youth in later life. So, in turn, do they change their attitude toward the landmarks that memorialize those myths. Despite the considerable efforts of Brad Pitt, it is a stretch to make Jesse Jamesinto a hero.

This video, to me, encapsulates visually the argument Reston made textually. The video invites the viewers on a journey. In the beginning, we see James as a hero of the working man – working against the corporations and banks that are “robbing” commoners of their wealth. However, as time passes, and as the film goes on, it becomes clear that James is a robber and murderer whose main achievement was to amass wealth at the expense of others.

This video is a tribute to the fact that adding multiple layers of complexity to the production can deepen the response in the viewer. Had the author simply included still pictures, it would have lacked a depth of watching the old videos. Had the author neglected the sound of a child’s voice calling James a “hero”, we would have lost the innocent childhood perception of what creates a idol. The movement of James from hero to villain throughout is a demonstration of the maturing of thought as one moves from child to adult, but also a demonstration of the complexity of good versus evil. In our innocence of youth, we can believe an outlaw who steals from some can make a hero, but as the film shows, when we learn more, we become complicit in the folklore if we do not reconceptualize our vision of the outlaw.

The necessity for reconsidering our view of Jesse James resonates with Martin Luther King Jr’s belief that “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” If we allow children to simply cling to the belief of an outlaw as hero, then we neglect to show them a complete man.

In this project, chilling words cross the screen stating that James killed a teller in cold blood while leaving the scene of a robbery. That is an atrocity that the character Amanda realizes in her study of James. She believes she cannot accept this evil, and works to protest against it through her own creativity, which is artfully incorporated into the video.

This video makes it difficult to deny the evil that James carried out, no matter what folklore exists. It is quite a feat for a short video to cause viewers to reinterpret their view of history and the folklore learned in youth.


Reston Jr., J. (2007). Jesse James and Me. Smithsonian, 38(7), 112-120. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.