Jesse James’ Hidden Treasure (DVD Review)5 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Now, here’s a wild one that sometimes plays like the product of an overactive imagination. And it may well be, given all the brickbats and con-man accusations that you can see tossed at this documentary’s yarn-central historian (Ron Pastore) when you Google his name. But as a story of personal obsession — think of a Robert Ballard-type of Titanic search, except this time, the target is some underground mason jars in an undisclosed part of Kansas — it separated my upper jaw from my lower for at least some of its length.
Lordy, how many Jesse James movies can one name before even breaking sweat? Well, 20th Century-Fox’s Jesse James (1939) was such a Technicolor smash that, the next year, the studio concocted a color sequel (directed by Fritz Lang, no less): The Return of Frank James. Cult director Samuel Fuller made his directorial debut with 1949 I Shot Jesse James (which got Criterion “Eclipse” treatment — again, no less), and Nicholas Ray tried giving the saga CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color, though Fox apparently tied his hands on The True Story of Jesse James (1956), and even he didn’t like it. (Though I recall one robbery scene that was effectively staged.)
In a bad career move, the “Milford Farnsworth” character played by Bob Hope sold the outlaw an insurance policy in Alias Jesse James (1959 and perhaps the comedian’s last good big-screen vehicle); Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid was one of the critical sleepers of 1972 (there’s even a baseball scene); and more recently, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford got some of 2007’s best notices. Of course, there’s also Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter — but that’s another story, though perhaps no more outrageous than this one.
Hope and Frankenstein aside, most of these movies agree that Ford shot Jesse in the privacy of his own home in 1882 — but this James rendering even doubts that. Initially, though, it simply advances the premise that at least some of Southern sympathizer Jesse’s robberies were motivated by is desire to bankroll the Knights of the Golden Circle (K.G.C.), a secret military order of Confederate die-hards interested in advancing a conglomerate of slave-holders with Cuba, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean.
To this end, driven Pastore is shown somewhere in Kansas — no fair telling; who needs a 21st-century gold rush? — trekking in and around strange caves with odd markings, and trying to find some of a rumored $1.5 million of buried J.J. booty, which would translate into something like $50 million today. Who’s funding this deal? The guy has a crew, he has vans, and he has someone with a radar device that can look at least somewhat underground in semi-MRI fashion. What a way to make a living.
In its final third, this somewhat schizoid documentary then advances the theory that James was involved in a Byzantine conspiracy (even involving the state governor) to fake his own death; that a current-day Kansas local may be Jesse’s uncredited great-grandson; and that the legend himself became an elderly bearded gent (last name James) who lived into the mid-1930s. At least, it doesn’t claim that he became the Jesse James who is currently experiencing marital woes with Sandra Bullock.
In fairness, though, a forensic photo expert is then interviewed next to a computer with the germane photo data, and we see that the alleged great-grandson does have a rather chilling resemblance to the legend. But more disturbingly, a famous shot of Jesse at 16 looks nothing like another familiar photo of Jesse’s corpse (that is, in facial contours, sloping of the lips, those kinds of things). Well, this is how conspiracy theories begin — or get dismissed.
This brief is a true oddity that inspires one to imagine all the ramifications. If it turned out to be true, Hollywood would have to launch another slew of Jesse bios. We could see him living in some Kansas hovel, offering Bonnie and Clyde a hideout or playing Chopsticks with the young Harry Truman. And if Bob Hope’s company paid out on the policy, its adjustor would really have to get cracking.