First of all, let me agree with the reviewer from Kansas City that if you want a historically accurate film about the James brother see "The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Bob Ford" based on the book by Rob Hanson. All other Jesse James movies are terribly inaccurate and misleading.
At the end of "Frank & Jesse" is the disclaimer: "This motion picture is based upon actual events. However, some of the characters and incidents portrayed and many of the names used herein are fictitious; any similarity of such character, incident, or name, to the name, characters or history of any person, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental and unintentional."
Many of the events never happened. For example, Pinkerton and Jesse were never known to be in the same place at the same time The hilarious bathhouse romp and the shooting at the ferry involving the wives, Anne and Zee, resp. give a whole new meaning to "Mollification".
Then there's the legend of the widow's mortgage. It's also attributed to Jesse's contemporary, Billy the Kid, as well as to Dick Turpin much earlier. The usual story has the outlaws repaying the widow's hospitality with cash for the mortgage and then waylaying the collector to retrieve the payment. The version in the movie is botched. A receipt is not obtained and the outlaws back off.
Some of the incidents are time shifted to earlier dates to create more sympathy for the outlaws. Their step-father was harassed, but not killed, to try to find out where Frank and the border ruffians were hiding. The revenge fire bombing, which killed their young half-brother and severely wounded their mother, occurred nine years after the war and well after the gang had robbed several banks and trains and killed many innocent people. Clemency was never granted because of these deeds and their participation in atrocities under Quantrill and "Bloody" Bill Anderson.
Most of the names used in the movie belong to actual people – but are often used incorrectly. As pointed out in earlier reviews Archie Clements died during the war. And the roles of the Fords are twisted. Was that deliberate to warn us that the details of the assassination were also being twisted to make Jesse appear to be more noble than he was?
But on to the event with which I'm most familiar, viz. the attempted robbery of the Northfield bank. Please see the Wikipedia account which is as accurate as any. There were eight in the gang – Frank and Jesse; Cole, Bob and Jim Younger; as well as Charlie Pitts, Clel Miller and Bill Chadwell. The movie has six - Frank, Jesse, Cole and Bob, and also John Younger and Archie Clements, both of whom had been dead for some time. In fact, they were armed with four to six revolvers each which they wore under their dusters, but no rifles.
There was no conspiracy. At least three movies have a conspiracy. Had there been one the defenders would have been better prepared. However, almost as soon as the raid began the locals were alerted and picked up two civil war single-shot rifles and several "fowling pieces" loaded with bird shot. Despite the fact that they are great movie clichés, nobody and no horses crashed through windows and nobody was up on the roof so they could get shot off the roof falling forward into the street. The defenders did out shoot the professionals; Miller and Chadwell received fatal wounds from the rifles. Two locals were killed – one of the bank clerks and a recent Swedish immigrant, deaths attributed to a James and Cole, resp. Both victims were unarmed.
Beside clichés we have stereotyping in the movie. Minnesota = cold; right. Snow on the ground in early September? That's two months early. And fresh ice in the ice house three months early. O'Malley Saloon and the Oslo Theatre? No way; the town was owned by Yankees from New England. Although Scandinavians and a few Irish had started to arrive they hadn't yet worked their way onto Division Street.
Posses were formed after the raid, but the James brothers were able to steal a succession of fresh mounts and rode through Dakota Territory and disappeared for three years, mainly in Nashville. Cole stayed behind to care for his brothers who were more seriously wounded. In a shoot out at Hanska Slough, seven members of a posse flushed the gang out of hiding and out shot them. Pitts was killed. The Younger brothers were captured, confessed and were imprisoned.
The movie does scratch the surface to the question "Why was Jesse the way he was?". A greater question is "Why do we try to make heroes out of murderers?" The problem with movies like "Frank & Jesse" is that they perpetuate the myth that they were some kind of Robin Hoods. If you're looking for heroes consider Joseph Lee Heywood, the acting cashier who gave his life protecting the city, and Northfield citizens A. R. Manning and Henry Wheeler and the seven members of the Madelia posse who put the end to the gang of notorious cutthroats.
Not True, Not Historically Accurate, Not Even Close
It's understandable that to make a movie exiting and marketable, compromises with historical fact will be made. Thus the train robbery scene with the outlaws riding alongside the train and leaping from car to car may have been more exiting than their usual modus operandi which was to block the tracks, stop the train and then board it. The James brothers' step-father was not killed during a raid on their place, but that makes a sympathetic story. (During the war he was nearly killed in a raid, but that was years earlier.)
But why the unexplainable inaccuracies? The confrontation scene between the two Youngers and the Pinkerton agents was close to the truth; but why was John Younger called a cousin when in fact he was a brother? Unnecessarily, J. L. Heywood is listed in the credits as a teller at the Northfield bank when in fact he was the bookkeeper and (acting) cashier.
I could go on, but let's consider the main scene, which is the raid on the First National Bank and its aftermath. Here are some facts as they appear in publications of the Northfield and Minnesota historical societies, based on eyewitness accounts.
1. The eight robbers are correctly identified in the movie. However,
2. The three to enter the bank were Bob Younger, Frank (or possibly Jesse) James, and Charlie Pitts (not Clell Miller.) Giving Clell, a brother, a more major role than he had enhanced the story, but then why was Ed Miller's real role diminished?
3. Except for the dress, demeanor, behavior and speech of the robbers, no one in Northfield had any advanced warning of the robbery.
4. The outlaws were dressed in white linen dusters, which covered their pistols and ammunition. Each outlaw carried several pistols but no rifle.
5. There were no customers in the bank. The last customer, hardware store owner J.S. Allen was suspicious and came back and was shoved away (but not shot) by Clell Miller who was guarding the outside of the bank along with Cole. Allen alerted other store owners, including fellow hardware store owner A.R. Manning, of the robbery in progress.
6. Across the street, F. Wheeler, son of the drug store owner and a medical student, also noticed the ruckus and sent out an alarm.
7. The first shots from the robbers were intended to intimidate and frighten the bankers and citizens. As the citizens took up arms the robbers became more serious too.
8. The defenders were armed mainly with shotguns loaded with bird shot. It was hunting season. Some even threw rocks at the raiders. Only two, Manning and Wheeler, had rifles (single shot, breech loading Civil War relics.)
9. In the bank, the safe was in the open vault, closed but unlocked. The time lock had already gone off. Despite threats and beatings the bank employees refused to cooperate. Pitts tried to enter the vault but Heywood slammed the door on him. The assistant bookkeeper, F. Wilcox, was shot in the shoulder by Pitts as he escaped out the bank door; although serious, the wound was not mortal. Because of actions outside and their lack of cooperation the robbers decided to leave. The last to exit was the James brother, who killed the unarmed Heywood.
10. The only other citizen to be wounded was a 30-year old Swedish immigrant, also unarmed. He died four days later.
11. From a third story window across the street, Wheeler shot and killed Miller (who had previously received a load of bird shot in the face) and shot Bob Younger in the elbow.
12. Manning killed one of the outlaws' horses, shot and killed Bill Chadwell from 80 yards, and wounded Cole Younger in the hip. The James brothers, Jim Younger and Charlie Pitts were unscathed.
13. The outlaws left going south on main street - no jumping of barriers, no crashing through windows, nobody fell off a roof. Those may be great movie clichés but they just didn't happen.
14. Mainly by abandoning their horses and hiding out in the woods the six remaining outlaws were able to avoid the posse, one thousand strong, the largest in the history of the U.S., for a week.
15. At that point the James boys split from the others, stole horses, broke thru a picket line in the dark getting shot off their horses, limped through corn fields, stole more horses, and made it to Dakota Territory two days later.
16. Thinking all had escaped, the posse was disbanded.
17. However, two weeks after the robbery, a Norwegian immigrant farm boy recognized the bandits, still afoot; he rode several miles into Madelia MN where a local posse was formed. As in Northfield, the locals out shot the pros. Pitts was killed; the Youngers received several wounds each and surrendered. A month later at their trial they confessed,thereby avoiding the death penalty. They were sentenced for life. Bob died in prison. Jim and Cole were paroled after 25 years.
After their escape, Frank and Jesse stayed low for three years, mainly in Nashville. Jesse returned to crime. However he became increasingly paranoid. On suspicion, he killed some of his fellow gang members including Ed Miller who had introduced him to the Ford brothers. (I thought the movie was setting up this interesting part of the story but it was never written in or was edited out.) Jesse was shot for the reward by Bob Ford on April 3, 1882.
Frank went straight and turned himself in on October 4, 1882. Doing so to be able to attend his brothers' funeral six months earlier is pure horse feathers.
The movie may deserve accolades for casting, acting, scenery, action and music but not for historical accuracy.