The True Story of Jesse James

CD Review: The True Story of Jesse James / The Last Wagon

In the late 1950s, the Western was facing a tough showdown during the last years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Interest in the classic film genre was fading, and you could hear the dying gasps before the genre moved to television and faded into the setting sun on film. Intrada recently released two lesser-known Western scores from the 20th-Century Fox vaults.

Nicholas Ray’s THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES (1957) stars Robert Wagner as Jesse and Jeffrey Hunter as Jesse’s assassin, Frank James. Ray had directed earlier Westerns such as THE LUCKY MEN (1952) and the Joan Crawford-Mercedes McCambridge JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). He cemented his reputation with the classsic film of teenage angst, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). In her liner notes, Julie Kirgo calls JESSE JAMES “REBEL on the range.”

Leigh Harline’s score for JESSE JAMES is worlds away from his Oscar-winning music for PINOCCHIO. After his split with Disney, Harline spent the rest of his composing years as a freelancer, moving to whichever studio had work. In addition to JESSE JAMES, 1957 was a particularly busy year for the composer, with three other films–THE WAYWARD BUS, NO DOWN PAYMENT, and THE ENEMY BELOW.

Most of Harline’s score for JESSE JAMES is dark, brittle, and action-oriented. He neatly bookends the film with the folk song, “The Ballad of Jesse James,” using the first three notes of the song as a motif throughout the score. The traditional hymn “Shall We Gather At the River,” written in 1864, subtly places the music in its proper period. Harline’s tender theme for the outlaw offers respite from the shadow of death that hangs over much of the music.

The True Story of Jesse James CD
“Canyon of Death” from THE LAST WAGON

Delmer Davies’ THE LAST WAGON (1956) stars Richard Widmark as “Comanche Todd,” a Comanche-raised trapper wanted for murder after avenging the death of his Indian wife and children. Davies had directed earlier Westerns, including THE DRUM BEAT (1954) and the classic BROKEN ARROW (1950), starring James Stewart, but he is best remembered for his quartet of successful soapers starring Troy Donahue, beginning with A SUMMER PLACE (1959). Contributing the score for the film is Lionel Newman, brother of studio music department head, Alfred Newman, both of whom conducted Harline’s score for JESSE JAMES.

Newman’s music doesn’t bear the hallmark of a personal style to the extent that Alfred, Randy or Thomas Newman do, but that is no reflection on Newman’s craft. The score blends together traditional Western harmonies, Native American rhythms, and action-oriented cues to form an exciting, and at times moving, dramatic score. The tender love theme is an immediate standout. Add in the guitar and harmonica, and it’s a theme you can imagine hearing around a campfire.

Producer Nick Redman has arranged the tracks for both scores into lengthy cues. If you’re not familiar with the films, generic track titles like “Doubts” and “Tragedy” don’t help much in following the story.  Overall, however, this is a minor quibble if your aim is simply to bask in the music, as the CD provides a satisfying listening experience.

You probably won’t leave this recording humming more than a couple of the themes. But while JESSE JAMES and LAST WAGON may not qualify as top-tier Western scores, the quality of the music stands up to repeated listenings. A welcome—if now out-of-print—addition to the Intrada line.

  1. I just received my Intrada Limited Edition soundtrack CD of The Last Wagon, coupled with The True Story of Jesse James (also known as The James Brothers) off an eBay seller.

    Intrada have done very well with this, but I think that they should have had The Last Wagon as a stand-alone release instead of twinning it with another film score, as there would have been room for the whole score then instead of only about half of each one. Maybe one day, FSM will bring out the complete score on CD. But until then, this one will more than suffice. The CD, by the way, issued in 2009 on Intrada Special Collection Volume 101, was limited to a pressing of 1200 copies and is now sold out and deleted. But if you can find a new and still sealed pressing of it, as I did, you will like it if you’re a fan of The Last Wagon score.

    1. Hi David. Thanks for commenting. I wasn’t aware that the ?THE LAST WAGON wasn’t complete. My only thought is that perhaps that is all that survived, or survived in decent enough condition to release. But I’m happy with any music from Lionel Newman, especially since there’s so little available on disc. Glad you were able to find a copy.

  2. Hi, Jim, yes, THE LAST WAGON ran over an hour and a half and there was music practically all the way through it, so with only 33 minutes of it on the disc, most of it is missing…including the exhilarating arrangement of the main theme where Todd (Richard Widmark) takes Billy (Tommy Rettig) into the woods and shows him how to catch a rabbit, the music building to a kind of galloping and happy crescendo as Todd leaves Billy to his task while he sets off to lay some traps of his own…a clear example of yet another arrangement that Lionel Newman got out of his haunting and powerful main theme. Another peice that’s missing is the part where Todd, at that stage still chained to the wagon wheel, is bought some oatmeal cookies by Billy and he and Todd talk and get to know each other better. I don’t know what the title of that cue was, but I’ve always called it “Billy’s Theme.”


    1. I’ve actually never seen the film, even though I think I made a copy from TCM. So it must be somewhere around here. I should give it a look. Maybe that will be my Saturday night viewing. :) And I’ll look out for “Billy’s Theme”.

      1. The film has been released by Fox on a widescreen DVD with stereo sound and is well worth watching and listening to. I went to see it at the pictures when I was ten years old in 1957. I was very impressed then and now, nearly 53 years later, it hasn’t dated in the sense that it still looks and sounds marvelous. Of course, it runs rings around most of the films that pass for so-called entertainment these days, the style of filmaking and scoring having changed considerably since 1956, but in those days, the style was to give a film a haunting main theme or title song that people could whistle or hum or sing coming out of the cinema…a kind of free publicity for the film. There’s nothing like that today. It’s all gone now.

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