The Real Story Behind ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’

A look at what really happened with the characters of Andrew Dominik's 2007 Western epic.
The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Real Story

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the real story behind Andrew Dominik’s 2007 Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Much like its characters, Andrew Dominik’s 2007 Western epic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has taken on a cult following since its box office flop. The film and its star-studded cast take its inspiration from a 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, who in turn took based the book on real events. Here is a look at the true story behind the film.

The James Brothers

The story of Jesse and Frank James (played in the film by Brad Pitt and Sam Shepard) is the kind naturally suited for the Western genre, one that often deals in myths or the space between fact and fiction. Born in Kansas in the 1840s, the James Brothers came of age during the Civil War. Committed Confederates, they soon joined factions engaged in guerrilla warfare, the so-called “bushwhackers.” Jesse, for his part, became a known murderer, with some historians speculating he killed upwards of seventeen people in his life.

At the end of the war, the James brothers set out on the bank robbing that would make them famous. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the two brothers:

Throughout their long career and afterward, their exploits were seized upon by writers who exaggerated and romanticized their deeds to meet the demands of Eastern readers for bloody Western tales.

As the film itself notes, many soon began to think of Jesse James as a Robin Hood-like figure, giving that which he stole to those most in need. However, historians note there is little evidence to suggest he ever stole for anyone but himself. He became a symbol for racist white Americans who mourned the loss of the confederacy. As Wil Haygood wrote in the Washington Post: 

The myth of Jesse James rampaged as if on a white horse, carrying a man who many were wont to believe held a code of ethics and a desire to redeem their own lost pride. They were, for the most part, rural whites who were ground down by the Civil War and existing hand-to-mouth.

The James Gang

Nearly as famous as the brothers were those with whom they associated. Dominik’s film depicts the gang at the end of the James brothers’ tenure when they were already living myths. The men live in the shadow of those who came before them: those who died in the service of the James brothers’ crime. This sense of paranoia fuels their actions throughout the film. Here are some of the real men featured in the film.

Wood Hite

Jeremey Renner plays Wood Hite, Jesse’s cousin and a member of the gang. Hite, according to historian Bill O’Neal, was first a raider with “Bloody” Bill Anderson, one of the most well-known Confederate guerrilla fighters. In 1876, the James Gang suffered one of its greatest setbacks. They planned to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. However, things quickly took a tour for the worst. Once the gang entered the bank, the townspeople got word and began taking up arms. Two members of the gang were killed, and another two were wounded. Needing to rebuild the gang, the James brothers brought on Hite. But, according to O’Neal, his tenure was shortlived:

Wood, a gangling, stoop-shouldered man with prominent front teeth, was easily recognizable, and after a few train holdups he sought refuge at his father’s home in in Logan County, Kentucky.

Dick Liddil

Dick Liddil (played by Paul Schneider) joined up with the James brothers around the same time as Hite, near the end of the gang’s run in 1879. In the years after the new gang’s work, a streak of “paranoia,” according to PBS, began making its way through the group. Government officials were closing in. Infighting ensued. No one knew who to trust.

Sources differ on the feud that ensued between Liddil and Hite at the end of the James Gang’s tenure. But one explanation is the hatred started over a woman named Martha. The dispute led to a gunfight between the two in 1882, during which a man by the name of Robert Ford (played by Casey Affleck) killed Hite. According to Wild West magazine:

[Liddil] went to Kansas City and turned himself in, mainly for fear of what Jesse James would do to him for killing Jesse’s first cousin. Liddil apparently told the law most of what he knew about Jesse and the gang, but it was not until the end of March that Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden revealed to the public that Liddil was in custody.

The Ford Brothers

Robert and his brother Charlie, played in the film by Sam Rockwell, were also linked to the James gang. Sam entered the mix first, according to O’Neal. He, like in the film’s opening scene, became involved in many of the gang’s famous train robberies. And just as in the film, the real Robert got in close with Jesse, only to then betray him for the reward money and to curry favor with the government.

On April 3, 1882, Robert shot Jesse in the back of the head, as the legend goes, while he was dusting off a picture in the living room of his home. O’Neal writes that Ford, like in the film, was rewarded for killing Jesse by Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden (James Carville), who pardoned Robert for the murder of Hite.

The brothers became famous. However, dark times were ahead. According to O’Neal, Bob came to be regarded with “widespread contempt and scorn” by people around the country. In 1884, Charlie committed suicide. Bob took his story around the country, but O’Neal writes, “boos were the usual reaction.”

According to historian Joe Johnston (via St. Louis Public Radio):

The real problem with what Bob did was that he shot Jesse in the back. You just didn’t do that. Even the men who thought Jesse should be taken out of commission, thought Bob went about it the wrong way.

The Assassination of Robert Ford

Bob’s reputation in American life made him a target. In 1889, according to a report from the New York Times, he survived an attempted assassination. The Times quotes Bob’s recounting of the tale. As he leaned back in his chair, a man grabbed his hair and drew a knife. Luckily, a friend of Bob’s intervened and prevented the man from slitting Bob’s throat. Bob says in the report:

The knife out through my collar and grazed my neck, inflicting a slight wound. I was unarmed, or I would have shot him on the spot. As it was he took to his heels and escaped.

Bob’s luck, however, would run out. He died on June 8, 1892, at the age of 30, murdered by Edward Capeheart O’Kelley of Missouri after a fight in a saloon. The reasons for the killing are disputed. However, according to Johnston:

[O’Kelley’s] father fought for the Union and his grandparents were from a confederate family—he was separated from his parents physically and also ideologically. He grew up idolizing Jesse and dreaming of riding with him.

O’Kelley served only ten years in prison for killing Bob Ford. After he was released, he himself was killed in Oklahoma after a run-in with the law. The violence continued.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.