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Abstract

This essay analyzes recent depictions of Jesse James in cinema, examining filmic portrayals of the figure between the years of 1972 and 2010. Working from the intersection of the anthropology of film and religious studies approaches to popular culture, the essay fills significant gaps in the study of James folklore. As no substantial examinations of the religious aspects of the James myths exist, I hone in on the legend’s religiosity as contested in filmic form. Films, including revisionist Westerns, are not unlike oral-history statements recorded and analyzed by anthropologists, folklorists, and ethnographers. Jesse James movies, in other words, have much to do with the construction of American identity. Employing theorist Roland Barthes’s textual codes implicit within narrative accounts, I argue that these Revisionist Western films use religion as an intentional trope in their negotiated deconstructions and re-appropriations of the American legend. James is an enigma and the films’ depictions of religion and violence serve as narrative strategies to establish the identity and meaning of the controversial outlaw. In the corpus of eight films that serve as data for this study, the themes of violence, fanaticism, the Bible, sinfulness and atonement, and other frequent religious imageries and icons occur frequently in the intertextual filmic attempts to situate the enigma of Jesse James as either hero or terrorist.