Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Nathan Godfried


An Abstract of the Thesis Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts (in History) May, 2000 Historically-based films often reveal more about the time in which they were made than about their historical subjects. Three motion pictures about Jesse James made in three very different eras reveal more about contemporary history than they do about the facts surrounding the legendary outlaw’s life. While each film, in some way, purports to tell the “true” story of Jesse James’ life, each offers a different history of that life. In order to understand the reasons for this it is necessary to examine the events that surrounded the making of each picture. More specifically, there are four major forces that must be examined in order to understand Jesse James’ transformation in the three pictures: the socio-political environment at the time each film was made, the state of the motion picture industry, developments within the genre to which the films belong (the Western), and the unique contributions of individual filmmakers. These four forces best explain why Jesse James changed so dramatically from 1939 to 1957 to 1972; furthermore, they lend credibility to the claim that motion pictures are as much a cultural artifact as literature, poetry, theatre, and other artforms.