In this romanticized version the notorious outlaw brothers rebel against the oppressive railroad before going on their crime spree.
Barshee (Brian Donlevy) buys land for the railroad by saying the government will confiscate it; to do so he hits a boy. The mother (Jane Darwell) of Jesse James (Tyrone Power) and Frank James (Henry Fonda) refuses, and Frank fights Barshee. Jesse with a gun makes Barshee and his men leave. Jesse calls a meeting while Barshee goes to the sheriff. Newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull) warns Jesse and Frank to leave. Rufus tells Barshee they are gone, but Barshee throws an explosive in the house, killing their mother. Zee (Nancy Kelly) tells hiding Jesse and Frank their mother is dead. Jesse goes after Barshee and kills him in a gun match. $1,000 reward is offered. Jesse catches and boards a moving train and orders the engineer to stop. Frank and others come on board to collect money. Railroad executive McCoy (Donald Meek) tells Marshal Will Wright (Randolph Scott) of the robbery. Jesse visits Rufus and Zee, who laments his situation. Will comes in to see Zee and meets Jesse, who is called Tom Howard.
Zee gets McCoy and Will to offer Jesse five years if he surrenders. Zee fears he will become like a wolf. Jesse says he can't live in prison but asks Zee to marry. They walk into a church and get hitched. Jesse gives his guns to Will and goes to jail; but McCoy gets martial law declared and a new judge. Will complains. McCoy gets a note from Frank to free Jesse by midnight, and the jailer (Slim Summerville) is afraid. Will and McCoy pick more deputies from the saloon. Frank is arrested, and McCoy tells Will he is no longer needed. Frank's men pull guns, enabling Frank and Jesse to escape. Jesse's horse is shot, and Frank picks him up; but soldiers stop for tossed money. Zee makes a home for Jesse, but they travel. With Rufus Zee has a baby and laments again. Jesse comes to see Zee, but servant Pinkie (Ernest Whitman) says she went home with Rufus and Will. Jesse's gang robs trains and banks.
Five years later George Runyan (J. Edward Bromberg) tells Zee, Rufus, and Will of a pardon for anyone who kills Jesse. Runyan also notifies Bob Ford (John Carradine). Jesse quarrels with his gang, but Frank talks to him. Bob Ford comes, and they plan to rob the Northfield bank in Minnesota. Runyan brings a note from Bob Ford to warn them. In the bank Jesse is shot. Only Jesse and Frank escape by jumping from a cliff to a river. Will tells Zee that Jesse is no good now with no friends left. A wagon brings Jesse to Zee, and he meets his son. Jesse is believed dead. Bob and Charles Ford call on Jesse and ask him to rob a bank with Frank. Jesse needs money but says no. Bob Ford shoots Jesse in the back. At the funeral Rufus says why Americans like Jesse James.
This mixture of fact and fiction makes folk heroes of
the James brothers, who in history after the war continued the
raiding they did for the Confederacy. A horse being killed in
the cliff jump resulted in the American Humane Association monitoring
subsequent movies to protect animals.