American Outlaws (2001) was the 2nd major American feature film role for Colin Farrell, with Farrell leading a young crew of actors in a Robin Hood-interpretation of the Jesse James story. Directed by Les Mayfield, this Western has been derided by some film critics for its narrative approach and historical inaccuracies. Indeed, there would be a danger if a viewer took in this Western as complete fact; in the film, Jesse outlives his mother when the reverse is true, and his wife uses a cannon to help James escape from a prison train in an event that was never close to happening.
However, in such a dismissal this writer believes critics are missing two important aspects. First, American Outlaws is an entertainment-focused Western that uses the Robin Hood myth of Jesse James to serve a straightforward movie experience – this film is meant to be fun. Yet even within that entertainment there is resonance for a working or middle class viewer when James attacks the greedy railroad – the power of the James myth is that it gives voice to those who feel oppressed by corporate power and government overreach and that feeling has not gone away in the 21st century. Second, there is a fantastic performance in this film by Timothy Dalton in the role of Alan Pinkerton.
Born in Wales, Timothy Dalton is an accomplished actor who has worked in British television, on the stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in numerous film roles which include two in the global James Bond series. In American Outlaws, Dalton created a rich and at times, amusing, characterization of the historical Alan Pinkerton (1819-1884). Pinkerton was a Scottish emigrant to the US who created the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency and even provided security for Abraham Lincoln during the US Civil War. In the 1870s, Pinkerton was contracted by railroad express companies to track and arrest Jesse James but never succeeded in capturing him.
In his creation of the Pinkerton role, Dalton provides a spot-on Scottish accent and brings a physical presence to each scene that reflects the confidence a man such as Pinkerton must have had. In one interview for American Outlaws, Dalton related that in his research for the role he found a photograph of Pinkerton in a “gaudy checkered suit” with a “full grizzly beard” and used that image as a foundation for the look of the character. All of this work comes to life in a performance that creates a cord of dramatic strength through the film.
In the DVD extras for American Outlaws, Dalton provides a quote that echoes how this Western should be received – that it is “a real sense of glamorized adventure and fun”. Critics should be able to have fun, too, right? 😉 Here is one trailer for American Outlaws (2001):
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)