Directed by Clint Eastwood
Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) is a Missouri farmer whose family is murdered by Union soldiers (“red legs”) during the Civil War. Seeking revenge, Wales joins a group of Confederate guerrilla fighters that are striking back. When all the fighters in Wales’ group except for him surrender to Union officers at a post war surrender the Union murders them rather than accepting the surrender. Framed for the slaughter, Wales becomes an outlaw and is pursued by bounty hunters and Union soldiers.
Clint Eastwood was in top form not only behind the camera but in front of it here as well. I’m not saying it was a perfect bit of direction, but he did a very good job and created an iconic film. Wales is a reluctant warrior in this story. He was a quiet farmer who sought justice after the murder of his family and after the murder of his friends. He also sought isolation yet still encountered people that forced his hand to violence as well as others that stood by his side.
The character of Josey Wales uses his brain more than his gun here. For example, rather than try to shoot it out with the pursuing cavalry in one scene he shoots the rope of the ferry which sends them drifting down river. In another instance after his friend Jamie (Sam Bottoms) had died, he uses the boy’s body as a decoy so he can harmlessly sneak by a Union patrol. And rather than fight it out with an Indian tribe he goes to their leader Ten Bears (Will Sampson) and talks to him. That’s not to say there are no gunfights in this movie, but they are not the first resort and are over relatively quick.
Wales is no John Wayne character in that respect. Eastwood’s Western characters tended to be more morally gray than those of Wayne. Wales and others were not upstanding, paternal individuals nor was the West a place of sweeping vistas and tough but easy living. Wales came to the screen in a more jaded time for the country. Wales was a modern character that was not necessarily intended to become a part of Western cinematic mythology even though he did.
The film features dynamic Native American characters. Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) was front and center in the narrative shortly after Wales begins fleeing. He was as much comic relief as he was an important character for the narrative. Ten Bears, while fearsome in reputation, was not put forward as a mindless savage.
The film even touches on rape which is not something that would even have been really in a Western just 10 years prior to this coming out. I am talking about on the screen. It was implied in plenty but never done explicitly as it was with Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams). Life in the west is not made to look comfortable here but rather tough. Unlike in other Westerns that preceded this, there was no wondrous spread waiting for Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) and Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) as one could expect previously. There were no honorable outlaws or even truly noble good guys. Everybody was kind of terrible in their own special way. The closest to purity was Laura Lee.
What gets me about this movie is John Vernon in the role of Wales’s former compatriot Fletcher. John Vernon was always a good actor. No arguing that but this might be the only film I can think of that I’ve seen with him in it where he wasn’t the outright villain. He was a darker character but he wasn’t a villain. He just got duped by the senator. Most of his roles were as villains but somehow most people only recall him as Dean Vernon in Animal House. The guy did more than that
I draw issue with Wales encountering Carpetbagger (Woodrow Parfrey) twice. I just find the odds of running into the same person in the West in that time period in the span of several days in two different areas highly unlikely. That is one thing that always bothered me about this movie. It also bothered me in the Wayne film The Comancheros. Travel was not easy or rapid. 15 miles for example was a much bigger deal to them than to us.
The music feels scant. What there is does not feel like Western film music (if there is such a thing). It does not evoke the West in my mind, nor does it evoke danger or anything. It is more just to fill up emptiness of the background sound. This film is not about adding to the idealized view of the West, but the score does not make it feel like it belongs in that particular genre either.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is based on a book called The Rebel: Outlaw Josey Wales (reprinted under the title Gone to Texas) by Forrest Carter (in reality Klansman Asa Earle Carter). While what the Union did in Missouri was reprehensible, the Confederates are shown in a very sympathetic light here. That jumped out to me from the first moment I saw this, and it was not until years later that I learned anything about the author.
Eastwood did a great job behind the camera here. Fun fact: he was not originally supposed to direct. Originally Philip Kaufman was to direct but they clashed in large part to Kaufman being attracted to Locke and the ensuing jealousy caused his firing after Kauffman went off looking for a prop beer can for a scene and Eastwood directed it without him there in enough time that the crew was gone by the time Kaufman returned. So much drama attached to this film.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is a fine Western and a classic of the genre. It is well acted with a solid story. You cannot go wrong with this.