During the American Civil War, a group of Union Soldiers savagely kill the family of Missouri farmer Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars). Determined to avenge the brutal death of his loved ones, Wales joins the Confederate Army and spends the remaining years of the war looking for the posse responsible for slaughtering his family. However, the war ends and Wales still hasn’t gotten even. After refusing to surrender his arms to the Union Army, Wales becomes a wanted man.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Not a hard man to track. Leaves dead men wherever he goes.”
After proving to be a bona fide filmmaker with films like Play Misty for Me (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973), Eastwood decided to flex his creative muscles with this richly textured western that’s simultaneously an homage and a modern revision. In some ways, The Outlaw Josey Wales is Eastwood’s most complex movie to date.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is long and episodic, operatic and yet somewhat realistic. This admittedly violent (why is it rated PG?) western paints the tragedy of the American Civil War with almost poetic brush strokes. Although it begins as a story of revenge, the film primarily focuses on the psychological and physical ramifications of war.
Despite Eastwood’s protestations to the contrary, The Outlaw Josey Wales has been interpreted as a critique of the Vietnam War. I could see why the film was seen as a political allegory. In fact, I kept thinking that the movie had many things in common with Coppola’s Vietnam-era epic Apocalypse Now (1979). Both films explore, among other things, the futility of war and the pitfalls of American Imperialism.
The film is based on the 1972 book The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales by Forrest Carter, a so-called “Cherokee writer” who was later discovered to be lying about his background. The book was adapted by Eastwood’s story editor Sonia Chernus. Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) also worked on the script. The final draft was written by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), who was selected to direct the film. However, Eastwood grabbed the director’s chair after he unceremoniously fired Kaufman.
Allegedly, Kaufman was canned because he didn’t share Eastwood’s strong Libertarian views. Whether you agree with Eastwood’s political views or not, The Outlaw Josey Wales is fascinating partly because it’s dead-set on demonstrating that the government is the root of all evils — Eastwood intimates that people are capable of working out their differences without government help. Because I didn’t think Eastwood was an optimist (shocking, isn’t it?), I found the movie’s utopian streak rather beguiling.
There are other things that make this movie interesting. Despite all the killings and mayhem, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a very funny movie, albeit in a sardonic way. Another curious touch is the film’s plot structure. Characters exit the narrative as new ones are introduced. Josey Wales is mostly a cypher — he doesn’t do much except shoot people — so it’s mostly up to the colorful side characters to enrich the storyline.
The outstanding supporting cast seizes the opportunity to shine. The inimitable Chief Dan George (Little Big Man) steals every scene he is in as the pragmatic Native American who has seen better days. Chief George also has the best lines in the film. This was the first of Sondra Locke’s (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) many films with Eastwood. Locke’s role is small — she doesn’t appear until the second half of the movie — but the character is important because she symbolizes hope.
There are other stand-out performances. Prolific character actor John Vernon (Dirty Harry) is excellent as Fletcher, a sort of reluctant villain. Sam Bottoms (The Last Picture Show) plays a naïve teen-soldier. Bill McKinney, so terrifying in John Boorman’s classic 1972 thriller Deliverance, is pure perfection as Wales’s nemesis.
Septuagenarian Paula Trueman (Paint Your Wagon) is hilarious as the plain-spoken “Grandma Sarah.” Geraldine Keams, a Navajo actress from Arizona, made her film debut as Little Moonlight. Keams (The Car) is absolutely wonderful as an abused woman who is far stronger than she appears at first glance. The great Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is imposing as Comanche leader, Ten Bears.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I found every moment of The Outlaw Josey Wales engrossing and riveting. First and foremost, this is the movie that finally convinced me that I’ve misjudged Clint Eastwood all these years. I thought he was a hard-ass man, but this is apparently not true. With The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood shows that he has a soft spot for the wronged and marginalized. And the man turned out to be a closet idealist! Anyhow, this film is surely one of the great westerns of the last fifty years. Color, 135 minutes, Rated PG.