Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Film Review
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
When someone who’s directed as many great Westerns as Clint Eastwood cites this one as his favourites, you have to sit up and take notice. And while I’d still personally give the all-time title to Unforgiven there’s no doubt that, after 30 years, Josey Wales still stands up as a milestone in the genre and Eastwood’s career behind the camera as a whole.
Ironically, he didn’t start out as director. Kaufman, whose own career would go on to embrace the greatly differing high points of The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, was lined up to take on duties behind the camera as well as adapting Forrest Carter’s novel of the Civil War and its aftermath. But he was replaced (or fired, according to some accounts) by Eastwood; given Kaufman’s undoubted talents as a director, speculating on the end result had he stayed on is one of cinema’s great 'what ifs'. I think it would certainly have been different, but it’s hard to imagine it could have been any better.
From the opening scenes, a masterclass in giving your movie a solid foundation before the credits have even rolled, Eastwood shows an uncanny ability to fuse character, theme and plot. Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer, is tending his crops on a peaceful sunny day. He has the pioneer ideal of a simple cabin, a few acres and beasts, plus a loving wife and son. But elsewhere the Civil War is raging, and sharply and brutally intercut with these idyllic scenes are sudden glimpses of a band of riders, heading at full gallop towards him.
These are the ‘Redlegs’ – Union irregulars from Kansas tasked with spreading terror through the border country. They burn the farm, wipe out his family and leave him scarred and - they think - dead. Pulling an old pistol from the embers, he learns to shoot and joins up with the Confederate guerrillas heading off to give the Redlegs a taste of their own medicine. And, as the credits roll over Jerry Fielding’s majestic score and a montage of Civil War images, we see the young farmer transform into the classic Eastwood persona – the granite-featured killing machine, implacable, emotionless and pretty darn scary.
Eastwood the director remains keen to root this iconic presence in historical reality. Josey and his band are beaten, as is all the Confederacy, and their commander, Fletcher (Vernon) urges them to surrender. All except Josey agree – and are then massacred by the Redlegs, who have been accepted into the regular Union army for the purpose of wiping out all the Confederate diehards. Josey sees the carnage unfold and rides back into the camp, rescuing one of the youngest of the band, Jamie (Bottoms). They escape and resolve to head for Texas, a pro-Confederate state relatively untouched by the Union authorities and offering ample opportunities for pioneers. However, Josey and Jamie are both determined to use it simply as a safe haven while plotting their revenge against Fletcher.
Appalled by the government’s treachery, Fletcher nevertheless joins the Redlegs as they set off to hunt down Josey, reasoning that the only way to stay alive is to kill his old comrade first.
In other hands, this set-up could have become a fairly conventional revenge Western, but Eastwood and Kaufman constantly spring surprises on the viewer. As Josey heads southwards and acquires a bizarre extended family of would-be pioneers and strays, he realises that there is an alternative to a life lived ‘by the feud’. But even though he begins to wish his past could be left behind, it’s clear there are still some who won’t let him...
The climax when it comes is a humdinger, and the action sequences throughout are the equal of anything Leone or Don Siegel crafted for Eastwood elsewhere. But they are rendered more powerful by the sombre, reflective tone of the rest of the film. Any viewer with half a heart will want Josey to find some peace and redemption; but whether or not he will, and at what cost, remains in the balance right to the end.
Many critics have seen Vietnam allegories in the film, with its brutalised, emotionally and physically scarred men looking to regain some semblance of a normal life. And it certainly reflects the self-questioning spirit which permeated 1970s American cinema. But it also has a very specific historical context which links it to revisionist Westerns of the period, such as Soldier Blue or Little Big Man.
Though Hollywood had often depicted the Confederacy favourably, it was usually through a gentlemanly regular officer, bound by codes of wartime chivalry, fighting a Union opponent who shared and understood them. Like Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil, this film focuses on a much murkier area of the Civil War; one where fighting was done by undisciplined militias or politically extreme cadres operating with little central control, where terrorising the civilian population was regarded as a valid military tactic. The film is less even-handed than Lee’s, portraying the Confederate guerrillas as very much more sinned against than sinning. But it also shows Josey developing a friendship and respect for a diverse group of characters, including an Indian chief (George) as outcast and alone as he is, and an unrepentantly Unionist group of Kansas pioneers who regard him with deep suspicion.
And like Lee’s film, it has at its heart a desire to break the vicious cycle of violence and prejudice and live and work together with whoever you happen to meet on the trail. But the West depicted here is still a savage, uncivilised and untamed country, offering danger at every turn from Indians, Comancheros or (in one particularly taut and striking scene) murderous hillbillies. Not to mention the Redlegs and the bounty hunters - also set loose to find Josey by the government and offering a delicious irony for genre fans, given the role that launched Eastwood’s career.
But this is a very different film from Leone’s vibrant, artistic trilogy, or indeed the overtly-political ‘counter-culture’ Westerns of the time. Like the best of John Ford or Howard Hawks, it acknowledges that there was good and bad on all sides in the West (often within the same person) and the important thing was not to nail your colours blindly to any one mast, but use its unique freedom to find the common humanity in those around you, and strive to preserve it.
Eastwood the director fuses all these diverse elements brilliantly considering his relative inexperience at the time, and as an actor gives a portrait of a man who is both a believable human being and a universal symbol. At times his character and the journey he undertakes have the resonance of Greek myth. He’s ably assisted by a terrific soundtrack (courtesy of Fielding, who also did the memorable score to The Wild Bunch) and Bruce Surtees’ cinematography which does achingly beautiful landscapes and grubby ‘you can almost smell the you-know-what’ interiors with equal aplomb. And Kaufman’s script manages to be literate and authentic, while still supplying a fistful of memorable quotes (‘you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie'; ‘dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’).
The performances are top-drawer too. Vernon brings his regular reliable gravitas to a character just as conflicted and damaged as the hero. And the late, lamented Sam Bottoms (probably best known as the surfer Lance in Apocalypse Now but a regular in several of Eastwood’s films) shows once again what great, largely unrealised, potential he had as an actor. In fact perhaps the only weak point is Locke, required as she so often was to do little more than fall in love with her commanding rescuer (another reason why the film just misses that final half a star; Ford and Hawks would never have had such a passive female lead).
By its nature, it lacks the focus and intensity of Unforgiven. And it could be argued that the surreal, ever-so-slightly bonkers High Plains Drifter is a more ambitious and original film. But at a time when the genre was pretty moribund, The Outlaw Josey Wales was a reminder that the Western was still the ideal way to tell a cracking tale and hold up a mirror to America past and present at the same time. Even if you’ve seen it umpteen times on telly, it still rewards repeat viewings.Reviewed on: 25 Mar 2009