Film: The Outlaw Josey Wales
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.
Clint Eastwood is almost certainly one of the top five actors associated with the Western. It doesn’t matter how many films he made as Harry Callahan, Eastwood simply looks right wearing a duster or serape and toting a couple of six guns. While Eastwood is a pretty celebrated actor, he’s a lot better (my opinion) behind the camera. He comes into his own when he does both. He’s directed a surprising number of films for a guy who most people (at least my age) still think of primarily as an actor. Of those 30+ films, five track as Westerns. Of these, Unforgiven is almost certainly his best. High Plains Drifter is the one most beholden to his past. But The Outlaw Josey Wales is perhaps the most quintessentially Eastwood.
The plot, as is the case with most Westerns, is incredibly simple. Josey Wales (Eastwood) is a Missouri farmer content to work on his land. His wife and child are killed by pro-Union guerrillas from Kansas. He signs up with pro-Confederate forces and is led by a man named Fletcher (John Vernon, immediately recognizable by his deep, resonant voice). At the end of the war, all of Fletcher’s men save Wales surrender, and are then gunned down by the Union forces, led by Terrill (Bill McKinney). Wales goes on the run, looking for something, pursued by the Union, who brand him a killer and outlaw.
As a film, or as a story, The Outlaw Josey Wales leaves a lot to be desired. It is, like it or not, riddled with clichés. For instance, shortly after the massacre of Fletcher’s men, Wales rides off with Jamie, who survived the slaughter, but is badly wounded. Jamie and Wales run into trouble a couple of times and save each other, but Jamie isn’t going to make it to the end of the film; this is obvious, since he was shot through the chest. The moment that Jamie says that he no longer fears dying, well, he’s going to die. In fact, that’s his last line. The next time we see him, he’s a corpse. This should shock no one. (Don’t worry—it’s not a spoiler. It happens in the first third or so of the film.)
So, the story itself is pretty simple, and it’s not that hard to tell five minutes ahead of time what is going to happen. You know there’s going to be a showdown between Wales and Terrill at some point, and it’s not difficult to figure how it’s going to come out. You know that Wales is always going to outdraw the men who hunt him, because you’re not going to lose your star with an hour left in the film.
Fortunately, this film is filled with joys beyond the plot. There’s plenty going on here that make this film worth the time.
First are the excellent portrayals of the characters. Eastwood is the most as-you-imagine-him Clint Eastwood probably ever. This is a role that he inhabits, and one that would not have been possible without the No-Name Trilogy directed by Leone or even his own earlier High Plains Drifter. Eastwood is able to sink himself into this role to a point of believability that never breaks or even cracks. Other roles and other films of his might well be better, but he was never better at portraying a character.
Similarly, Chief Dan George as Lone Watie is one of the great Western characters ever created. He is (and this is the sort of thing that is rare in Hollywood) a realistic native character. He doesn’t particularly have a great deal of wisdom, but he’s willing to share what he does have. He’s always interesting to watch on screen. This attempt at an accurate portrayal of both Native Americans and the treatment of the same is something really special about this film as well. From my own experience, only Dead Man does the same thing. Other films tend to depict Native Americans either as savages or as spiritual gurus capable of tapping into an inherent one-ness with the universe. Lone Watie is neither; he’s just a guy trying to get to Mexico.
Where the film bogs down for me is when Wales and Lone Watie get involved with a group of settlers moving to Texas. I understand the necessity of this for the character arc—Wales is tired of the violence and the running and would like to settle down, preferably with Laura Lee (Sondra Locke), but is still being pursued. But it feels forced, like he’s doing this for the necessity of the plot rather than the necessity of the character.
Still, despite its faults and shortcomings, The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of the true classics of the Western genre. In this film, Eastwood manages to both reference the works of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah and also to transcend them in real ways.
Why to watch The Outlaw Josey Wales: It’s quintessential Eastwood, both acting and directing.
Why not to watch: You can tell what’s going to happen five minutes before it does.