The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

“… I suppose that mangy red-bone hound’s got no place else to go either. He might as well ride along with us; Hell, everybody else is.” – Josey Wales –

Directed by Clint Eastwood

As an actor, Clint Eastwood was associated with westerns. He was associated with a particular kind of character: the taciturn, angry and skilled hero, a loner. He was very, very good at it. So the world wanted Eastwood in westerns – the same westerns, more or less, and the same character, more or less. If he was able to make a movie like The Outlaw Josey Wales it was likely because it was a western and he would be playing a similar character.

But an interesting thing happens when you are in a box long enough. You tire of it and start looking for ways to make it interesting. As you do, the box starts to change. What you do starts to change. You may be cramped by parameters, but they also fuel creativity. “How do I make it different and the same?”

For Eastwood, it had to do with finding good stories. He found a gem when he located “Gone to Texas” by Forrest Carter. It’s the novel the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales evolved from. (The screenplay came from Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus.) I’ve not read the novel, but I have seen the movie several times now and it is one of the best westerns.

“We got us the Josey Wales!”

As westerns go, this one is an oddity. It’s action and adventure but also picaresque, pastoral, even lyrical.

It begins as westerns tend to: establishing scenes of lawlessness, bad guys doing bad things, a hero wronged. Josey Wales starts as a revenge movie. His family killed and his farming life destroyed, Josey Wales practices to hone his skills with a gun. At the first chance, he joins up with a group (remnants of the Confederate army) that is out to round up the people who have committed the outrage (Union soldiers known as “Redlegs”).

As it turns out, Josey becomes the deadliest man in the group of rebel soldiers who have yet to surrender, though the war has ended.

But more is happening, and has happened, than this. There is the context it plays out in: the aftermath of the American Civil War and the ensuing chaos and re-establishment of order. Grievances are in plentiful supply; people are taken advantage of left and right; unjust acts go unpunished in the disorder and everyone is just trying to get by. When his companion Jamie (Sam Bottoms) dies, Josey says,

“This boy was brought up in a time of blood and dying and never questioned a bit of it. He never turned his back on his folks or his kind. I rode with him… and I got no complaints.”

Josey sets off on his quest for revenge, following the Redlegs. But on his journey something happens, not just to the character, but to the western. It becomes a different kind of western.

The romantic image of the cowboy, of the good-guy gunslinger, is of an isolationist. He’s someone set apart from everyone else and who can never fit in even if he wanted to, which Josey doesn’t. But he’s a good guy with an overriding sense of right and wrong and so he becomes the protector and avenger of communities. He just can’t ever become a part of those communities because that same sense of right and wrong tells him he doesn’t fit; it tells him he is the kind of man who can only do them harm.

So he rides in, saves the day and then rides off into the sunset.

Unless he’s Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Here, that same isolationist cowboy gets a lesson in community building and, to put it in vernacular terms, gets called on his shit.

After the movie’s first act, which is standard western fare for the man driven from the world to isolation, wronged and alone, we get a reluctant community builder. The story becomes one of an exasperated Josey Wales, in spite of himself, creating a community with him at the centre. It becomes oddly lyrical and picaresque.

The way this community, or family, evolves in the film becomes analogous to what is happening on a larger scale to the U.S. following the end of the Civil War. To go forward, grievances have to be left behind. In the movie’s conclusion, we see Josey finally doing this as well. The progress of the movie to that point, the evolving of a community around Josey Wales, is similar for all the characters.

Each is drawn to the growing group but each has to leave behind grievances and biases, which all do relatively easily because something to belong to is of greater value to them. Even Granny (Paula Trueman) does this, though with greater reluctance than the others.

What we’re left with is an oddball western that works tremendously well. Although it has the obligatory action and violence, the sense that comes across is more pastoral. This is partly due to the script, partly Bruce Surtees’ beautiful cinematography, and partly due to some great performances like that of John Vernon (as Fletcher) and Chief Dan George (as Lone Watie).

Humour is one of the many elements that make up this movie and Chief Dan George is a large part of that, and the film’s success, with his delicious dryness.

I suspect part of the eccentricity of the movie goes back to the box I mentioned earlier. It gives us the obligatory Eastwood character and the scenes we want as an audience, but Eastwood as director seems to have become more engaged by the story of a post-war world finding its legs again and how communities come together.

Like a novel by Dostoyevsky, The Outlaw Josey Wales rambles around with many things to say and show and, as a result, is not so much unfocused as multi-focused.

Normally, this isn’t good. However, in this case (as with Dostoyevsky) it works in some poorly understood way — I sure don’t understand it. However it manages it, the end result is a terrifically entertaining movie.

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