The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
“…an army of one.”
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Chief Dan George
Synopsis: A Missouri farmer joins a Confederate guerrilla unit and winds up on the run from the Union soldiers who murdered his family.
Set during and immediately after the American Civil War, The Outlaw Josey Wales initially looks as if it is going to be another of Eastwood’s Man With No Name copies after we see the title character’s wife and son wiped out by marauding Union red-legs in the pre-credits sequence. While mourning over their graves his Josey Wales is approached by a band of Confederate rebels with whom he decides to ride, and the credits are made up of a sequence of photos which chronicle the exploits of this ragtag band. Wales’ vengeance isn’t focused on one particular man or group of men, but on those who represent the society that spawned them, and although he will eventually have his confrontation with the leader of the red-legs responsible for the murder of his wife and son, the movie has taken an altogether different direction to the one we might have expected.
Eventually, of course, the Union is victorious and its soldiers set about the task of running to ground what few pockets of resistance remain. The leader of Eastwood’s outfit, a man named Fletcher (John Vernon), has had enough and, encouraged by a payment received from a Senator to bring his men in, he encourages them to turn themselves over to the Union soldiers on the understanding that they will receive an amnesty in return for pledging allegiance to the Union. However, the offer is a trap, and the men are mown down by concealed Gatling guns as they’re in the midst of their pledge. Only Wales, who elected not to turn himself in, and a young man named Jamie (Sam Bottoms — The Last Picture Show) survive, and Wales’ single-handed decimation of a good number of the unit responsible for the slaughter of his comrades earns him outlaw status. Under threat of death, Fletcher is ordered to ride with Terrill (Bill McKinney — The Green Mile, 2001 Maniacs), the man who led the slaughter of Wales family, and hunt Wales down.
Rather than following the conventional cat-and-mouse route, The Outlaw Josey Wales puts this strand of the storyline to one side in order to focus on the surrogate family Wales acquires as he makes his way towards the relative safety of the Indian Nations. Fletcher and Terrill flit in and out, but their appearances are largely just to prevent us from forgetting that they are back there somewhere, engaged in a largely unsuccessful hunt for their man. Meanwhile, Wales makes the acquaintance of Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), an ageing Indian in a stovepipe hat, disillusioned by the lies fed him by Abraham Lincoln and dismayed that his advancing years have robbed him of the ability to sneak up on people. The Chief somehow keeps a straight face as he utters priceless observations that are both funny and poignant, and finds temporary confirmation that he’s not quite as old as he thought when he’s bedded by an Indian squaw (Geraldine Keams — The Car) who joins them after Wales rescues her from rape by a couple of bounty hunters. Wales also saves Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman — The Anderson Tapes, Annie Hall) and her slightly off-with-the-fairies Granddaughter Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) from being sold to Indians.
Episodic in nature — although it never really feels that way — the plot is paradoxically held together by Fletcher and those pursuing red-legs. It’s not often we see the US civil conflict from the side of the defeated Confederacy, and Phil Kauffman’s script does a good job of subtly comparing the plight of the disenfranchised Southerner with that of the dispossessed Native American. Josey Wales is a typical Eastwood hero in that his ostensibly straightforward moral code, built upon a complex psychological foundation, is destabilised by the sudden, brutal destruction of all that he naively assumed was unassailable. It’s this complexity of character that distracts us from weaknesses in the plot that might otherwise have been glaring, not least of which is the transformation of family man and farmer to legendary outlaw. Of course, we’re seduced into belief by the fact that this is Eastwood on the screen, a man we’ve grown accustomed to see roaming the West with two guns in his belt. He shoots unerringly, spitting tobacco on the heads of those foolish enough to take him on in the same way that a dog cocks his leg to mark his territory, untroubled by fear, guilt or conscience: ‘Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms,’ he blithely informs Jamie when he suggests it’s a shame they can’t bury the men who had planned to hand him in for the $5,000 bounty on his head.
Eastwood’s favourite of his own movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales stands alongside Unforgiven as one of his best Westerns. Despite the violence, it’s an intelligent, thought-provoking and ultimately moving film that can stand — and deserves — multiple re-watches.
(Reviewed 31st July 2014)