Senator: “The war’s over. Our side won the war. Now we must busy ourselves winning the peace. And Fletcher, there’s an old saying: To the victors belong the spoils.”
Fletcher: “There’s another old saying, Senator: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”
Words like “unexpected”, or at the very least, “unanticipated” could well have described actor Clint Eastwood’s sixth effort as a film director. Though the “Western” was what made him a ’60s icon, spurring his rise to movie box office supremacy the subsequent decade, the genre’s popularity was already dying by the bicentennial year of 1976. As much as John Wayne in real life, as was his final film character in The Shootist. Why those terms fit so well when it comes to describing, The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Most critics and studios had by then read the tea leaves and diminishing returns since the genre’s heydays in the ’40s and ’50s. Even the considerable John Ford had closed out his westerns by 1964; most well aware his last great one, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, occurred in ’62. Then again, it was the ’70s. Tumult flowered, especially after the fall of Saigon put the final kibosh on the Vietnam War that had divided the country almost as much as the American Civil War did the previous century.
The same vestiges that weigh so heavily upon Clint Eastwood’s lead character and the tale’s storyline — which reveal much, so this your standard spoiler alert warning for what lay ahead.
While the western may have fallen out of favor with ticket buyers, perhaps even among the unemployed and disaffected during the recession-riddled era, the genre remained a more versatile vehicle than given credit. I know it’s not one with universal appeal these days, but remains a favorite of mine since childhood. Yet, The Outlaw Josey Wales proved to be a more than worthy work for its actor-director, the era of cinema, and as a classic that’s stood the test of time as it approaches its fortieth year.
From the atypical cold opening to its less than clear-cut ending, the film, which uniquely swum against the unsentimental tide of the time, proved a turning point in Eastwood’s budding directorial career to be one of best the ’70s ever produced.
Synopsis: As the Civil War raged, Missouri farmer Josey Wales is pulled into its carnage via by a rivalrous band of pro-Union Jayhawker militants who’ve murdered his wife and young son. Scarred, left to bury and grieve for his family, joining pro-Confederate Missouri bushwhackers the only recourse, as Josey sees it. Spending the rest of the war skirmishing with the murderers tied to U.S. Senator Jim Lane’s Kansas Brigade. Led by the man most hold accountable for the atrocities, Captain Terrill.
The war’s conclusion barely ceasing antagonism, even as both sides looked to end the Kansas-Missouri border conflict. Most in Josey’s posse persuaded to surrender by a fellow rebel, Captain Fletcher, seeking amnesty for his men. Wales steadfastly refusing. As a result, he and a wounded young man the lone survivors in Terrill’s treacherous massacre of the Missourians turning themselves in. Now with a $5,000 bounty, Wales heads for the Indian Nations in Texas to hold up and escape his pursuers.
With death on his trail, The Outlaw Josey Wales vows his own war against those who’ve wronged and betrayed him.
Senator: “You’re going after ’em, after all. Fletcher, I’m giving you a commission. Hound this Wales to kingdom come.”
Fletcher: “Hound ’em, Senator? A man like Wales lives by the feud. Cause of what you did here today, I’ve got to kill that man.”
Senator: “Well, he’ll have to run for it now…and Hell is where he’s headed.”
Fletcher: “He’ll be waiting there for us, Senator.”
Traditional westerns have used revenge as a staple in many of its dramas, from film to television. Redemption, too, as both apply here. By itself, this goes against expectations in the conventional portrayals of most 19th-century shoot-em-ups and horseback melodrama. Rightly identified as a “revisionist western”, this film’s stature only rises when keeping the punctilios and Clint Eastwood precisely in mind. Chiefly, as it tosses the “Man with No Name” concept that brought him fame on its well-worn ear.
Purposely going against his ’60s Italian “spaghetti western” persona1 by giving the character a name and distinct backstory steeped in American history. Drawing Josey Wales as much of a victim as well as a pistoleer during the bloodiest period of this country. One of the few films casting the Civil War with an eye toward how the conflict conducted itself out west, in Missouri2 and Texas, specifically. As opposed to the uniformed blue and gray hostilities down south, à la John Ford’s Horse Soldiers.
The Outlaw Josey Wales proved to be a milestone by showing naysayers the western could still kick up as much dust as any contemporary antihero “genre flick” making waves, or those deemed “… imbued with an intelligence and riskiness”, as ShortList once described. Elevating Eastwood’s work as a filmmaker, confidently breaking from his mentors’ (Sergio Leone, Don Siegel) stylings, as a result. Certainly, beyond a studio merely placating it’s movie star “…on a whim or for ego-polishing.”
Sim Carstairs: “Ten year I been ferryin’ Kansas Redlegs, Union cavalry, Missouri guerillas… you name it. Mad dogs them guerillas. You look sideways at ’em…they kill ‘ya.”
Carpetbagger: “Sound like hard men to do business with.”
Sim Carstairs: “You bet. You know in my line of work, you gotta be able either to sing “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”, or “Dixie”, with equal enthusiasm… dependin’ upon present company.”
Based loosely on “The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales”3 by Forrest Carter, aka Asa Earl Carter, a segregationist speech writer for George Wallace, KKK member, and later a western novelist, producers saw a certain something in the material. Its treatment of Native Americans. Screenwriters Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus transformed its less savory elements into a literate treatise on war and its slaughter (echoing our Vietnam involvement) and filling it with surprisingly savvy character dialogue4.
That is, among the usual badass aspects most expected of Clint Eastwood back then. The customary violent western loner that’s just never left alone. Somehow the family he’s lost restored care of the colorful dramatis personae latching on to his journey west. Mainly the indigenous people, here finally given a chance to shine outside the genre’s habitual clichés, for once. Chief Dan George (post-Little Big Man), Will Sampson, and Geraldine Keams opening viewers eyes way before Dances With Wolves (1990).
The first third of the film creating the grim aura of Josey Wales against the overcast, mud-strewn Missouri landscape5. A rebel guerilla hell-bent to rage upon any Kansas Red Leg or blue coat. The worst of ’em that won’t put his guns away or swear allegiance to the Union. The sea change for the vengeful widower, the youngin’s (Sam Bottoms) eventual death, which closes the chapter. The distinct reshape in tenor marked by sun-filled vistas and foliage, even occasional humor, once the outlaw reaches “The Nations”.
It’s what sets the tough-natured The Outlaw Josey Wales apart and turns the work into something quite compelling in story and approach.
This would have been Philip Kaufman’s second western to helm (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid his first), but famously “creative differences” brought Eastwood back into the “star-director” role, and we’re ever grateful. The supporting cast rich with Eastwood regulars and western vets, but most notably the pairing of deep-voiced Dirty Harry co-star John Vernon portraying the put upon Fletcher, tasked to hunt his colleague alongside his despised enemy, Captain Terrell (Deliverance‘s Bill McKinney).
Directory of photography and another long-time crewmate of Malpaso Productions, Bruce Surtees’ distinct cinematography claimed the autumn light for this film production, which even John Ford would have been proud of. Hoisted it above the few westerns then dribbling out of Hollywood. But with an unmistakable neo-noir edge, color contrasted with heavy shadows, which envisioned its use in Eastwood’s later masterwork Unforgiven. Again, could only be tied to an era such as this one, me thinks.
Wales would say, “I reckon so.”
For all that ’70s attitude, The Outlaw Josey Wales remains a timeless tale to behold, even if you’re not into this genre. A former “gray rider” finding himself at the center of a growing community of outcasts, including various tribal people, castaways of a now defunct mining town, even Jayhawkers (Sondra Locke’s first collaboration with Clint) and a red bone hound. Flipping a death-fixated revenge western into a remarkably redemptive life-embracing, post-Civil War study.
Hell, even Orson Welles considered it one of his favorites.
Whereas aging former outlaw William Munny spends his journey up to Wyoming losing family and friends in Unforgiven, 1992’s Best Picture winner, the opposite was true with this film. Our fugitive gains both in his unlikely odyssey down Texas way, even if The Outlaw Josey Wales received little award recognition as this country turned two-hundred. Each served as a counterpoint for the other; allegories bookended just sixteen years apart. Evidence the western far from dead then, as a genre or storytelling device, and even today.
Fletcher: “I think I’ll go down to Mexico to try to find him.”
Josey Wales: “And then?”
Fletcher: “He’s got the first move. I owe him that. I think I’ll try to tell him the war is over. What do you say, Mr. Wilson?”
Josey Wales: “I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
- The uniquely supernatural High Plains Drifter, which preceded this film, an eerie homage to his early Sergio Leone horse opera trilogy. ↩
- Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil (1999) another that showcased the guerilla warfare going on between Kansas and Missouri during this “War Between the States.” ↩
- Listed in the movie credits under another title, “Gone to Texas”. ↩
- Kaufman and Chernus should have garnered at least a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, but the vaunted Academy only recognized Jerry Fielding’s fine work with an Original Score nomination that year. ↩
- Northern California locations standing in for Missouri, with Arizona-Utah for what the Spanish referred as Tejas. ↩