R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Outlaw Josey Wales

Bounty hunter #1: You’re wanted, Wales.
Josey Wales: Reckon I’m right popular. You a bounty hunter?
Bounty hunter #1: A man’s got to do something for a living these days.
Josey Wales: Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.

So when I initially started out this month, I had originally intended to try and cover a wide variety of films from the Western genre within my column. There’s a ton of Westerns that I absolutely love that I hadn’t already talked about, such as High Noon, Stagecoach, Jeremiah Johnson, The Proposition, and others, and all of them deserve their place in this column. I’d also like to examine the various versions of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as I feel like too many people believe they’ve already seen the ultimate version of this story with Tombstone, but other amazing directors of the genre, such as John Ford and John Sturges, have also had their shot at the legend.

Even just this week, I had planned on writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The movie is one of my absolute favorite Western, with Redford and Newman never better on screen. The movie is such a joy that it’s easy to love it, even if you don’t like Westerns. Somehow though, my month of columns about Westerns has become a month just about Clint Eastwood Westerns.

Somehow Eastwood has totally hijacked this column, with his steely glare and quick draw consuming all the time in my DVD player at home. His films are just so interesting and different, and his characters so bad ass that it’s tough not to be drawn to them if you’re watching Westerns for any extended period of time. Eastwood is just an actor I’ve always went out of my way to see, and as a director he’s long been one that I’ve considered to be great, even if his material was pulpy at best.

I am glad to see that Eastwood is finally coming to prominence, and gaining recognition as one of the America’s greatest directors after not receiving his due after more than three decades behind the camera, but I feel like some of his earlier work has been overshadowed somewhat by his post-Oscar success. While Unforgiven seems to now be considered Eastwood’s pinnacle as a film maker, Clint had been putting together epics for the longest time, even when Westerns were hardly fashionable. Perhaps considered the ultimate Modern Western, Unforgiven may have been the culmination of Eastwood’s career with the Western, but there were other steps along the way that lead to this achievement.

One of the most important of those steps, and absolutely one of my favorite Westerns, was The Outlaw Josey Wales. Perhaps more than any of Eastwood’s directing efforts in the genre, Wales has gotten lost in the shuffle. After taking his Western persona to one of its darkest places in High Plains Drifter, the actor/director decided to explore avenues in the opposite direction. While Eastwood still plays an invincible gunman, a third dimension starts to enter into his presence. Not only are we treated to the darkness, which is still there at times, we’re also given humor, justice, and even humanity.

The Outlaw Josey Wales Starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Bill McKinney, Sondra Locke, and John Vernon. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As it was with most of the films of this genre that ended up being my favorites, it was my dad who introduced me to The Outlaw Josey Wales. It was and probably remains my father’s favorite Eastwood film, if not his favorite Western overall. I think he always found Eastwood’s explorations on the Angel of Death in High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider to just be too odd, and Unforgiven for him has always been a film to be admired more than loved. Josey Wales had everything he could love about the Western.

The film features Eastwood in the title role, but initially he doesn’t start out as a vengeful ghost or a mythical gunman. Wales is just a farmer, and a family man, and I wonder if it was shocking to see Clint in this state when this film premiered in 1976. The last time audiences had seen Eastwood in a cowboy hat, it was riding a pale horse off into the wasteland, after making a small town into a vision of hell and then shooting and whipping three men to death. Here he’s just tending to his fields and sharing an apparent simple life with his family. Then death comes for his family with the backing of the U.S. government in the form of Union Troops from Kansas.

A scene in which Eastwood is trying to train himself to fight back is very reminiscent of a similar sequence in Unforgiven, where you see this pitiful man try to find the killer from within, until Josey gets the opportunity to join the Confederate Army. Eastwood wisely shows the film’s Civil War sequences in montage, making it easy for him to transform into the unstoppable slayer of gun slingers that he becomes later in the movie. When the sequences stop, we see a hardened, classic Eastwood persona that you know is ready to dispense death at a moment’s notice.

In fact when the War finally ends and Josey Wales has not yet found his vengeance, he can’t stop fighting, and when he finally lets loose his violent nature, seemingly an entire battalion of Union troops pay the price, and Wales becomes a wanted man. Now at this point, you’re kind of expecting a typical Western, where your lone hero must face off against hordes of villains, and in a way you would be right. On the other hand, Eastwood still manages to surprise you by taking this tale in very odd directions.

This isn’t to say that Eastwood doesn’t imbue The Outlaw Josey Wales tons of gunfights and duels, because he does. Wales is unstoppable, and Eastwood directs his violence with as much bravado as possible, waiting to the last possible second to let the bloodshed erupt. He also gives us some of the most vile, reprehensible scum to fight that I’ve ever seen on screen. Most of the bounty hunters that come calling are covered in dirt and rags, and some are even rapist, all of whom fall to Josey’s guns. There’s a terrific line by Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney), the main villain of the film and the soldier who lead the troops that killed Wales’s family, who says as he inspects more of the carnage left by the Eastwood character, “Not a hard man to track. Leaves dead men wherever he goes.” This pretty much sums up the kick ass portion of the film.

While Clint could have just made another Western in the style of his previous ones, which probably would have been fun, but a little empty, Wales takes on other elements that seem to expand the Eastwood repertoire. What Clint does for the first time is seem to let some real humanity into this picture. This is represented by a ragtag group of individuals that seem to come out of the woodwork to stand by the outlaw as he runs from the authorities.

Everyone’s favorite of these characters is no doubt Lone Watie, a Native American who becomes Wales’ sidekick in a way, unforgettably played by Chief Dan George. This character is simply awesome. George somehow manages the feat of crafting a character that is unbelievably proud of his heritage, but also knows when to poke fun at his piety. There’s a section of the film where’s he is terribly embarrassed that Wales has been able to sneak up on him, and the moment becomes a hilarious running joke as the two try to one up each other.

George gets a lot of the film’s best lines too. At one point, Wales complains about losing one of their party, Wales just complains that it just figures, saying “When I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long.” Lone Watie comes back with “I notice when you get to DISlikin’ someone they ain’t around for long neither.” The entire film he and Wales have exchanges like this. Seeing Wales on a ridge before the outlaw is about to declare war on a group of brigands that have taken Watie hostage, the old Indian remarks to another captive “Get ready, little lady. Hell is coming to breakfast.” George’s best moment comes when he speaks about a speech he was given by the Secretary of the Interior before the Civil War in which a politician congratulates the Cherokee Tribe for trying to “endeavor to persevere”, which apparently became a catchphrase used in the newspapers about the event. I love the last line of his monologue, in which he says “We thought about it for a long time, Endeavor to persevere.’ And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.”

George’s character becomes one of many that join in the struggle, each one bringing something new to the group, some even representing parts of Wales’, even some of the life he left behind. Lone Watie is the proud warrior that must try to keep fighting, even if his struggle should be long over. Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) is a young woman who takes to Wales, and reminds him of the love of the family he once had. Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) is a proud Kansas farmer, who works the land, just as Josey did before the war. Also Sarah hales from the same state that the Union troops that killed his family did, and with his acceptance of Sarah comes the beginning of the healing that must take place within him if he is to stop on his road to death.

Of course, being an Eastwood Western, the film finishes with a hefty bloodbath, but instead of facing his demons on his own, Josey gets to stand with his new family. The sequence is expertly constructed by Eastwood, who again manages an apocalyptic ending, but one that has a coda of hope. This is a cathartic moment of the picture, and again shows Eastwood taking his next steps as a director. In many ways, you can really see this film as a precursor to Unforgiven as Wales is a man that walks the opposite path of William Munny. Where Munny cannot avoid letting his inner monster out and unleash it on those that would persecute him, Wales has to find it in his heart to let go of his hate and fury and finally learn to love again.

His directing career had only been going for a few years, but The Outlaw Josey Wales Is an amazingly accomplished work that in hindsight may actually be the best Western of its period. To be honest, this was Eastwood’s best film until Unforgiven and in my opinion stands up just as well as its award winning brethren. The film was just another step in a career of a man who is going to leave a great legacy behind when all is said and done. It may have taken this long to make Clint a critical darling, but those that have followed his career have known what a treasure of bad ass film making he has always been.

Picture Credits:imp awards, filmstarts.de

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