The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
A subtly impressive journey through a landscape of revenge and companionship, The Outlaw Josey Wales makes fine use of
Eastwood, the iconic gunfighter. In the build-up to the American Civil War, Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) is content to till his
land with loving wife and son. Unfortunately, a ranging gang of redlegs make it their business to loot and destroy his home
(simultaneously killing Josey's wife and child). With everything that he ever cared for gone, Josey retrieves his gun from the
charred remains (of his previous life) and prepares single-mindedly for retribution. Joining a company of men led by Fletcher
(John Vernon), Josey plunges himself into the Confederate cause.
On the other side of the war, Fletcher's small band are the last of the hold-outs before a total Union victory. Wearied by the
conflict, Fletcher feels that it's time to surrender, leading everyone but the suspicious Josey down to the nearby Union camp.
Fletcher's really doing this because he's being paid, although he also believes that it's the best thing for his loyal men.
Shamefully, he's not the only one who's been duped; his trusting cohorts are met with hot lead rather than hot food. Luckily
Josey has been watching and, galloping from the hills, he manages to gun down a number of Union troops and rescue young
Jamie (Sam Bottoms). However, they're outlaws now and chief redleg Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney) is assigned to track them
down. Given his over-zealous and murderous ways, Fletcher is extremely reluctant to accompany this acknowledged looter
(but finds himself forced to anyway).
Out in the wilderness the hard-pressed duo have nowhere to go, never mind the fact that Jamie is wounded and slowly bleeding
to death. With a large bounty on their heads, every man's hand is set against them (forcing Josey to shoot a fair number of
venturesome individuals). Ultimately the Indian Nation seems like the best place to hide out for a while, though Jamie slips away
before they can make it. Josey doesn't remain alone for long though, despite his misanthropic outlook. First comes Lone Watie
(Chief Dan George), a dry-witted and aging Indian warrior, then Indian squaw Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) attaches
herself to them. Pretty soon there's a whole family heading down to Texas, companions that Josey never chose but is content to
ride with and protect.
While The Outlaw Josey Wales can be watched and enjoyed simply as the tale of a wronged farmer out for vengeance, the
film works quietly on several other levels. In one way this is an epic circular odyssey, charting the period that Josey spends in
the wilderness after losing one family and before gaining another. While nominally a loner, even Josey has, and needs, a place in
the community (a structure which is shown to underpin and give shape to the society as a whole). From a different angle, the
movie successfully subverts many of the usual Western stereotypes, principally with Eastwood's portrayal of Josey. He is a
cold-blooded killer by reputation yet this is a position forced onto him by circumstance rather than choice. Fundamentally he is
compassionate and altruistic, a well-armed shepherd who tends to the weak.
The script of The Outlaw Josey Wales hangs together astonishingly well for something so episodic and diffuse. Events occur
without any motive force, although there is a growing sense of inevitability throughout the film. The glue which holds everything
together are the characters; well written, they are a group of pragmatists, outwardly disparate but sharing common values.
Surrounding the taciturn but quite human Josey, Chief Dan George is exquisite as the wronged chief, full of life and experience,
while Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) is his equal in every way, combining crusty belligerence and an indomitable spirit in a
powder-keg of little old lady. Every role has a quality which makes it special, a significant consideration for any film.
Eastwood does an eminently reasonable job of direction, firmly steering it in the intended direction though never suffocating its
essential vitality. If anything Eastwood is a little too loose-handed, since the whole package could do with a touch of sharpening
up. Coupled with excellent visuals (though it is hard to mess up any film with locations like these) and a spirited score, The
Outlaw Josey Wales paints a vivid picture of humanity. Life, rather than death, is the key here, even if the film takes a bit too
long making that point.