The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)


Though Clint Eastwood had already made his mark as a director by the time The Outlaw Josey Wales was released this director credit caused a bit of a controversy.  The movie was was originally to be directed by Philip Kaufman, who cowrote the script with Sonia Chernus as an adaptation of Forrest Carter's book Gone to Texas.  Supposedly Eastwood and Kaufman had some conflicts regarding the way the movie was being filmed, the casting and, most importantly, about who got to date actress Sondra Locke.  Eastwood won out in all cases, but Warner Bros. ended up paying a fine to the Directors' Guild since Kaufman had already put in much of the work to get the film going.  If anything the movie would have been known for resulting in the "Eastwood rule", which meant that an actor in the film cannot forcibly take over the director's chair. 

It was also unfortunately discovered after the film became popular that the original novelist, rather than being part Cherokee as he initially claimed, was a former KKK leader and a George Wallace speech writer.  Surprisingly little sentiment for the Confederacy made it into the final movie, with the title character, though a member of a band of guerilla fighters that supported the South, having his own agenda of avenging the deaths of his wife and child.  Despite the source material this is also one of the first westerns to treat Native Americans as individuals and not as a monolithic group, although it is a bit of a stretch that an isolated member of  the Cherokee nation would understand and speak a completely unrelated language such as Navajo.  Still, both Chief Dan George and Geraldine Keams are as essential to the story as Wales and everyone else he picks up on his journey.

After his wife and child are killed by a Union division known as the Red Legs, Josey Wales (Eastwood) joins a group of Confederate guerilla fighters led by Bill Anderson (John Russell).  When Anderson dies Captain Fletcher (John Vernon) takes over the band, which is one of the last to surrender.  Wales is the one hold-out, as the war was for him was not about slavery or states' rights, but about revenge against Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney), the leader of the Red Legs.  He is right to hold out as Terrill has the surrendering men, save Fletcher, shot.

Wales escapes with a wounded compatriot named Jamie (Sam Bottoms) and begins making his way toward the Indian Nations, with Fletcher now tasked with helping the U.S. Army and Terrill find Wales.  Along the way Wales meets a former Cherokee rebel named Lone Watie (George), who suggests that they head down to Mexico.  Originally reluctant, Josey decides to follow Watie's advice.  Along the way he rescues a Navajo woman named Little Moonlight (Keams), as well as the survivors of a group of travelers (Sondra Locke, Paula Trueman) from Kansas that are heading down to a ranch in the southern part of Texas and are attacked by a band of outlaws.  However, peace doesn't come easy, as Fletcher and Terrill are still on his trail, and a Comanche leader named Ten Bears (Will Sampson) is not happy to see more white people settling on his land. 

It is a good thing that, though Wales is supposed to be a Confederate holdout, that Confederate pride and politics doesn't enter the mix.  Wales is still written in the movie as a true rebel who leaves politics behind to find his way in the world, which was in line with the antigovernment theme of the novel.  It was something that appealed to Eastwood (keeping in mind the true identity of the author was unknown to him at the time) and it largely manifests itself in the idea that it is politics and the evils of government that ultimately led to the Europeans and the American Indians not being able to see eye-to-eye.  This point does get a bit preachy in Wales's encounter with Ten Bears, in a portion of the movie that has already ground to a halt once the group reaches their destination at the ranch. 

The Outlaw Josey Wales works best as a road movie that just happens to be set at a time when few roads existed.  He becomes a natural leader from his actions rather than words, of which Wales, as a typical Eastwood character, has few to say.  Although supposedly taking place in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the filming was done in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and California.  Still, it is as beautiful as ever, but from the behavior of the Union toward the Natives to the Comancheros who would exploit just abut anyone for a dollar it is once again one of those westerns less concerned with dueling in the street and more concerned with how our "civilizing" influence has robbed the country of its true nature.  

Clint Eastwood as usual is perfect for the role and, though Chief Dan George was having problems remembering lines due to his age, Eastwood was often willing to let him go off script and just be himself.  Paula Trueman provides some humor as Sondra Locke's grandmother, being a Kansas woman with prejudices against just about everyone who dares draw the same air as her - be it the native population or the entire state of Missouri.  Sondra Locke is basically in the film because Eastwood was interested in dating her and, though she had an Oscar nomination under her belt, doesn't get to do much as Laura Lee other than be Wales's eventual love interest and almost be the victim of a gang rape by the Comancheros.  She does get to help defend the homestead at the end, but again Granny is much more interesting even then.

Bill McKinney's Captain Terrill would have been a better villain if he had been focused on more, but unfortunately Wales encounters so many different opportunists and bounty hunters along the way that the bad guys pretty much get oversaturated.  It does help that the final showdown between him and the Red Legs is handled well, and John Vernon's role as Fletcher, small as it is, is one of the few times where he plays someone who isn't a slimy authority figure.  More of his range can be seen here, and Fletcher behaves as honorably as one would expect in the end.  

Although the movie does have some pacing problems prior to the climactic battle, The Outlaw Josey Wales deserves its reputation as one of the more unique western films.  It unfortunately carries some baggage from its original author and, and that the time, caused some bitterness toward Eastwood for how he took it over, but in the end it turned out to be one of his best westerns and didn't have to fall back on his usual "man with no name" character.  This is probably one of the roles closer to what Eastwood himself is, or pictures himself as, and happily it is much more than just the screaming madman on the poster. 

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Time: 135 minutes
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Geraldine Keams, Sandra Locke, Paula Trueman, John Vernon, Bill McKinney
Director: Clint Eastwood 




 

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