The Outlaw Josey Wales: Clint Eastwood created his definitive Western masterpiece with this post-civil war saga that seamlessly combines the traditional and revisionist elements of the genre

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in The Outlaw Josey Wales(1976), an epic Western saga set in the aftermath of the American civil war. The film finds Clint as his very best as an actor and director, as he fashions a sweeping narrative that encompasses a wide range of emotions and landscapes. It details an epic journey (both external and internal) undertaken by the eponymous loner hero, and offers an impassioned plea for reconciliation, tolerance and peaceful co-existence in a fractured American nation.

Clint Eastwood rarely cries on screen. He forever epitomized the minimalist, masculine, ‘Mount Rushmore’ style of acting, where the actor does very little by way of histrionics and expressing emotions. He did much more emoting in his latter part of his career- in the post 90s phase, in films like Unforgiven, Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby and such. But before that, Clint would always shy away from any overt display of tender emotions; additionally, his image was always that of the macho, stone-faced superman who is impervious to any form of vulnerabilities, hence crying on screen was taboo. So, i was first surprised, and then deeply moved when i saw Clint crying early on in his 1976 Western, The Outlaw Josey Wales. It must be a really special film that inspired Clint to bare himself emotionally like this, and “Josey Wales” turned out to be a very special film indeed; perhaps, Clint’s best turn in front and behind the camera. In the film, Clint plays Josey Wales, a farmer trying to live peaceably on the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War. But in the pre-title sequence, Northern raiders, Redlegs, burn out his farm and kill his family (his wife is played by Bill Wellman’s daughter, Cissie, his son by Kyle Eastwood). It’s while digging their graves and putting wooden crosses over them that Clint breaks down, unable to control his grief as he tearfully recites “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. He has blood streaming down his face from a wound inflicted by a Redlegs‘ sword. He will carry that scar on his face for the rest of the film as a painful reminder: of the family he lost and for the moment that transformed him from a peaceful farmer into a bloodthirsty warrior. It should be noted that this is the only moment in the film where he will be so emotionally naked. From here on, he will be the typical tightly-coiled, taciturn ‘Clint Eastwood’ that we know. The scar on his face also seems to split his personality into two, one a ferocious warrior and the other a tender nurturer, and the rest of the film will deal with his internal struggle in reconciling between these two divergent personalities.

Soon enough, Wales would join a group of confederate Rebel guerrillas and fights through the war with them, inflicting maximum damage on the Union forces. When the Civil war is over, Fletcher(John Vernon), the Rebel leader, strikes a deal with the Union military high command for a honorable surrender of his men. Everyone, except Wales, decides to surrender and follow Fletcher into the Union camp. But they are betrayed, and massacred by the Redlegs, with Fletcher helpless to stop them. Wales, realizing that the deal was a set-up, tries to save them from the massacre, but is successful in only saving a young soldier named Jamie (Sam Bottoms), who’s badly wounded. Wales and Jamie plan to hide out in the ‘Indian Nations’ until Jamie’s wounds are healed, and then head for Texas where they understand other Southern sympathizers have taken refuge. Wales also plan to return at some point and kill Fletcher for his betrayal. Wales is now a wanted man, and a U.S. senator charges Fletcher to serve under Redlegs commander, Terrill(Bill McKinney), to hunt and capture Wales. A guilt-ridden Fletcher has no other option but to follow the order, and he does his best to temper Terrill’s out of control passions during the long, obsessive pursuit. Jamie soon dies from his wounds, and Josey proceeds alone. A bitter, silent figure in a forbidding landscape, his sole desire now is to avoid further commitments that might lead to further losses and betrayals.

But, fate has other plans for Wales. Try as he might to remain alone and unattached, he starts accumulating a family of waifs, strays and outcasts around him. First of them is a sly and funny old Cherokee, Lone Watie (Chief Dan George); then a Navajo woman, Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams), who has been cast out by her tribe and rescued by Josey from virtual slavery; later, an old lady (Paula Trueman) and her granddaughter, Laura Lee (Sondra Locke), also joins Wales after he saves them from the brutal predations of Comancheros; and even a snarly but redeemable hound dog becomes part of this multiracial family. Laura Lee and her grandmother are heading for a ranch left to them by by Laura’s brother, and Wales agrees to escort them there. All through the journey, Wales comes under attack from Union soldiers and bounty hunters- who are hell-bent on collecting the bounty on his head. But Wales overcome all odds by exhibiting superhuman strength at every turn.

Finally, Wales and party reach Laura Lee’s place, only to discover that It stands on Indian land. A deadly confrontation with the land’s Comanche Chief Ten Bears (Will Sampson) and his tribe seems inevitable, but Wales decides to give peace a chance and rides out alone to parlay with the natives. He tells the chief that they are both in their ways outcasts, betrayed by unfeeling government policy, and Ten Bears accepts his proposal of peaceful coexistence. Meanwhile, Wales also gets romantically entangled with Laura Lee. At last, It seems that Wales has managed to overcome his demons and is about to settle down to a new life, carving a civilized corner out of the wilderness for himself and his own makeshift tribe. But by this time, Terrill and his Redlegs have caught up with him, and they ambush Wales outside Lee’s ranch. Wales ferociously fights back, and in this, he is helped by his adopted family, who all pick up guns to defend their leader. The bloodbath ends with Wales dispatching Terrill with his own sword. Later, Wales has a tense confrontation with his former comrade, Fletcher, who was not among Terrill’s party that had ambushed him. Here too, instead of shooting it out with Fletcher, Wales chooses to make peace, and then rides back to his family.

The Outlaw Josey Wales was adapted from an obscure novel by an even more obscure and strange writer, Forrest Carter; the novel was later republished under the title “Gone to Texas”. Clint was mainly attracted to the book because it presented the native Americans in a new light. Also, being a Libertarian, the story’s subtext that deals with distrust of government might have also appealed to him. He turned to famous writer\director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) to adapt the book for screen. Kaufman was horrified by the almost fascist tone of the anti-government feelings expressed in the book (Forrest Carter was later discovered to be a KKK supporter and southern segregationist), and he toned it down to a large extend in his screenplay. Kaufman’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Sonia Chernus, is a remarkably sophisticated treatment of the story’s characters, themes, and plot, possessing great narrative momentum and some of the best dialogue ever written, with a unique slang that uses terms like “I reckon so“. Also, the line “I guess we all died a little in that damned war” spoken by Clint’s Wales is not only one of the greatest closing lines in movies, but it’s an appropriate summation of how the survivors of any civil war feels.

The film started shooting with Kaufman in the director’s chair, but soon, creative differences started cropping up between Kaufman and Clint. It had to do with Kaufman’s meticulous working methods more than anything else. Clint was averse to any form of wastage on the sets, and he always brought in his films under budget and schedule. Kaufman was a perfectionist, who labored over every location, every camera angle for hours to get the shot he wanted. This was not going to work with Clint, and after one particularly unpleasant episode: Kaufman wasting precious hours looking for the prefect dune against a horizon from which Clint was to ride in, Clint fired Kaufman and took over the direction himself. The film’s heroine, Sandra Locke, also became a bone of contention between the men; though both of them were married at the time, each made a play for Locke. Clint, being a superstar, had more clout among the two, and naturally he prevailed, winning the hand of the lady and the creative control of the film. Clint and Locke became a couple, both on and off screen, making 6 movies together. Their relationship ended in much acrimony n the 90s, with Locke filing a palimony suit against Clint, which was later settled out of court. Clint’s action of firing the director and usurping the director’s chair created an uproar in the Directors Guild, and they formulated a new rule, named ‘The Eastwood rule’, by which a director could not be replaced by another member of the film’s unit. In projects where the director has to be replaced, they will have to bring in another director from outside as replacement. The change of director seems to have hardly affected this film, Clint took a break in shooting to regroup himself before he started as the director, and then, true to his form, completed the film well ahead of schedule.

That being the tumultuous history behind the film’s production, today, it’s really hard to believe that anybody other than Clint could have made this film. The film is so intertwined with his image as a star and his work as a director that in many ways, this is the definitive Clint Eastwood Western classic; more than Unforgiven, High Plains Drifter or even ‘Man with no Name‘ series. The film, and the character he plays, could be considered a bridge between his ‘Man with no Name’ and William Munny in Unforgiven. Josey Wales is at once human, and also supercool as only Clint Eastwood can be: Wales never misses a target, whether it be with his Colt six shooters, sniper rifle or while spitting tobacco juice. The film shows how a man who has lost his identity, and who wants to simply survive in a fractured and violent world, slowly develop relationships and form a family around him. By the end, he he has lost the appetite for violence, and achieves redemption for past actions by protecting and nurturing a helpless community. In that way, the character is an amalgam of Clint’s spaghetti Western anti-heroes as well as the traditional Western hero played by John Wayne in films like Stagecoach.

Wales, at the beginning of this film, is very much like his character from the spaghetti Westerns: rootless, nameless, nationless, existential hero bothered with only his own survival; He is surly and uncommunicative. He rigidly maintains his own moral code of justice. He has extraordinary powers with a gun- during the course of the film, he kills some 55 people (that’s Clint’s second highest body count in a film after Where Eagles Dare (1968)), and is only shot once; while at the end of the film, he becomes like the family man, William Munny, at the beginning of Unforgiven: settled into domesticity and back to working the land. This rare mixture of the typical Eastwoodian and non-Eastwoodian characteristics make this role quite a unique one in Clint’s filmography, and Clint embodies the character with a perfect performance. Clint doesn’t talk much during the movie, but uses remarkable facial expressions and body language to convey the character’s emotions. When he does choose to talk, he sparks some classic Eastwood quotes like “are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie” and “dying ain’t much of a living.” That aspect of ‘Clint Eastwood’ persona, where a gunshot is preceded or succeeded with a witty punchline, is kept intact for this film. I guess, It’s necessary to make palatable Wales’ superhuman shooting abilities. So we have Clint say “We got somethin’ in this territory called the Missouri boat ride.”, as he pulls out his Sharps Sniper rifle out from his saddle and shoots the rope which directs the ferry across the river. The ferry is bringing Terrill and his gang towards Wales, and the shot that Wales fires to set them off course can only be described as miraculous; it’s a one in a million shot that’s impossible to make. Obviously, the moment brings back memories of “Do i feel lucky” and “Aim for the heart Ramon“. The film also features some incredible two-handed gun action that would make Asian auteur John Woo proud. If you think that Chow Yun-Fat and Woo were the pioneers in this sort of gun play then think again. There are about 5 major action scenes in the film, and in each one of them Clint unleashes hell with his Colt 1847 or Colt 1860 in both hands. Clint riding his horse at full speed and shooting down his enemies with pistols in both hands makes for one striking image. He seems to have picked this up from John Wayne’s climactic shootout in True Grit(1969). The climax of this film features Clint’s Wales dry-shooting Terrill with his empty pistols in both hands, symbolically killing him again and again as revenge for destroying his family, before he delivers the coup de grâce by snatching Terrill’s sword. Thus, the two-gun action is integrated into Wales’ character and becomes more than just a style statement. Wales might not be quite as iconic as either ‘The Man With No Name’ or ‘Dirty Harry’, but he stands as one of the actor’s finest roles.

The Outlaw Josey Wales could also be considered Clint’s companion piece to John Ford and John Wayne’s The Searchers(1956). Like that Ford classic, a family tragedy spurs the lead protagonist’s epic journey in the post civil war period. But the major difference between the two films is that in the post-Vietnam era, in which “Josey Wales” was made, Westerns had stopped being the exaltation of a nostalgic past and had become more of an echo of the political disillusionment of a lost generation. Vietnam war had divided the country as much as the civil war did a hundred years ago. So, it’s natural that In 1976, the bicentennial year of American independence, when Clint chose to make this movie, he would be using one fractious period in American history to comment on the other. This is very evident by the fact that Josey Wales is not psychotically monomaniacal as Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was in his pursuit for revenge. By the final stages of this film, Wales almost forgets his revenge, and is more prone to gestures of non-violence and reconciliation. Also, the racism and xenophobia regarding the native tribes that was the heart of The Searchers is completely absent here. Not only that, the Native tribes are actually the hero’s allies rather than foes. The battles in the film are between white Americans, something that’s more reminiscent of Ford’s own civil war saga, The Horse Soldiers(1959).

In this film, The Natives are presented as tragic, yet dignified characters. The character of Lone Watie, played superbly by Chief Dan George with a mixture of humor and pathos, infuses more humanity into the film than the character of Wales himself. He is cast out from his own tribe because he became too civilized; in his introduction scene, we see him dressed like Abraham Lincoln. Later, he adopts the appearance of a cowboy. He’s also presented like a wise, old storyteller, who’s intend on narrating Wales’ legend at every turn; who knows more about Wales, and what he’s going to do better than Wales himself, and is prone to giving a running commentary on his actions every time Wales confront his enemies. Before their first meeting, it looks like that the blue-painted, ferocious-looking Comanche chief, Ten Bears, might turn out to be Wales’ chief nemesis, but surprisingly, he chooses to accept Wales’s offer of peaceful coexistence. It’s interesting to note that it’s the common hatred they feel for the American Union, that had systematically lied, robbed and cheated them, that brings them together. Even the character of ‘Little Moonlight’ that seems to have been modelled on the ‘Look’ character in Ford’s The Searchers, turns out to be a fiery and resourceful Navajo woman. Paula Trueman  gives a quirky performance as the proud Jayhawker, Grandma Sarah. She embodies the fractured state of the American Union more than anybody else. She’s suspicious of anybody outside of Kansas, and looks down on everybody else as either Missourians, Texans, Hoosiers and such, never as Americans.

By the time Clint embarked on this venture, the ‘Western’ was already on its deathbed. The very same year, John Wayne had made his final film, the Don Siegel directed The Shootist. The box office grosses of Westerns were coming down remarkably since the past decade, and the studios were loathe to put their money on this genre. Also, Clint was not an established director yet: He had shown great promise as a director with Play Misty for Me(1971) and High Plains Drifter(1973), but his previous actor\Director double duty with The Eiger Sanction(1975) was not well received, critically or commercially. His stardom itself was facing a temporary slump, with none of the movies he had done in the last couple of years working big at the box office; and here he was taking over the film from another director under controversial circumstance. So, not much was expected from this film, even though one couldn’t write off Clint in his strength genre. Only his Westerns were making money at the time, and i guess, that’s what got this film made. It’s to his credit that Clint managed to find the right tone for the film that reconciled the traditional with the revisionist, and perhaps, he was the only one who could do this at the time; and that too by making a humanistic story from material written by a Klan apologist, as well as creating a politically relevant drama out of a period film. Clint’s direction of this film is like his acting: invisible, seamless and devoid of any affectations. His action scenes are dynamic, while the more poignant portions are elegiac. The color palette he adapts for the film is dark and gloomy; it’s very dark in the beginning, but as the story progresses, the film gets brighter and brighter, reflecting the more optimistic tone of the film. The film’s narrative momentum does slacken a bit in the last act, but he manages to end the film on a high note. It’s rather ironic, but fitting- for a film that seamlessly combines the revisionist and traditional Western elements- that he ends this Western, that began on such a pessimistic and bleak note, with the classical Western image of the Western hero riding into the sunset.

At the time of its release, the film was a box office hit, making in excess of $30 million on a $3 million budget, and got good reviews, but it wasn’t critically hailed as much as it deserved to be. It was a treated more or less as a routine Clint Eastwood Western. This would not have been the case if the film was made in the 90s. The film won only one Oscar nomination, for Jerry Fielding’s original score, otherwise it was overlooked in all other categories. Neither Eastwood’s direction nor Bruce Surtees’ superbly moody photography got a nod. But, the film received a lot of high praise among Native American viewers for its non-stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in the film. Clint considered the film to be the high point in his Western filmmaking, and none other than Orson Welles praised this film and called it one of the greatest Western he has ever seen. Welles claimed to have seen the film four times, and felt that it “belongs with the great Westerns of Ford and Hawks and people like that.”


3 thoughts on “The Outlaw Josey Wales: Clint Eastwood created his definitive Western masterpiece with this post-civil war saga that seamlessly combines the traditional and revisionist elements of the genre

  1. Eastwoods character rode with Bloody Bill Anderson, who was a psychopath known for murdering Kansas civilians and Union soldiers alike–after they had surrendered and were unarmed. So he was every much of a murderer as the Redlegs he despised.

    Liked by 1 person

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