Program Notes: The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
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Guys who love The Outlaw Josey Wales really, really LOVE IT.
The comments section for the film on IMDB is awash in superlatives. There are fans who think Clint Eastwood’s 1976 oater is not only one of the best Westerns ever, but that it is one of the best films ever.
Say what? More on that later.
The film begins early in the Civil War. The Missouri farmer Josey Wales (Eastwood) loses his wife, his son, and his home to Kansas redlegs (civilian militia who frequently raided the homes of pro-Southern settlers in Missouri). Determined to exact revenge on the redlegs and their Union allies, Wales joins up with a passing band of bushwhackers (pro-Confederacy guerillas) led by “Bloody” Bill Anderson.
All this takes place before the opening credits. The real movie starts with the surrender of the guerillas at the war’s end. By this time Anderson is dead and his lieutenant, Fletcher (John Vernon), convinces his fellow fighters to lay down their guns in return for amnesty. (The Fletcher character was inspired by Dave Poole, one of Quantrill’s band who after the war assisted the authorities in getting the guerrillas to turn themselves in).
But it’s a trap. The blood-crazed Sen. Jim Lane and his mad dog assistant, Terrill (Bill McKinney), open fire on the disarmed Confederates with hidden Gatling guns. (Those dirty, low-down Jayhawkers!!!)
Josey Wales survives – in fact, he turns a Gatling (an early rapid-fire weapon that would evolve into the machine gun) on the Federals.
Now a wanted man, our hero takes off for Mexico with the rabid Terrell and the reluctant Fletcher in pursuit. Like most Eastwood heroes, Wales is a taciturn loner, but the twist here is that on his long ride south he picks up an odd assortment of losers, travelers, and hangers-on who look to him for leadership.
These include a loquacious old Indian (the scene-stealing Chief Dan George, an Oscar nominee a few years earlier for Little Big Man), a Rebel-hating Kansas crone (Paula Trueman) and her comely granddaughter (Sondra Locke, who would go on to have a romantic relationship with Eastwood that spanned 14 years and six films), an Indian girl, an aging Mexican vaquero, a small-town prostitute, and several others.
This may be the most interesting element of the screenplay by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus (adapting Forrest Carter’s book Gone to Texas): the Man with No Name (the character established by Eastwood in the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone) is forced to take responsibility for the lives of weaker individuals who need his protection.
Eastwood doesn’t make a big deal of Wales’ transformation – in fact, the character is as grumpy and monosyllabic at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. (Wales is most eloquent when he spits gobs of tobacco juice with deadly accuracy.)
Along the way these fugitives are harrassed not only by the bluebellies but by bounty hunters eager to collect the price that has been placed on Wales’ head, Commancheros (renegades who dealt arms and liquor to hostile tribes), and a war party of Indians (their leader is Will Samson, who that same year played Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
There is, to put it mildly, a high body count.
Now here’s something even big Eastwood fans might not know. He wasn’t the film’s original director. The project was developed by Phillip Kaufman, who also did the screenplay; Eastwood was the star and producer. But Kaufman and Eastwood didn’t get along (Kaufman was a time-consuming perfectionist, Eastwood liked to shoot quickly and move on).
Eastwood demanded that Kaufman be fired and took over the directing chores himself (he’d already helmed four features, including Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter). This led to a huge controversy within the Directors Guild, which as a result created the “Clint Eastwood Rule” imposing major fines on any producer who fires a director and then replaces that director with himself.
Which finally brings us to my ambivalence about The Outlaw Josey Wales. I’m of the opinion that Eastwood didn’t really learn to direct until 1990 and the film White Hunter Black Heart. That was about the time he stopped trying to be an ersatz Sergio Leone and actually found his own voice.
I’ve always found Eastwood’s pre-1990 movies to be ambitious but heavy-handed and unsubtle. He invariably overstated his case, pushed too hard and opted for the cheap laugh. (Even Eastwood may have realized this ... he has said he put off making his 1992 Western masterpiece Unforgiven for a decade because he knew that as a director he wasn’t ready for it).
What bugs me about Josey Wales is Eastwood’s inability or unwillingness to rein in his cast members, some of whom chow down on the scenery with the voraciousness of a junkyard dog who’s cornered a trespasser.
There are exceptions, like John Vernon, who is unique among the players in giving a low-keyed, realistic performance. And Chief Dan George is quite good at playing a deadpan sidekick whose pronouncements drip with irony; he even has a satisfying dramatic moment as he recalls the death of his wife on the notorious Trail of Tears. (George works his lines like an old Shakespearean actor with a snootful of whiskey...he’s wonderfully watchable. The same cannot be said of Sampson, who is saddled with some of the most ludicrous “movie Indian” dialogue imaginable.)
When these few good performances are front and center, they give the film a sensitive command of mood lacking elsewhere. All too often Josey Wales embraces only two extremes – violence and a weak jokiness.
Other films in the series “Quantrill’s Legacy”
August marks the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas. This film series illustrates how Hollywood has treated the subject of “Bleeding Kansas.” Part of our A Quantum of Quantrill series of August events.
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 5: Kansas Raiders (1950) Not Rated
- August 12: Quantrill's Raiders (1958) Not Rated
- August 19: Ride with the Devil (1999) Rated R
- August 26: The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.