[This post submitted for the Large Association of Movie Blogs' Clint Eastwood Blog-a-thon. More info can be found here]
The Outlaw Josey Wales may be the litmus test for Eastwood fans: hidden in plain sight, it is often overlooked by casual appraisers of the director's corpus who tend to leap from Eastwood's stint as an actor in Leone's Dollars trilogy more or less to Unforgiven. But The Outlaw Josey Wales concerns the same Western theme as Eastwood's later Oscar favorite -- of the necessity of violence and personal honor in a corrupt society -- albeit with more subtle and multilayered nuance than the more cut and dry (but still entertaining and rich, certainly) Unforgiven. Too, it serves as perhaps the greatest grab-bag of aesthetic and thematic styles from the great Western directors -- Peckinpah's violence, Hawks' group dynamic, Ford's broad character typing, Leone's rejection of modern corruption through the filthy "purity" of the Old West -- all filtered through Eastwood's gift for minimalistic formalism, evident even in this early directorial effort.
See how he uses the film to flesh out the Man with No Name into the titular protagonist. Josey is an expectorating man of peace driven to kill by the brutal murder of his wife and children by pro-Union Redlegs tearing through Missouri near the end of the Civil War. Face slashed, home burned and family freshly buried, Wales leaves his homestead to discover a group of Confederate guerrillas and joins their cause. In a montage over the opening credits, Josey and the bushwhackers tear through the state, Wales honing his killin' skills while hoping that each group of blues they happen upon will be the group that killed his family and never getting his wish.
As the war draws to a close, the rebels must accept their loss and capitulate to the Union soldiers they so relentlessly hunted. Wales, however, refuses to surrender, still consumed by hatred and perhaps hoping that his insolence might cost him a life that has lost all meaning. Instead, he witnesses the band of guerrillas brutally cut down by Gatling fire, only deepening his hatred and inspiring him to continue fighting. Naturally, Redleg leader Capt. Terrill (Bill McKinney) and guerrilla turncoat Fletcher (John Vernon) cannot abide Wales terrorizing the countryside, so they set out to capture him and collect a bounty set up by their Union superiors.
Eastwood, working with Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus' script, crafts The Outlaw Josey Wales into a series of dichotomies, almost all of which reverse on each other: Wales chases the Redlegs through Missouri and Kansas in that opening montage, who turn the tables by comprising the search party that hunts Wales after the massacre of the guerrillas. The director underscores the split between North and South with a scene that reveals a ferryman and traveling salesman before Josey happens upon them: the ferryman discusses how he's carried over men from both sides on his raft and confides in the salesman, "You know in my line of work, you gotta be able either to sing 'The Battle Hymn Of The Republic' or 'Dixie' with equal enthusiasm... dependin' upon present company." We meet Wales as a man of peace, yet Eastwood quickly crafts him into as brutal and efficient a killer as the anti-hero of Leone's films; indeed the film's most notable weakness is the occasional contrast between its message of Josey's reluctance to fight and the proto-Rambo thrill of watching him dispatch groups of men at a time.
The chief dichotomy, however, shows Eastwood casting Josey Wales as both kinds of traditional Westerns: a story of an individual establishing himself as judge, jury, executioner, god and whatever else of the territory he claims, and of the ability of outcasts and freaks to find community, even family, in an uncharted land that offers possibilities for fortunes that run deeper than a gold mine. Josey remarks more than once that he wishes to ride alone, yet a merry band of weirdos slowly draws to him like iron to a magnet. First it's a young soldier, the only other survivor of Terrill's slaughter, who succumbs to his wounds. Then, a disgraced old Cherokee (Chief Dan George), then a young Navajo girl, then a grandmother and her beautiful, timid granddaughter (Sondra Locke). After a time, Josey gives in to the rising numbers and even says about a hound who takes a shine to the master who spits upon him, "He might as well ride along with us. Hell, everyone else is." Compared to Bill Munny, who left his surviving family behind to return to a dark past, Josey attempts to cling to the pain of his loss but finds himself unable to growl and spit away the present, warming to these loners in spite of himself and even finding love again with the young woman.
Eastwood further mingles the two forms of Western construction by presenting Wales' companions as failed individualists. Lone Watie and the Navajo girl have been broken and cast out by the United States government and the tribe, respectively; the girl became a pariah for being raped by a member of another tribe and not "resisting enough" in the eyes of her own clan, while Lone Watie, as a Cherokee, finds himself without a country, his people having attempted unsuccessfully to ingratiate themselves with the U.S. and subsequently faced with scorn from racist whites and outraged natives. Grandma Sarah and Laura Lee stayed behind on their homestead with Sarah's husband while her son (and Laura's father) struck out on his own to provide for his parents and daughter, but when the group arrives in the town where he went to make his fortune they find it deserted, having dried up with the silver vein. Any one of them could be a hero in his or her own Western, but presented en masse we see their emptiness and regret, and how they find comfort in each other that they'd not felt in years.
These touches help give definition to what might otherwise have been nothing more substantial than a revenge fantasy, which it very much is in its action moments: most of Eastwood's films suffer to an extent in the sometimes harsh contrast between what he places in the film to entertain the masses and what he's trying to tell them, and he occasionally fails here to flesh out an action scene or two into anything more than hoo-rah shoot-em-ups. Nevertheless, The Outlaw Josey Wales is certainly one of Eastwood's finer pictures, though I don't know that I can agree with the man himself that it's his best. He handles the action scenes with a firm hand that would do his old boss Sergio proud and uses his mostly flat supporting characters to tell a deeper story than is immediately apparent. With juicy exchanges such as "Man's gotta make a living these days." "Dying ain't much of a living, boy" and that inexplicable pleasure of watching Eastwood's badass image melt for a smile or two, Josey Wales truly is one of those films with something for everyone.