It’s day four of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the awesome Tom from Digital Shortbread. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and this typically first class review of Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales is written by Michael’s It Rains… You Get Wet.
Senator: “The war’s over. Our side won the war. Now we must busy ourselves winning the peace. And Fletcher, there’s an old saying: To the victors belong the spoils.”
Fletcher: “There’s another old saying, Senator: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”
Words like “unexpected”, or at the very least, “unanticipated” could well have described actor Clint Eastwood’s sixth effort as a film director. Though the ‘western’ was what made him a ’60s icon, spurring his rise to movie box office supremacy the subsequent decade, the genre’s popularity was already dying by the bicentennial year of 1976. As much as John Wayne in real life, as was his final film character in The Shootist. Why those terms fit so well when it comes to describing The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Most critics and studios had by then read the tea leaves and diminishing returns since the genre’s heydays in the ’40s and ’50s. Even the considerable John Ford had closed out his westerns by 1964; most well aware his last great one, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, occurred in ’62. Then again, it was the ’70s. Tumult flowered, especially after the fall of Saigon put the final kibosh on the Vietnam War that had divided the country almost as much as the American Civil War did the previous century.
The same vestiges that weigh so heavily upon Clint Eastwood’s lead character and the tale’s storyline – which reveal much, so this is your standard spoiler alert warning for what lay ahead.
While the western may have fallen out of favour with ticket buyers, perhaps even among the unemployed and disaffected during the recession-riddled era, the genre remained a more versatile vehicle than given credit. I know it’s not one with universal appeal these days, but remains a favorite of mine since childhood. Yet, The Outlaw Josey Wales proved to be a more than worthy work for its actor-director, the era of cinema, and as a classic that’s stood the test of time as it approaches its fortieth year.
From the atypical cold opening to its less than clear-cut ending the film, which uniquely swam against the unsentimental tide of the time, proved a turning point in Eastwood’s budding directorial career to be one of best the ’70s ever produced.
Synopsis: As the Civil War rages, Missouri farmer Josey Wales is pulled into its carnage via a rivalrous band of pro-Union Jayhawker militants who’ve murdered his wife and young son. Scarred, left to bury and grieve for his family, joining the pro-Confederate Missouri bushwhackers is the only recourse as Josey sees it – spending the rest of the war skirmishing with the murderers tied to U.S. Senator Jim Lane’s Kansas Brigade, led by the man most hold accountable for the atrocities, Captain Terrill.
The war’s conclusion barely ceases antagonism, even as both sides look to end the Kansas-Missouri border conflict. Most in Josey’s posse are persuaded to surrender by a fellow rebel, Captain Fletcher, seeking amnesty for his men. Wales steadfastly refuses. As a result, he and a wounded young man – the lone survivors in Terrill’s treacherous massacre of the Missourians – turn themselves in. Now with a $5,000 bounty, Wales heads for the Indian Nations in Texas to hold up and escape his pursuers.
With death on his trail The Outlaw Josey Wales vows his own war against those who’ve wronged and betrayed him.
Senator: “You’re going after ’em, after all. Fletcher, I’m giving you a commission. Hound this Wales to kingdom come.”
Fletcher: “Hound ’em, Senator? A man like Wales lives by the feud. Cause of what you did here today, I’ve got to kill that man.”
Senator: “Well, he’ll have to run for it now… and hell is where he’s headed.”
Fletcher: “He’ll be waiting there for us, Senator.”
Traditional westerns have used revenge as a staple in many of its dramas, from film to television. Redemption, too, as both apply here. By itself, this goes against expectations in the conventional portrayals of most 19th century shoot-em-ups and horseback melodrama. Rightly identified as a “revisionist western”, this film’s stature only rises when keeping the punctilios and Clint Eastwood precisely in mind. Chiefly, as it tosses the ‘Man with No Name’ concept that brought him fame on its well-worn ear.
Purposely going against his ’60s Italian spaghetti western persona [^1] by giving the character a name and distinct backstory steeped in American history. Drawing Josey Wales as much of a victim as well as a pistoleer during the bloodiest period of this country. One of the few films casting the Civil War with an eye toward how the conflict conducted itself out west, in Missouri [^2] and Texas, specifically. As opposed to the uniformed blue and gray hostilities down south, à la John Ford’s Horse Soldiers.
The Outlaw Josey Wales proved to be a milestone by showing naysayers the western could still kick up as much dust as any contemporary antihero ‘genre flick’ making waves, or those deemed “… imbued with an intelligence and riskiness”, as ShortList once described. Elevating Eastwood’s work as a filmmaker, confidently breaking from his mentors’ (Sergio Leone, Don Siegel) stylings, as a result. Certainly, beyond a studio merely placating its movie star…
Sim Carstairs: “Ten year I been ferryin’ Kansas Redlegs, Union cavalry, Missouri guerillas… you name it. Mad dogs them guerillas. You look sideways at ’em… they kill ‘ya.”
Carpetbagger: “Sound like hard men to do business with.”
Sim Carstairs: “You bet. 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.”
Based loosely on The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales [^3] by Forrest Carter, aka Asa Earl Carter, a segregationist speech writer for George Wallace, KKK member and later a western novelist, producers saw a certain something in the material. Its treatment of Native Americans. Screenwriters Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus transformed its less savory elements into a literate treatise on war and its slaughter (echoing our Vietnam involvement) and filling it with surprisingly savvy character dialogue [^4].
That is, among the usual badass aspects most expected of Clint Eastwood back then. The customary violent western loner that’s just never left alone. Somehow the family he’s lost restored care of the colourful dramatis personae latching on to his journey west. Mainly the indigenous people, here finally given a chance to shine outside the genre’s habitual clichés, for once. Chief Dan George (post-Little Big Man), Will Sampson, and Geraldine Keams opening viewers eyes way before Dances With Wolves (1990).
The first third of the film creating the grim aura of Josey Wales against the overcast, mud-strewn Missouri landscape [^5]. A rebel guerilla hell-bent to rage upon any Kansas Red Leg or blue coat. The worst of ’em that won’t put his guns away or swear allegiance to the Union. The sea change for the vengeful widower, the youngin’s (Sam Bottoms) eventual death, which closes the chapter. The distinct reshape in tenor marked by sun-filled vistas and foliage, even occasional humor, once the outlaw reaches “The Nations”.
It’s what sets the tough-natured The Outlaw Josey Wales apart and turns the work into something quite compelling in story and approach.
This would have been Philip Kaufman’s second western to helm (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid his first), but famously “creative differences” brought Eastwood back into the ‘star-director’ role, and we’re ever grateful. The supporting cast rich with Eastwood regulars and western vets, but most notably the pairing of deep-voiced Dirty Harry co-star John Vernon portraying the put upon Fletcher, tasked to hunt his colleague alongside his despised enemy, Captain Terrell (Deliverance‘s Bill McKinney).
Directory of photography and another long-time crewmate of Malpaso Productions, Bruce Surtees’ distinct cinematography claimed the autumn light for this film production, which even John Ford would have been proud of. Hoisted it above the few westerns then dribbling out of Hollywood. But with an unmistakable neo-noir edge, color contrasted with heavy shadows, which envisioned its use in Eastwood’s later masterwork Unforgiven. Again, could only be tied to an era such as this one, me thinks.
Wales would say, “I reckon so.”
For all that ’70s attitude, The Outlaw Josey Wales remains a timeless tale to behold, even if you’re not into this genre. A former “grey rider” finding himself at the center of a growing community of outcasts, including various tribal people, castaways of a now defunct mining town, even Jayhawkers (Sondra Locke’s first collaboration with Clint) and a red bone hound. Flipping a death-fixated revenge western into a remarkably redemptive life-embracing, post-Civil War study.
Hell, even Orson Welles considered it one of his favorites.
Whereas aging former outlaw William Munny spends his journey up to Wyoming losing family and friends in Unforgiven, 1992’s Best Picture winner, the opposite was true with this film. Our fugitive gains both in his unlikely odyssey down Texas way, even if The Outlaw Josey Wales received little award recognition as America turned two-hundred. Each served as a counterpoint for the other; allegories bookended just 16 years apart. Evidence the western far from dead then, as a genre or storytelling device, and even today.
Fletcher: “I think I’ll go down to Mexico to try to find him.”
Josey Wales: “And then?”
Fletcher: “He’s got the first move. I owe him that. I think I’ll try to tell him the war is over. What do you say, Mr. Wilson?”
Josey Wales: “I reckon so. I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
[^1]: The uniquely supernatural High Plains Drifter, which preceded this film, an eerie homage to his early Sergio Leone horse opera trilogy.
[^2]: Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil (1999) another that showcased the guerilla warfare going on between Kansas and Missouri during this “War Between the States.”
[^3]: Listed in the movie credits under another title, Gone To Texas.
[^4]: Kaufman and Chernus should have garnered at least a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, but the vaunted Academy only recognised Jerry Fielding’s fine work with an Original Score nomination that year.
[^5]: Northern California locations standing in for Missouri, with Arizona-Utah for what the Spanish referred as Tejas.
Outstanding job highlighting this under-rated Western classic. Eastwood was great here. Later, after he was a superstar, his work with Unforgiven elevated the genre to a place of respect that allowed mainstream audiences to appreciate the tropes and chemistry of characters.
Thank you so much, Cindy. It’s the one of Eastwood’s that I’ve been waiting to write up for a long time. Guess it’s fortieth anniversary and the Decades Blogathon was the perfect timing. 😉
It was indeed. Really miss your writing! You should review movies more!
Reblogged this on It Rains… You Get Wet and commented:
My contribution to the #DecadesBlogathon and it’s a Clint Eastwood classic.
Thanks so much for the #DecadesBlogathon, Mark and Tom. Much appreciated. Gave me another chance to spotlight something I’ve long admired.
Thank YOU sir, another breathtaking article from you. I always appreciate your in-depth reviews. I must see this movie. I’m all about some Clint Eastwood man.
Solid work, Michael. I haven’t seen this in ages but I remember loving it. I had no idea it was Philip Kaufman that was involved and that a nice piece of info on it being a favourite of Orson Welles.
Thank you very much, Mark. When I went to research this, I was tickled pink to discover that fact of Mr. Welles. 🙂
It’s one that I haven’t seen (or if I have it was when I was a lot younger, and I simply don’t remember it, which I think is the case) so I don’t have much to add, unfortunately, but that was a good read.
Thank you very kindly, Stu. 🙂
Reblogged this on digitalshortbread and commented:
Don’t forget to check out Michael’s stunning piece on The Outlaw Josey Whales, featured over on Three Rows Back! Thanks everyone!
Hey, thanks for that, Tom. 🙂
Mark, of course you’d want to feature a review with a character called Fletcher in it .. . . . . 😉
That’s not biased at all . . . . .
Ha ha! I’d forgotten I swear!
I trust you, Mark. 🙂
Hmm…is that why it’s featured here? 😉
I want to get into more Eastwood. I really only know him from some of his directorial works like the recent American Sniper, Play Misty for Me, Gran Torino, and of course the Dirty Harry movies. I’ve always liked him in what I saw and his style, so I think I need to go back more in his filmography, especially early. Great review.
This is definitely amongst the Eastwood must-sees, MM. Thanks for the read and comment, my friend. 🙂
Great movie! Very fine post. Good thinking, good writing.
Thank you very much, Don. Much appreciated. 🙂
Thanks again Michael for this splendid appraisal of a cowboy classic! Also, don’t forget to travel to Tom’s https://digitalshortbread.com/ site for more blogathon action!
Thanks for spreading the word in this fine blogging event you two having going, Mark.
Thank you very kindly, Jay 🙂
Great write up about a great film Michael, I think Unforgiven is my favorite of all of Eastwood’s western films but this one comes a close second. Didn’t know it’s based on a novel written by a KKK member!
Same here, Ted. The two line up just like your favorites. Yeah, that dark secret of having a segregationist and Klan member as the author of the film’s source material only came out years later. After TOJW began to attain the acclaim it deserved. Thanks so much, my friend. 🙂
Great write up about a great film Michael, I think Unforgiven is my favorite of all of Eastwood’s films but this one comes a close second. Didn’t know it’s based on a novel by a KKK member!
Still, the end result bears no taint. The Outlaw Josey Wales really is a marvelous story and gave a voice and needed characterization to Native Americans beyond what had been done up to this time. Thanks, Ted.