The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Genre: Western Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.

Release Date: July 14th, 1976 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Clint Eastwood Actors: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke, Bill McKinney, John Vernon, Paula Trueman, Sam Bottoms, Geraldine Keams, Woodrow Parfrey, Joyce Jameson, Royal Dano, Will Sampson

 


 

A

peaceful, idyllic field surrounded by a forest of chirping birds and a gentle stream is, in an instant, turned into chaos. Josey Wales’ (Clint Eastwood) house is lit ablaze, his wife and child are brutally slain, and his face is slashed by a saber. After falling unconscious, Josey awakes to the horrors of having to see his house in ruins and having to bury the bodies of his loved ones. Saying a few prayers over their gravestones does nothing to alleviate the agony; his only friend now is the burning desire for revenge.

Wales digs his gun out of the ashes and immediately begins practicing his shooting abilities. As it turns out, he hasn’t entirely lost his skills with a firearm. So when “Bloody” Bill Anderson (John Russell) finds the man sitting sullenly on a pile of rocks, and informs him that the culprits were Union soldiers, Wales exclaims that he’ll be joining Anderson’s Confederates to pursue the enemy. Interestingly, all of this takes place before the opening title credits, which then segue into a montage of Civil War sequences to illustrate the bloodshed and battles of (Bleeding) Kansas and Missouri guerrilla skirmishes. When the picture resumes again, it’s determined that Wales is part of a small band of straggling holdouts who have so far refused to give up the cause. But the option to turn in their weapons, pledge allegiance to the United States, and surrender to the federal authorities ends up looking like the best option.

Their current leader, Fletcher (John Vernon), brings them all into the Union camp, hoping for a sensible, uneventful capitulation. But the senator overseeing the operation is in league with Captain “Red Legs” Terrill (Bill McKinney, looking meaner than most and spouting fiercely ironic lines like “Doing right ain’t got no end,” as he strives to kill anyone who opposes his views), a butcher and a looter who cares little for common human decency. This results in the rebels getting summarily executed, save for Wales, who swoops in at the last minute to disrupt the massacre – and save only a single young comrade (Sam Bottoms). The adventure has just begun, however, as they make their way across Missouri to Indian nation, with Terrill and plenty of other cavalrymen hot on their trail.

The film boasts an infrequently used set of antiheroes against a backdrop of Civil War conflicts and participants, taking care to depict all sides with equal details (even if some are skewed less favorable than others). Carpetbaggers, bounty hunters, the Red Legs paramilitary outfit from Kansas, Jayhawkers and Hoosiers, Comanches and comancheros, barbaric outpost traders, Texas Rangers, a member of the “civilized” tribes of the post-Trail of Tears ordeal (Chief Dan George), and a Navajo woman (Geraldine Keams) represent just some of the various inhabitants of this Old West tale, stuffed with treks across picturesque locales, as if a comprehensive account of the sentiments and motivations of the time period (yet with the sensibilities of modern filmmaking). In this way, it’s a bit like Indiana Jones (or vice versa), who moved through notable historical elements in his action-packed endeavors (and, since the script was written by Philip Kaufman, who would go on to create the story for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” this isn’t completely coincidental).

Here, there’s also a preoccupation with adventure (and impressive stunts, many of which involve horses), as Wales doesn’t miss an opportunity to usurp a Gatling gun, unleash his dual pistols on opponents, or storm a hijacked wagon train despite being outmanned and outgunned. And, in true form with Eastwood’s other film characters, Wales talks tough – and backs it up – while bravely, emotionlessly dispatching antagonists. His slick yet sparing words of formidableness are also paired with a trademark bad habit – that of spewing tobacco juice on the faces of freshly felled pursuers (and then on everything else that crosses his path). Though he’s not a clean-cut good guy, the villains are so vile that Wales becomes an unquestionable champion of righteousness. Several sequences, including two attempted rapes, are representative of such anarchical forces, though they’re a bit dark and uncomfortable in this generally adventure-oriented Western.

It all builds to an inevitable showdown (more than one, as it turns out), as the relentless Terrill lurks somewhere in the background, seemingly devoting his whole existence to ending Josey’s outlaw status. Plus, there’s plenty of references to Ten Bears (Will Sampson), the Comanche chief lusting for blood. With all of these obstacles (and an unsubtle message about coexisting in peace, the ease with which humans betray one another, and the mortality rate of men who can’t seem to avoid trouble), the picture bears a resemblance to “Red River,” chiefly through its span of time (here, the main character endures the negative psychological effects of war rather than the daunting trials of a cattle drive, as fellow participants are unable to detach themselves from its grip even after it’s over), its exhaustive array of hardships, and the actual running time. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” may be a touch overlong, with coverage of events clearly borrowed from the techniques of Sergio Leone, but it’s nevertheless a thrilling Western epic that would pave the way for Eastwood’s meaner-spirited, bleaker, revisionist pictures of “Pale Rider” and “Unforgiven.”

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10