So much of the Western genre is built on the intense conflict between the forces of civilization and the chaos of the wild. This division epitomizes the disorder facing the country around the time of the U.S. Civil War. Economic and political forces ripped apart the country and set up the conditions for marauders to own the new world. The opening scene of The Outlaw Josey Wales depicts the violent mess of this environment. We first see Josey Wales working the land with his son; it’s an idyllic look at frontier life. In just a few moments, his life completely shatters. The grim reality of this world births the outlaw superhero that everyone wants to destroy. Josey’s refusal to accept the war’s end makes him a threat to the forces of civilization, and the bandits join the fight to capture the huge reward for apprehending him.
Adapted from the 1973 Forrest Carter novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, this film depicts a hellish world. During the opening sequence, the close-ups of crazed killers wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror film. Josey is the innocent victim with little chance against the vicious gang. To gain revenge, he must first become one of them. It’s tricky to view a guy who kills so many as a hero. The opening scene’s brutality bonds us with his fight. There’s no doubt that the men who killed his family were monsters. Writers Sonia Chernus and Philip Kaufman (the film’s original director before Eastwood took over) make sure there are few sympathetic enemies. The exception is Fletcher (John Vernon), Josey’s former leader in the guerrilla Confederate unit. He seems more sympathetic to Josey despite his role in making him an outlaw.
Released in 1976, The Outlaw Josey Wales arrived in a country torn apart by Watergate and Vietnam. There are specific enemies in this film, but the real evil is the institution that supports them. In a key early scene, the boss of the evil Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney) seems just as corrupt as his underling. He sets up the massacre of Fletcher’s unit without batting an eye. Nastily killing the men with a hidden Gatling gun feels particularly mean. There’s no honor in the way they fall. Josey does meet Union soldiers that seem like regular guys, but they still work for the group that’s hunting him. They have no choice but to follow orders. The bandits that stumble upon Josey and try to kill him are more feral. However, their efforts spring from the rewards offered by the Union leaders.
It’s difficult to argue with claims that this film is an iconic Western. It contains all of the genre’s signature traits in gorgeous outdoor settings. The cinematography from Bruce Surtees (a regular Eastwood collaborator) creates an interesting clash between beauty and horror. A perfect example is the sequence when marauders try to rape Laura Lee (Sondra Locke). The close-ups shots of their dead eyes are frightening, particularly from her point of view. It lasts for what seems like an eternity and offers a grim look at humanity. What’s striking is the spare beauty of the landscape around this scene. Like much of the movie, it shows the dark side of humanity but within an attractive setting.
There’s less beauty in the nearly deserted towns of the Texas wild. It feels at times that Josey has died and is wandering an infinite hellish landscape. The men he encounters feel like demons from the afterlife. In the final act, Josey does rediscover a sense of community. He falls for Laura, but it’s really about the last residents of the lost town. They journey to the lands of Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and enjoy a brief respite from the chaos. Dancing around the fire and enjoying each other’s company, they establish the foundations for a new society. This brings added weight to the final battle with Terrill’s gang. Josey is fighting for more than revenge against the men who killed his family.
This film is considered a revisionist Western, and it’s a step beyond the more two-dimensional genre films of the early days. The depiction of Native Americans in particular offers more depth. Chief Dan George does the heavy lifting as Lone Watie —a trusted companion for Josey. It’s nearly impossible not to like that guy, and George’s performance is the reason. On the other hand, the depiction of women could use some work. Little Moonlight (Geraldine Kearns) is beaten by her master and then nearly raped in her first scene. Later on, she hooks up with Lone Watie. She’s depicted positively but is quite a thin character. Laura Lee also feels more like a symbol than a fully written person. She steps up to fight the enemy in the end but is mostly around to love Josey.
I’ve seen most of the seminal Westerns but never got around to The Outlaw Josey Wales. It’s an interesting movie and was definitely worth checking off my Blind Spots list. I am curious to note just how much Eastwood did once Kaufman left. I hate to give either too much credit for the final product. Kaufman excelled at presenting the desert landscape at Edwards Air Force Base in The Right Stuff. This story feels like his type of work, but it also matches the melancholy Westerns of Eastwood’s career. It particularly connects to Unforgiven, which subverted the violence even further. Regardless, this film comes together well in delivering an engaging story and a worthy genre film. It checks the boxes yet never becomes too predictable. Eastwood also embodies Josey with a quiet grit that fits the loner role. He’s rarely been better on screen, and that says quite a lot.
This is the fifth entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd.