“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”
— Clint Eastwood, as The Outlaw Josey Wales in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES:
Clint Eastwood’s career is so long-running and so varied in subject matter that the mainstream reactions to his work have really run the range. He was nobody, then he was a sudden success, then he was underrated, then he was accused of shallowness and sadism, then he was ignored, then he was discovered as a great director, then there was a backlash or seven, then he was called overrated by some, then the waves of rediscovery surged and ebbed and flowed, and so on. By any measure there are plenty of bright spots on that lengthy resume, many under-seen and under-appreciated films, and some stone-cold masterpieces. As actor and collaborator he has THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and DIRTY HARRY, and as director, he has UNFORGIVEN, BIRD, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, and this one right here.
THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is about a farmer who joins the then-raging Civil War when his family is massacred by marauders. When the war ends, he becomes an outlaw rather than surrender his guns. In the course of his travels, he meets a variety of companions and, as their protector, forms a kind of frontier community that due to his outlaw status he may or may not be able to join for good.
Time Out New York has referred to THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES as “messy” and “rather ponderous” and I truly hope that you take my word for it over theirs. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES takes everything that Clint ever learned from Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and everything he learned from cinema in general and Westerns in particular, and pours it all into this one glorious epic. The film is stuffed with savvy references to the history of American Western cinema, from the dizzying callback to the “Ecstasy Of Gold” sequence from THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY when Josey’s home is attacked, to a pointed reference to the white scorpion from THE WILD BUNCH, to about a hundred visual cues and thematic echoes of the work of John Ford, particularly in the complicated, layered depiction of Native American characters, which is virtually unique to THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES.
One part revenge picture, one part Lone Ranger & Tonto picaresque (a travelling odyssey with the greatest Indian sidekick ever in movies, Chief Dan George), one part political allegory, and one part mournful hymn, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is clearly Clint’s warm-up lap before UNFORGIVEN. It’s a meditation on violence and the effects of a life of violence on its perpetrators. Interestingly, it factors in the Native American experience in an unusual way, as something of a peripheral but running concern. Josey’s most consistent companion in a film where he has several of them — something of an irony in both the one-man-army Eastwood career and in a film where he’s billed as an outlaw — is Lone Watie, a very elderly man of measured speech whose easygoing, pointed humor and relaxing manner are a fascinating contrast to the typical clenched-teeth Eastwood gunslinger performance. The most charismatic, funniest role in the entire movie is carried out by a then-77-year-old man.
Consider also the taciturn young Navajo woman, Little Moonlight, who gets wrapped up into the defacto community that Josey Wales and Lone Watie pick up along the way in their travels. Her very existence in the film has an accumulated history to it — she is visually reminiscent of the Comanche squaw in THE SEARCHERS, but while that character was treated with less respect, literally booted down a hill by Jeffrey Hunter and laughed at by John Wayne, there is a redemptive quality to how Little Moonlight is portrayed here. She gets to carry a gun! I’ve seen a ton of Westerns and I’m pretty sure I never before or since saw an Indian squaw get a chance to fight alongside the heroes.
There’s also the warrior chief Ten Bears, a character who isn’t in much more than one scene but is played indelibly by the 1970s’ go-to Native American character actor, Will Sampson. An artist in life, Sampson was often framed as a looming, possibly dangerous figure on film. He was the deaf-mute Chief in the anti-establishment classic ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and the observant man-who-knows-whales Jacob in the wackadoo killer-whale epic ORCA. While even those roles bordered on stereotyping, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES inverts the image by portraying Ten Bears as a fearsome warrior chief, but then immediately equating him with the film’s hero. There is an instant recognition of equals that passes between Ten Bears and Josey Wales. It’s not unforeseeable that, had he lived, Will Sampson could have gone on to his own UNFORGIVEN, playing a similar violent-but-self-aware character in advancing age. Clint would direct, of course.
The brilliance of THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is that it works on so many different levels at once — it can and has been watched as a Clint’s-so-badass manly-man classic action film, from the epic gunfights right down to the quotability — but there’s an incredible depth and poetry to its engagement with American history and American film. It’s simultaneously traditional and revisionist. No action star before or since has ever been as knowing and sly about his onscreen persona as Clint has been, and none have deployed it so cannily. If all you see when you look at Clint is “Dirty Harry” or “The Man With No Name,” well, he gives that to you here, but even as he’s delivering it sincerely, he’s also serving it up as a rejoinder. For one thing, this is a good movie to watch for any of those skeptics who assume Clint’s acting is limited. Here he fills in the image of his standard vengeful-gunslinger character with pools of complicated emotion. Josey Wales can be nasty, not only to his enemies but to many who deserve compassion. I mean, in this movie he spits on a dog! Josey Wales is often a dick. He’s maladjusted but that makes sense: He’s a veteran. He’s seen heinous things, and done them too. He’s good at killing, less so at living.
There’s a lot more to be said about this movie, from the sweeping landscapes by cinematographer Bruce Surtees (PLAY MISTY FOR ME, THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID) to the score by composer Jerry Fielding (THE WILD BUNCH, THE GAUNTLET), but there’s only so much time and space. Let’s end with a special hand for the bad guys: John Vernon, who plays Clint’s ally-turned-nemesis Fletcher, has between this, his roles in POINT BLANK and CHARLEY VARRICK, and Dean Wormer in ANIMAL HOUSE, played at least four of the greatest heavies in film history. (Five, if you count KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE.) He could do ominous erudition with ease, but here there’s a melancholy and a weariness to his relentless pursuit of his quarry in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES that really stays with you, as much as Clint’s iconic warrior-gunman does. Eastwood regular Bill McKinney, probably best known for his part in DELIVERANCE, is menacing and monstrous here as the more straight-ahead villain, Captain “Redlegs” Terrill. A hero is only as tough as his toughest enemies. It’s not easy to play the equal but opposing force in a Clint Eastwood action film, but both of these gentlemen do a phenomenal job. Respect. Thank you.