Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 36 of 100
Sometimes I find myself casting about for an opening sentence for a review even as I’m watching the film. Part way through ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, the following took shape in my mind:
Clint Eastwood’s 1976 peacenik western starts with the title character, at this point still a regular guy tending a smallholding, witnessing the death of his family at the hands of Union soldiers who burn his house and leave him for dead –
At which point a mental cursor highlighted the whole thing and clicked on a ‘delete’ button. It was fundamentally flawed. The word “peacenik” just didn’t seem to have any business in a sentence that also included “the death of his family”, “burned his house” and “left him for dead”.
As ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ unfolds, a fair old catalogue of violence amasses: unarmed soldiers who have surrendered are mown down with a gatling gun; innumerable bounty hunters are ventilated as Wales hauls a hand-cannon so big you start to wonder if he’s actually Harry Callahan’s great-grandfather; a squaw is beaten with a hunk of wood and subjected to an attempted double-rape; a family travelling to new territory are set upon by Commancheroes, one of their number murdered and another subjected to an attempted rape (there is a scholarly paper that needs to be written on rape and attempted rape in the films of Clint Eastwood); two peaceable individuals are captured by Commanche Indians and buried up to their necks; and a group of homesteaders are forced to take up arms when Wales’s past catches up with him. Stick William Holden or James Coburn in the Eastwood role and you’d think you were watching a Peckinpah film (Matt Clarke, who memorably played J.W. Bell in ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ crops up in a supporting part).
And yet “peacenik” was the word I kept coming back to. Josey Wales – his unfailing accuracy with pistols and rifles notwithstanding – is perhaps the only character in an Eastwood western not to be a stone-cold anti-hero from the outset. He has none of the dark, mythic qualities of The Man With No Name in the Leone trilogy, The Stranger in ‘High Plains Drifter’ or The Preacher in ‘Pale Rider’; he’s not the enigmatic (if somewhat generic) quick-draw badass of ‘Hang ’Em High’, ‘Joe Kidd’ or ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’; and even though circumstances form him into someone who lives by the gun, he’s certainly a different breed to William Munny (“a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition”) in ‘Unforgiven’.
Josey Wales is a farmer. He has a family, a house, an honest life. He only picks up a gun when these things are taken from him. A group of Confederates pass by in the aftermath of the Union attack, led by Fletcher (John Vernon). Wales joins them. A splendid example of montage, over which the opening credits play out, plots their course from vengeful fighters to broken men, exhausted and sick of fighting and ready to turn their arms over to the winning side and swear a reluctant oath to the Union.
Wales refuses. The others are led into a trap by the turncoat Fletcher. Fighting back, Wales manages to secure his escape, along with the wounded Jamie (Sam Bottoms). It’s the first of several betrayals: an oleaginous seller of snake oil and a hypocritical ferryman later compound Fletcher’s treachery. And yet for all this, Wales finds reason to live again. And to try to live peacefully. By the end of the film he’s brokered an understanding with the Commanche, while the denouement – although effectively cathartic – quite literally rejects the gun.
One of the many things I love about ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ – along with its iconic and hugely quotable set-pieces (“Are you gonna pull them pistols or whistle ‘Dixie’?”; “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy”), Bruce Surtees’s admirable cinematography, and a cluster of great performances (Chief Dan George as the rueful yet pragmatic Lone Watie is a standout) – is that Eastwood, as director*, never rams home or sentimentalizes the essential core of the film: Wales’s gaining of a new, ersatz family. Rather, he lets things develop organically, through a series of incredibly well nuanced and often underplayed vignettes, trusting to the interplay of the characters and the flow of the narrative to get the point across.
The result is a damn good film that demonstrates Eastwood’s leanings towards classicism as a filmmaker, and points the way to his fullest synthesis of the western in his masterpiece ‘Unforgiven’.
*He took over from – or kicked out, depending on your sources – Phil Kaufman early on in production.