Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Posted as part of Operation 101010
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.


Dave said...

Definitely one of Eastwood's best and even though he was still a developing director at this point, his storytelling abilities are on full display. Every character in the story feels fleshed out and memorable. And as you rightly note, the number of memorable quotes and specific scenes are abundant.

It's not quite on the same level as Unforgiven, but it comes very close... sitting with High Plains Drifter just below the excellence of Unforgiven. Wonderfully written piece here.

Samuel Wilson said...

The big difference separating Wales from Eastwood's other westerners is that, as far as I know, he's the only one to have an existence before Eastwood incarnated him, in Forrest Carter's novel. I've never read it, so I don't know if the memorable lines and characterizations can be found there. In any event, it's a great film about the unconscious rebuilding of community (I think of it that way rather than as family) in the wake of war.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for commenting, fellas.

Dave - agreed: the characters are incredibly rich and fully-rounded. I love the way Fletcher is a complex and humane character instead of just an all-purpose traitor. His moral outrage when he realises that his former unit has been turned over to the sadistic Captain Terrill is palpable. His final, low-key scene with Wales sets the seal on the film beautifully.

Sam - I do believe you're right. I don't recall any of Eastwood's other westerns (self-directed or otherwise) drawing from existing source material. I've never read Forrest Carter's novel either (I don't even know if it's still in print) but it would be interesting to get hold of a copy for purposes of comparison.

Samuel Wilson said...

It just came back into print in the U.S.,I believe, as part of a series of paperbacks of novels that inspired great western movies. The originals of The Searchers, The Man from Laramie, and Destry Rides Again are also available. If I remember right the Carter was originally called Gone to Texas but the new edition goes under the movie's title.

Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent piece Neil. This is perhaps pound for pound my favorite Eastwood film and you did an excellent job summing up just what makes it so complex and rewarding. Its an action film with real soul.

Neil Fulwood said...

Sam - thanks for letting me know; I should be able to order a copy on import without much fuss. Very tempted to get some of the other titles in the series, too.

Bryce - thanks for the compliment. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

Tom said...

I love this movie. It's my favorite Western of all times. I have searched for analyses of the story, but haven't found much. One thing I noticed is occurrences that are repeated, only in a slightly different way. Antiphonal, in music. Certain things happen more than once, only in different contexts, or, first Josie says something significant, and later, someone else says the same thing back to him. One is Josie and Lone Watie sneaking up on each other. Another is one of them disappearing while the other one is speaking and does not notice. Granny says something racist about "Redskins," and then says to Lone Watie, "No offense." He replies, "None taken." He says something racist about, "We're gonna show those palefaces somethin'. No offense meant." Granny shouts, "None taken." The talk about having an edge. And it's funny. When they are dragged by the Comancheros, and Josie appears for an apparent parlay, Lone Watie says that the sun is behind Josie's back, when the sun is obviously behind the Comancheros' back. There are so many subtleties in the film, that I didn't notice 'til I'd watched it several times. Think I've now seen it five times, more than any other movie. Of all the characters, I like Lone Watie best. Been though lots of hardship, but never lost his sense of humor.