With the possible exception of Dirty Harry (1971), the offbeat Western The Outlaw Josey Wales is Clint Eastwood’s best movie of the ’70s, and also one of the most textured films in his long career. Blending a sensitive approach to character with Eastwood’s signature meditations on violence—a unique combination that resulted from Eastwood’s fractious collaboration with co-screenwriter Philip Kaufman—the picture delivers the intense action fans expect from Eastwood Westerns, but also so much more. Based on a novel by Forrest Carter, the picture was written by Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, with Kaufman originally slated to direct. Alas, Eastwood, who was the film’s de facto executive producer (though not credited as such), got into a disagreement with Kaufman partway through filming and fired Kaufman, stepping into the director’s chair himself.
Eastwood had already helmed four features, so he was well on his way to developing a recognizable style—deep shadows, long takes, quick-cut bursts of bloody violence. Yet while it’s possible to watch the film and make educated guesses about which bits remain from Kaufman’s tenure behind the camera, the blending of two sensibilities goes much deeper than that, since Kaufman wrote a script he intended to direct and Eastwood followed that script. In any event, fused authorship gives The Outlaw Josey Wales more tonal variety than one finds in Eastwood’s other ’70s Westerns, especially because so much screen time is devoted to presenting idiosyncratic supporting characters.
The story begins when pro-union bandits led by the craven Terrill (Bill McKinney) murder the family of Missouri farmer Josey Wales (Eastwood) during the Civil War. Joining the Confederate cause to seek revenge, Wales annihilates several enemies but witnesses the treachery of Terrill’s commander, Captain Fletcher (John Vernon). Soon Wales becomes a fugitive, with Fletcher and Terrill his relentless pursuers. Wales embarks on a long journey through the South, inadvertently gathering a surrogate family of frontier stragglers while preparing for his inevitable confrontation with Terrill, and possibly a second showdown with Fletcher.
As in many Eastwood pictures—notably Unforgiven (1991), which can be seen as a successor to Josey Wales—this picture investigates the question of whether a man can preserve his soul after succumbing to bloodlust. Wales is a decent, hard-working man when we meet him, but tragedy turns him into a ruthless killer. Then, once he’s out on the frontier, protecting and being protected by his oddball friends, he becomes something more than a vigilante; he’s a strange sort of gun-toting patriarch, struggling to claim high ground while mired in moral quicksand.
Simply by dint of the nuanced script, Eastwood’s acting has a broader range of colors here than usual, and the way his performance is decorated with weird details—like spitting tobacco onto nearly every living thing that crosses his path—makes Wales as indelible an Eastwood characterization as Dirty Harry or the Man With No Name. McKinney and Vernon provide different colors of villainy, with the former essaying a violent zealot and the latter portraying a world-weary pragmatist capable of shocking ruthlessness. Reliable character actors including Matt Clark, Woodrow Parfrey, and John Quade populate the movie’s sweaty periphery. Yet it’s the actors playing members of Wales’ surrogate family who often command the most attention. Sondra Locke, appearing in the first of many films she did with Eastwood, lends fragile beauty that contrasts the ugliness of Wales’ world, while Chief Dan George is dry, funny, and wise as Lone Watie, an aging Cherokee Indian who joins Wales’ entourage.
Holding the movie’s potentially disparate elements together is slick technical presentation, courtesy of cinematographer Bruce Surtees and composer Jerry Fielding (both frequent Eastwood collaborators) and others. From its unique spin on gunslinger mythology to its colorful use of vivid Western archetypes, The Outlaw Josey Wales feels consistently interesting, literary, and personal.
The Outlaw Josey Wales: RIGHT ON