Starring: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke
Director: Clint Eastwood
Mood: If you want a Western that somehow perfectly captures the feeling of Clint Eastwood wiping out every last person who ever bullied you.
I’ve always thought of the ‘70s as the cinematic low point of Westerns, and I haven’t been shy about saying so in past reviews. But The Outlaw Josey Wales proves me wrong.
I don’t know what it is about that decade. Maybe it’s because I like classic cowboy flicks and gritty, modern action movies, and the ‘70s were basically having none of that. It was a time of predominantly Revisionist Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns and Clint Eastwood in every second movie. And since I’m not a huge fan of any of the above…
The Outlaw Josey Wales is not your average Western, for any decade. At a glance it’s a South-sympathizing revenge story with a massive body count. Yet the story is distinctly anti-war – and anti-racist.
And that’s shocking when you learn that the author of the original novel was a KKK leader who ghost-wrote one of the most famous political speeches on segregation, then changed his name and became a ‘Cherokee’ Western novelist, and THEN wrote a totally fake memoir of his youth with his made-up Indigenous grandparents.
I’m totally serious.
Crazy backstory aside, this movie surprised me in so many ways. I thought it would just be another grunting, squinting one-man show like A Fistful of Dollars, but beneath its grunting and squinting (it’s still a Clint Eastwood film, after all) there’s a powerful message. It’s great Western for anyone who’s had their ass kicked by life just for being who they are, and keeps on going.
The Outlaw Josey Wales opens on Josey (Clint Eastwood) and his son Little Josey, tilling their Missouri farm. But the calm is shattered when a group of Redlegs led by Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney) rides up and sets fire to the house, killing Josey’s wife and child and leaving him unconscious.
It’s a brutal beginning that really sets the tone: this is a shitty time and place for pretty much everybody, and you can’t trust that anyone or anything will be around tomorrow so look out for yourself.
Josey joins up with the infamous Bloody Bill and a group of Quantrill’s bushwhackers, helping them exact revenge on the Union while he hunts for Captain Terrill.
After being sold out to the Union by his friend Captain Fletcher (John Vernon), Josey suddenly goes from hunter to hunted. But despite his gruff killer exterior, he’s still radiating protective dad vibes and attracts a little posse of unlikely misfits who tag along for the ride. And these misfits are ready to fight back.
It’s weird that even though I think The Outlaw Josey Wales is an excellent movie, I have NO idea what to say about Clint Eastwood. He’s so quiet in everything he does, each movement subtle and calculated – yet the performance is unquestionably one of rugged Western action.
A great deal of credit goes to the cinematography, because there are some incredibly striking angles and moments of creative lighting in this movie that tell as much of the story as the dialogue and acting.
The true standout, though, is Canadian actor Chief Dan George as Lone Watie. George’s charisma and wry humour steal the show from his first moment on screen, and you find yourself watching him as much as Eastwood. Maybe a little more. He evokes a fine balance of inner strength, self-deprecation, and shrewd observation.
I legit haven’t enjoyed a sidekick this much since Wilford Brimley in Crossfire Trail. George has all of the best one-liners, and his delivery makes them feel perfectly natural in an otherwise serious movie. He was just so full of personality.
On the opposite end of the spectrum with ZERO f*cking personality is Sondra Locke as Laura Lee.
She kind of just does her doe-eyed thing in all of her scenes, and adds nothing to the plot until she shoots a couple of bad guys but by then I was already super over her existence. Her grandma and Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) are the tough-ass Western women to watch here.
Even though at times the plot teetered toward cheesy, like how quickly everybody put aside their cultural differences and became best friends who dance together, there’s no doubt that this is 100% a proper Western action movie.
You get shootout after bloody shootout, with a wide array of exciting firearms from revolvers and rifles to a gatling gun. Horse chases aplenty, and what I hope were a lot of horsey stunts and not serious injuries. And because everybody in this land is out for themselves, there’s nonstop tension – anybody could become a bad guy.
The way every single character takes no clear side, fluidly changes sides, or simply operates by their own code is a theme that I didn’t notice until later in the movie. It feels like that’s just how it was, how people got by when vicious armed soldiers were killing innocent civilians over differences of opinion, class, race, or which side of a border you lived on.
To top it all off, there are THREE strong Indigenous characters played by actual Native actors.
I do have to say that it sounds like Eastwood was kind of a dick during the making of this movie.
- He fired the director, Phil Kaufman, to take over the role himself, which spurred the Directors Guild of America to create The Eastwood Rule
- He supposedly punched a nervous horse in the jaw because it wouldn’t do what he wanted
- He forced the original director to cast Sondra Locke, clearly so he could start boinking her (which he did)
But the bottom line is that Eastwood bought the rights to get this movie made, and the result is we all got an awesome piece of Western cinema. The vocally anti-war actor and director says in his DVD commentary that he felt it was an incredibly important story to tell, especially at the time of the Vietnam War.
After reading a bunch of speculative articles I still don’t know for sure if there was a real man who did all the things Josey Wales did, or not. But that makes it even better. I like the idea that there were multiple people out there fighting back and becoming folk heroes to small communities, and they all get to live on as a piece of Western legend.