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The Outlaw Josey Wales
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,The Outlaw Josey Wales

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Clint Eastwood's fifth directorial effort, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), appeared in the bicentennial year of 1976 when a heavy rotation of Westerns made a return to the movie theaters. Breakheart Pass, The Missouri Breaks, Buffalo Bill and the Indians and The Shootist were a few of the other Westerns that appeared alongside Eastwood's film, his second Western as director, after High Plains Drifter in 1973. What makes The Outlaw Josey Wales different from those other fine films is the distinction of bridging two distinct eras, that of the classic Western - pictures by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, et al - and those of the New Hollywood that tolerated personal visions shot outside the structure of the studio system. While Eastwood wasn't the first of the new generation of filmmakers to make quality Westerns, he was among the first to use classically-held motifs of the Western - the lone hero who must stand apart from the civilization that he protects - and turn them on their head, but without entirely subverting them (such as Robert Altman does in 1971's McCabe and Mrs. Miller). Nor did he inject a new tone or approach that did not feel authentic for a Western milieu, such as the contemporary humor in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). In his book Directed by Clint Eastwood: Eighteen Films Analyzed, author Lawrence Knapp writes of Eastwood's style of Western: "Like (John) Ford's melancholy and wistful Westerns, Eastwood's films question the codes that constitute American cinema and society without degenerating into impassioned, dogmatic critiques of the system or human nature."

While High Plains Drifter was bleak and symbolic, The Outlaw Josey Wales--the film and the character-is a man at war with himself, one who doubts his humanity, mourns his past, and kills the hated. The film opens as Wales (Eastwood) peacefully tends to his Missouri farm with his young son in the quiet cool of the ending day. Soon, a vicious band of Union marauders, led by Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney), takes away his whole world. His family is murdered. His home destroyed. Wales is left for dead with a saber gash on his face, a perpetual reminder of his loss. After he buries his family, Wales unearths what appears to be the only thing he ever owned that was untouched by flames and death: a pair of pistols. In a scene that is echoed later in Eastwood's Academy Award-winning Unforgiven (1992), Wales prepares himself for his new path with target practice, until his aim is deadly and sure. Wales joins up with a band of Confederate avengers, led by "Bloody" Bill Anderson (played by John Russell, who'd go on to play the central villain in Eastwood's penultimate Western in 1985, Pale Rider), and lives a life of brutality and revenge for the duration of the war.

In lesser hands, that part of Josey's story would drive the whole film, but Eastwood is interested in much more than the bloodshed. It's about the journey. Eastwood said in an interview with Patrick McGilligan in 1976 that The Outlaw Josey Wales is "a saga. It's about the character I play, whereas in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) the only character you got to know-somewhat - is the Eli Wallach character. In other words, Josey Wales is a hero, and you see how he gets to where he is - rather than just having a mysterious hero appear on the plains and become involved with other people's plights." Here Eastwood jumps from the narrative ground covered so well by a classic Hollywood director like George Stevens in Shane (1953), or even by himself in High Plains Drifter. Josey Wales isn't a myth, although as the story progresses, he attains near-mythic status as a true, albeit exaggerated, celebrity/killer. Eastwood develops the character by bringing him full circle, from family man, to vengeful killer of men, and back to (reluctant) family man.

The story achieves this in a low-key, humorous manner by giving Josey ample opportunity, despite his own objections, to collect new members of a crazy-quilt patchwork family. First, there is Lone Watie, an old Cherokee man touched by his own loss of his tribe and trust in the words and deeds of the white man's government. Watie is played by Chief Dan George, a wonderful actor who had earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970). Eastwood "knew Chief Dan George was the only person to play that character. He's got a face you never get tired of looking at. You put a camera on it and you just can't do wrong. One minute he looks like a puppy dog and the next minute he looks like a very aristocratic king." In addition to Watie, Wales is soon followed by an abused Indian woman, a dog and the remnants of a family of settlers who were attacked by a band of marauders. It is in the context of this loose family of survivors that Eastwood portrays a character that is outside civilization, like a classic Western hero, but who nevertheless finds a family of other castaways and outsiders.

The Outlaw Josey Wales was based on the first novel written by a half-Cherokee Indian poet named Forrest Carter entitled The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (the title was eventually changed to Gone to Texas). The book was published by a small company in Arkansas, and was likewise given a limited printing of only 75 hardcover editions. Carter sent an unsolicited copy to Eastwood, thinking the story would be ideal for him. Improbably, Eastwood did read the book, thanks to his producer Robert Daley, who had read Carter's cover letter, thus bringing the book to Eastwood's attention. Impressed with the novel, Eastwood bought the screen rights and secured the writing and directing services of Philip Kaufman, whose Western The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid (1972) Eastwood admired. But shortly after the beginning of the 8 ½ busy weeks of shooting in Utah, Arizona and California, Eastwood the producer fired Kaufman. Eastwood said in a 1984 interview with Michael Henry, "(Kaufman's) work as a writer was excellent, but when it came to shooting it, it turned out that our points of view were completely different. I had invested my own money to buy the rights to the book, I'd spent a lot of time developing this project, I'd conceived a precise vision of what the film had to be. Phil's approach was probably solid, maybe it was better, but it wasn't mine and I would have been angry at myself if the result hadn't corresponded to what I hoped for."

Many American critics were hostile to The Outlaw Josey Wales, informed, no doubt, by the prejudicial view of Eastwood as nothing more than a former TV star who had some hits in overseas Westerns and provocative policiers such as Dirty Harry (1971) in the States. "Murf." of Variety said that "it is nothing more than a prairie Death Wish in which the protagonist soon emerges more psychotic than wronged..." And Rex Reed wrote in the New York Daily News that the film "seems to last two days. Never before...has so much time been devoted to such trivia. On the interminable journey (Eastwood) is accompanied by a stock company of ferocious hams." Time, meanwhile, put it on the year's ten best list, and European critics received it much more favorably than their American cousins. Six years after the release of The Outlaw Josey Wales, one critical reaction trumped them all: during an appearance on Merv Griffin's talk show, none other than Orson Welles praised the film and its star/director: "I suppose Clint Eastwood is the most underrated director in the world today...They don't take him actor like Eastwood is such a pure type of mythic hero-star in the Wayne tradition that no one is going to take him seriously as a director. But someone ought to say it. And when I saw (The Outlaw Josey Wales) for the fourth time, I realized that it belongs with the great Westerns...of Ford and Hawks and people like that. And I take my hat off to him." That's mighty fine praise from the man who practically learned moviemaking from watching John Ford's Stagecoach (1939).

A peculiar footnote regarding the author of the source novel, Forrest Carter: when he tried to interest Eastwood and his company in securing the rights to another of his books, it was revealed that Carter was, in fact, Asa Carter, a segregationist who had organized an even more virulent sub-group of the Ku Klux Klan. He had also been an anti-Semitic and red-baiting radio broadcaster as well and had a hand in writing speeches for George Wallace. Eastwood's biographer, Richard Schickel, believes that Carter wrote Wallace's infamous "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" phrase.

Producer: Robert Daley
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Philip Kaufman, Sonia Chernus (based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter)
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Music: Jerry Fielding
Film Editing: Ferris Webster
Production Design: Tambi Larsen
Cast: Clint Eastwood (Josey Wales), Chief Dan George (Lone Watie), Sondra Locke (Laura Lee), Bill McKinney (Terrill), John Vernon (Fletcher), Sam Bottoms (Jamie), Paula Trueman (Grandma Sarah), Sheb Wooley (Travis Cobb), Royal Dano (Ten Spot), Matt Clark (Kelly), Will Sampson (Ten Bears).
C-135m. Letterboxed.

by Scott McGee