Film Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales,
Clint Eastwood, 1976
Lone Watie: I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.
Josey Wales ( To Ten Bears) "Dyin' ain't so hard for men like you and me. It's livin' that's hard."
The Outlaw Josey Wales,
Clint Eastwood, 1976
Although Clint Eastwood directed and starred as the eponymous hero, Chief Dan George, a Salish, well into his seventies, steals the show.
"he has a humanity that's just there, glowing. He's as open with his personality as Josey Wales is closed; it's a nice match" (Richard Ebert, Chicago Sun Times Jan 1 1976).
" Like Walter Brennan in Red River, Lone Watie is the garrulous sidekick whose amusing chatter underscores the hero's natural reticence" (The Crowded Prairie, Michael Coyne,1997, p174-5)
The Outlaw Josey Wales features two more native American actors - Will Sampson, a Creek, fresh from his role as the strong silent Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was Ten Bears the Comanche leader and Geraldine Keams, Navajo, acted the part of Little Moonlight, who is rescued by Josey from her enslavement by a white trader. Native Americans are portrayed in a very positive manner, but never in a patronizing or sentimental way. They are people like everyone else, no better and no worse.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is the combination of two classic western themes - the odyssey and the quiet loner with honour. Wales is the man on the run who keeps himself to himself unless pushed. On occasion, in self defence or to promote a just cause or defend those weaker than he, our hero is capable of erupting into a flurry of spaghetti style violence. His flight from those seeking to kill him for the price on his head becomes the odyssey in which he is cleansed - by his contact with a ragbag selection of misfits which he takes, albeit reluctantly, under his wing, showing himself to be, at root a good hearted man. In a series of scrapes Josey Wales and his ever increasing band of companions encounter corrupt officials, charlatans, cowards and bullies. The journey ends with the establishment of a new Western community. These familiar Western characters participate in familiar pursuits on horseback and shoot outs, yet the characters and events are fresh and thought provoking, a tribute to the understated direction of Eastwood.Incidentally Clint only took over when he sacked Philip Kaufman. It has been suggested that Eastwood perceived the former's camera shots in an early rape scene in the film to be prurient. Kauffman had been hired because Eastwood had been impressed by the style of his The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, with its 'realism' and sense of period. However it is said that they clashed over Kauffman's lingering photography of nudity, although just as likely an explanation is that Kaufman, having scripted the film had clear ideas of how it should proceed which conflicted with those of its star and producer - Eastwood.
As an outsider it is interesting to read the contemporary (white) American perspective of Richard Eder in the New York Times, who as well as slating the film could not get past the film's bias towards the confederacy:
"There seems to be a ghost of an attempt to assert the romantic individualism of the South against the cold expansionism of the North. Every Unionist is vicious and incompetent, whereas Wales, despite his spitting, is really a perfect gentleman.
There is something cynical about this primitive one-sidedness in what is not only a historical context, but happens also to be our own historical context. To the degree a movie asserts history, it should at least attempt to do it fairly'. NYT August 5 1976.
Certainly, as Michael Coyne points out, the film does not follow the cliche of north and south burying their differences to unite against the common enemy - the Indian - as in Two Flags West and Major Dundee. Rather, it explores the theme of an anti Union alliance between dissident groups, which Sam Fuller had explored in Run of the Arrow. I think that Coyne overstates this conceptual aspect of Fuller's film, but agree with his observation that much of Eastwood's direction follows the tradition of John Ford, particularly in his presentation of the community which develops in the film's later stages. (The Crowded Prairie, Michael Coyne,1997, p174-5)
The Outlaw Josey Wales is all the better for its ultimate optimism and a thought provoking qualities which help it to stand apart from being just another good example of the genre. It is a fine piece of Art, exploring as it does, human relationships and showing that the courage and fortitude needed to stand up to injustice have to be tempered by humour and perspective if we are to retain our own humanity. Although perhaps not living up to the hyperbolic description given to it by Orson Welles, who called it one of the best directed films of all time, it is a great film and one of the all time great Westerns, certainly Eastwood,s best film, drawing as it does on his previous collaborations with Sergio Leone.
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© Chris Smallbone October 2009