When you finish watching The Outlaw Josey Wales, it's common to think "damn, now that was a great movie," whether it's the first time you've seen it or the fiftieth. There's a good reason for that, and that reason is Clint Eastwood. Sure, that whole stand up routine at the RNC two years ago made some people think that "Old Clint is just senile or becoming his character from Gran Torino," and I'm not saying it wasn't a horrible idea on the part of the scheduling department - it was - but now people feel like they have a license to just forget that he made some of the best damned movies in the last fifty years, and a lot of them he did it in front of and behind the camera.
Some people remember the cop movies, some prefer the westerns, and others like the oddball ones, like Kelly's Heroes, Any Which Way You Can, or, uh, Paint Your Wagon. I tend to prefer the westerns, if only because he's been in or made so many iconic ones that when you start listing them, it quickly balloons into a big list. Go ahead, I'll spot you Leone's "Man with No Name Trilogy" and Unforgiven. But there's also The High Plains Drifter, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, The Beguiled, Hang 'em High. Hell, some people even like Pale Rider. I don't really (it's a little too much like High Plains Drifter with a dash of Shane), but what many folks tend to agree on is that their favorite Clint Eastwood western is The Outlaw Josey Wales, and with good reason.
(It actually starts out as a "Southern," as Quentin Tarantino called Django Unchained, picking up in Missouri and moving southwest into Texas, but we'll stick with Western.)
*. He was just a normal man living in Missouri, working on his farm with his wife and young son, when a group of "Red Legs" came pillaging and raping through, and Wales loses his wife and child in one fell swoop, along with his house. I mean, what's the point of pillaging and raping if you don't also burn down a man's house for no reason?
The leader of the Red Legs, Terrill (Bill McKinney) also gives Wales a nasty scar on the right side of his face by slicing him with his sword and leaving Josey for dead. After he buries his wife and child, Wales teaches himself how to shoot a pistol and silently swears revenge (Eastwood doesn't say much early in the film), and when a group of Bushwackers find the remains of his farm, he joins up with Anderson (John Russell) to chase the down the Red Legs, who happen to be raiding in the name of the Union. During the opening credits, there's a montage of their battles to give you a better idea of time passing (it's not really clear how long it takes for Josey to learn to shoot accurately before the posse arrives) and that Anderson didn't make it. Then the film proper picks up at the end of the Civil War where, at least for Josey Wales, justice has not been served.
In fact, it's being openly mocked, in a sense, because the Union Camp they're just outside of is one being run by Senator James H. Lane (Frank Schofield) and his Red Legs are there. Not only that, but he's promoted Terrill to Captain, and is promising that any Confederate soldier who comes down and swears and oath of loyalty to the Union will be spared. Fletcher (John Vernon), a member of the crew that Wales rides with, is tired of fighting and talks the men into going down to end things. But Wales, he's a stubborn sort, and this isn't over for him. He and Fletcher part on good terms, with Fletcher warning him what's to come - that he'll be hunted all over the country - and Wales saying "I reckon so." Fletcher wishes him good luck and goes down to the camp.
But you can't trust Lane or his Red Legs hooligans, and if it sounds too good too be true or just like it's a trap to gun down some more Confederate soldiers in cold blood, you'd better believe it is. Fletcher didn't know that he was being set up when negotiating with Senator Lane, or that Terrill was even with the camp, but when Wales rides in and wipes out the Union soldiers with one of their own Gatling guns, he becomes the Outlaw Josey Wales. He saves Jamie (Sam Bottoms), a kid who didn't want to surrender, and leaves thinking that Fletcher betrayed them all. For all his good intentions, Fletcher is consigned by Senator Lane into joining Terrill in hunting down Wales, and the great showdown is set in place.
And that's the first thirty minutes! We haven't even met most of the really interesting characters and the stakes are already high. Jamie is, alas (SPOILER), not going to be with us for the long haul, as he took a bullet in the shoulder from Terrill, but he sticks around long enough for Josey to show a snake oil salesman (Woodrow Parfey) what a "Missouri River Ride" looks like. By the way, the salesman is only given the name Carpetbagger in the credits, and his other primary attribute is getting his suit dirty. It's the first time in the film that I really noticed that Josey Wales is always spitting tobacco, but not the last. After a run in with some would-be ransom collectors (Wales has a $5000 price on his head), Josey and Jamie head for "Indian" territory, but only one of them makes it. And the movie isn't called "The Outlaw Jamie Whose Name I Don't Know."
(Wales tries to qualify using Jamie's dead body to distract a cavalry campsite by saying "they'll give you a better burial than I ever could," but I have to say it's still pretty cold to use your dead buddy like that.)
It's highly possible that the reason you forget that The Outlaw Josey Wales is about a Confederate soldier is that Eastwood and screenwriters Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus shift the focus to the plight of Native Americans before, during, and after the Civil War, drawing parallels between Southern and Native attitudes towards the Government. Once Wales passes through into Native Territory, he encounters a series of instances of subjugation and trickery on the part of the United States, through members of the Cherokee, Navajo, and later, Comanche tribes. Wales meets Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), a member of the "civilized" Cherokees, who tried to dress "like Lincoln" and were repaid for it by being sent down the Trail of Tears. Chief Dan George is the first indication that the film isn't going to be grim and gritty all the way through, as he's consistently funny without being the butt of the joke. It's also where we start seeing the actual structure of the film, which is more episodic in nature than the opening would lead you to believe.
That's not actually a bad thing, because Wales doesn't talk much, so it's nice to have other characters for him to react to. Without meaning to (or really wanting to, either), he ends up creating a new family of misfits that he picks up along his trip south through Texas and into Mexico. First it's Lone Watie, then Little Moonlight (Geraldine Kearns), who he saves from unscrupulous types at a trading post. Later he rescues Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and her granddaughter Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) from Comanchers, and they come along too, heading for a ranch Sarah's son owned outside of Santa Rio. Well, Santa Rio turns out to be a ghost town, so they pick up a few more stragglers on the way, and it's a big, happy family of characters living in a ranch with Josey Wales keeping an eye on them. They even have a mangy dog that Wales doesn't seem to like and is constantly spitting on, which is funnier in context than it sounds.
The episodic nature of The Outlaw Josey Wales tends to make you forget that Terrill and Fletcher are still on his tail, and you don't see a whole lot of them, but you always remember that our hero is a wanted man. Nearly everywhere they end up, Wales a) meets somebody who joins up with their traveling band of misfits, b) runs into somebody who wants to bring him in and gets gunned down, or (more often) c) both. I don't think there's anywhere that Wales stops along the way where he doesn't kill somebody, if not several somebodies, usually because he's recognized at an inopportune time. The Carpetbagger shows up again while they're picking up supplies, and in his infinite wisdom, he decides to say "It's Josey Wales!" out loud in front of four Union soldiers. Wales has to drop his purchases, taunt the boys, and eventually kills three of them (Watie gets the other one, so Josey "paid him no mind"), but it takes a while because they're clearly not sure they want to get in a gunfight with the outlaw.
Josey Wales has a kind of mythic quality to him throughout the film; he's almost a Snake Plissken of the Reconstruction. Everybody knows who he is or has heard of him, and while that usually doesn't help him in civilized society, it really comes in handy late in the film. Josey Wales is the kind of person who could ride into the middle of a Comanche camp and negotiate with their Chief, Ten Bears (Will Sampson of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fame) and not immediately be killed. In fact, Ten Bears already knows who Josey Wales is, the "grey rider who would not make peace with the Bluecoats", and tells him "you may go in peace" before they've even started talking business. Wales had been preparing the ranch for a Comanche raid, but decided he'd go to them first, and he offers Ten Bears the "iron of life or death." By the end of the conversation, they're in agreement as blood brothers: like Mark Renton at the end of Trainspotting, these dudes choose life.
He's also kind of mythical to the other people traveling with him, because as best as I can remember, he never tells anybody why he's so stubborn about not giving in. Only the audience knows what happened to his family - Grandma Sarah just thought he was a bloodthirsty savage from Missouri (she really doesn't like people who aren't from Kansas), and Lone Watie never asks (there's just a mutual understanding between them). Laura Lee is kind of crazy, and she doesn't wake up after he has nightmare flashbacks, so it never comes up. As far as I know, Fletcher might be the only person in the movie who has any idea why Josey Wales refuses to submit. For everybody else, he's an enigma.
Wales is also a mythic figure in that he never has to reload his pistol. It's something I noticed early on, when he's teaching himself how to shoot, but you realize that it doesn't matter. Josey Wales is something out of legend, and Eastwood only makes a point of showing that he's out of ammunition once. It happens late in the film, as a symbolic gesture leading up to (SPOILER) killing Terrill - Wales goes through all of his pistols, firing the empty chambers one by one, until he's right up on Terrill, and then he kills him in either the most appropriate or ironic way possible, depending on which person you are in that fight. At that moment, he doesn't need guns that never need reloading, but don't doubt for a second that he could totally go back to gunning down bounty hunters if he wanted to.
The final moments of the film are what really cement The Outlaw Josey Wales as a "great damn movie." Yes, we've seen Wales become a little more human at the ranch, and single-handedly talk Ten Bears out of killing everybody, but what we've really been waiting for is the moment when he and Fletcher meet face to face again. After regrouping, Wales promised Jamie they'd go "back for Fletcher," so we know that the Terrill treatment was just a taste of the vengeance to come, right?
I've spoiled a lot of this movie, mostly because if you're reading this and you haven't seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, you'd better rectify that immediately, but I won't spoil the last part of the movie. I will say that their last encounter is every bit as appropriate as the one they have outside of the Union Camp. Two men who are tired of being what they are but aren't sure how to reconcile the past with the present, forced to cross paths one more time. It's such a great way to end the movie, so appropriate considering where both of them have been, that I'd rather let you see that for yourself. Also I might have left out another joke about the Carpetbagger's suite, and I'm opting not to tell you anything about Lone Watie and Little Moonlight. Some things you should find out for yourself.
Maybe there needs to be a series on the Blogorium devoted to "great damn movies," but it needs a better name than that. When I think of a good one, there's one movie that deserves similar examination:
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
* On the other hand, the author of the book the film is based on, "Forrest" Carter - actually Asa Earl Carter - was a noted segregationist, member of the KKK, and anti-Semite. Eastwood was not aware of this when he made the movie, but it explains quite a bit about the thematic content of the story.