Outside of John Wayne, there is no actor more associated with the western genre of film than Clint Eastwood. TV audiences watched his character Rowdy Yates drive cattle across the West for eight years on Rawhide, and then almost immediately transition into spaghetti western icon via Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy. While Eastwood was always taking different types of projects outside of the western, he frequently returned to the oaters that made him famous until he spoke his final word on the matter with 1992’s Unforgiven, a movie that really sums up his entire career within the genre and has some powerful things to say.
Buried somewhere in that long career lies a handful of westerns that Eastwood both starred in as well as directed. Among these is 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, a fantastic piece of cinema that fits pretty safely under the “revisionist western” label. I know that Unforgiven is everyone’s favorite, and that’s probably right, but I have a lot of respect for The Outlaw Josey Wales and the things it has to say. There are some notable differences between the two that make me lean harder into the story of Josey, which is kind of like Unforgiven in reverse. Unforgiven is the story of a salty old gunslinger trying to turn straight in his later years, but is driven to violence through circumstance. The Outlaw Josey Wales is the story of a humble Missouri farmer who witnesses his family’s murder at the hands of Civil War soldiers and finds himself driven to violence through circumstance. Josey Wales is about you and me, pushed to our limits and forced to become something we never thought possible.
The scope of Josey Wales is huge, though this is somehow done slyly, almost in secret. The grandiose quality sneaks up on you. This movie feels far from the epic majesty of John Ford and Howard Hawks, but somehow we end up there anyway. Eastwood is pursued from the farms of Missouri to the battlefields of the North vs. South, to the arid deserts of Texas, and to the canyons of the traditional West. The Outlaw Josey Wales takes viewers on a visual journey that parallels the emotional journey of its title character. Along the way, Mr. Wales meets lots of interesting characters, including an eccentric American Indian played by Chief Dan George (Little Big Man), a young Navajo played by Geraldine Kearns (Twin Peaks), and the doe-eyed survivor of a raid, played by Eastwood’s frequent collaborator and real-life-love-interest at the time, Sondra Locke.
Let’s be honest; Clint Eastwood has become a divisive figure. In fact, he kind of always was. I don’t think he’s a particularly nice guy, and even before he became politically-outspoken and started railing against presidential candidates, he had a reputation as a womanizer and a man with a violent temper. His on-again-off-again relationship with Sondra Locke sounds like the definition of a toxic relationship, and Eastwood very much represents the outdated stereotype of a certain kind of tough guy that has little place in today’s world. I recognize these things about him, but I also recognize the contributions to movies and TV over his lifetime and I have a hard time not admiring what he’s accomplished and what the work itself says about the man.
While this movie does look at the American West in new ways (grounded, approachable ways), there does end up being a certain grandiosity to it all; the story becomes increasingly mythic and classic as it creeps towards its finale, with saloons, shoot-outs, and straight-up good vs. evil fighting in the dusty streets. By the climax of the film, we’re in western movie heaven. Someone (I won’t say who) even rides off into the sunset as the credits roll, though the movie undercuts this by borrowing from the movie Shane. Do happy endings exist in the gritty, grounded world of The Outlaw Josey Wales? Maybe for some, but only for a little while.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!