Monday, March 2, 2020

Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales

While Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) racked up the critical accolades, I still maintain that the best Eastwood-directed Western is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Made 15 years earlier, Josey Wales is an unflinching portrait of a man coping with the loss of his family as the U.S. tries to heal from the wounds of its Civil War.

In the opening scene, farmer Josey Wales (Eastwood) loses his wife, his young son, and his home when a band of pro-Union "Redleg" marauders attack without provocation. Wales survives and joins a group of Confederate guerrillas led by a Captain Fletcher (John Vernon). Following General Robert E. Lee's surrender, Fletcher negotiates an agreement with a U.S. senator to gain amnesty for his men. Wales is the only one that refuses to participate.

Unknown to Fletcher, the amnesty is meaningless and all his soldiers are massacred. Wales opens fire on the Union troops, but eventually flees after being able to save only a young man named Jamie (Sam Bottoms). Wales is branded an outlaw with a bounty on his head. Fletcher and a Redleg named Terrill (Bill McKinney) are tasked with bringing Josey to justice. What Fletcher doesn't know is that Terrill is the man responsible for killing Wales' family.

Sondra Locke as the daughter.
For most of its running time, The Outlaw Josey Wales chronicles its protagonist's unlikely journey. I'm not talking about his trek from Missouri to Texas but rather his emotional journey as he gradually forms a new "family" consisting of an elderly Cherokee, a young Navajo woman, and a pioneer woman and her adult daughter. He provides and protects them while their reliance, gratitude, and friendship help him find peace and eventually a new home.

Eastwood has described The Outlaw Josey Wales as an anti-war film...and it's that, too. Josey avoids an expected showdown with the Comanches by reasoning with their leader. He explains that government leaders cannot be trusted and that treaties must be formed by men who live by their word. (This point is emphasized earlier in the film when the senator reneges on the amnesty agreement made with Fletcher).

Philip Kaufman co-wrote the screenplay and started out directing The Outlaw Josey Wales. However, Kaufman (perhaps best known for The Right Stuff) clashed with Eastwood. At the latter's insistence, Kaufman was removed as director and Eastwood took over. The Directors Guild of America was not pleased with Eastwood's treatment of Kaufman. Subsequently, it implemented what has come to be known as the "Eastwood rule," which prohibits an actor or producer from firing the director and then becoming the director himself.

Chief Dan George.
The standouts in the supporting cast are Chief Dan George as Josey's friend and Paula Trueman, who plays an elderly, opinionated, surprisingly resilient Kansas woman. The latter also appeared with Eastwood in the earlier Paint Your Wagon. Dan George was 74 when he did Josey Wales (he gets most of the good one-liners). He didn't start acting professionally until he was 60, but had already been Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Little Big Man (1970).

It was on the set of The Outlaw Josey Wales that Eastwood met Sondra Locke. The two would become romantically involved for fourteen years. Following their breakup, Locke filed a palimony suit against Eastwood. They eventually settled out of court, but it was a long, complex legal battle. Still, one of their films made when they were together was Bronco Billy (1980). Although a very different film, it's also about the forming of an unlikely family of outcasts. It would make an interesting double-feature with The Outlaw Josey Wales.


  1. Your programming tip on the double bill would indeed make an interesting evening's entertainment. I admire Eastwood's creativity and his belief in himself even when I don't always enjoy his product.

  2. I didn't realize Chief Dan George was in this film. Serves me right for not having seen it already!

  3. Though I haven't seen Josey Wales since it was in release, it stands out in my memory as a favorite earlier Eastwood film. Unforgiven stands out for me, perhaps because of Gene Hackman's role/performance, plus Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris. I have mixed feelings about Eastwood but he's made some very, very good films.