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The Outlaw Josey Wales Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 21, 2011

    The Outlaw Josey Wales Review

    “Are you gonna pull those pistols, or whistle Dixie?”

    There had been unsuccessful attempts to bring the Eastwood of the acclaimed Spaghettis back into the American Western-set, whilst still adhering to the aesthetic and style that the likes of Sergios Leone and Corbucci and Guilios Questi and Petroni had made so popular throughout the latter half of the sixties. But Hang 'em High (Clint's first US oater after returning from his Dollars Trilogy) and Joe Kidd were very poor imitations indeed. And make no mistake, they were imitations of those off-kilter, relocated Westerns that had ground their spurs into the genre and re-evaluated the whole Good/Bad thing and created the anti-hero mythos as a result. Two Mules For Sister Sara, made by Don Siegel in 1971 was much better but Eastwood knew that the American brand was out-of-vogue and that the genre was on its knees. He knew that audiences were now cynical and angry. Events on a new and dangerous frontier in South East Asia had shocked, saddened and embittered an entire generation. There wasn't much affection left over from the Summer of Love to smooth over the aggression that people had towards their own government, and suddenly the older ideals set down by John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Sturges were tainted and despised. He'd experienced the attempts to devolute the typical Western hero on the home-shore and realised that it just wasn't working. He could bring the anti-authoritarian stance to the part of Dirty Harry and address the seedbed of national self-loathing because that film and that counter-culture character were both seething, raw and contemporary and totally tapped into the growing fears and hostilities of a society whose order had irrevocably broken down.

    So, after testing the water of revisionist exploration in the dark-hearted and excellent gothic-Western drama, The Beguiled, directed by his buddy Don Siegel in 1971, he embarked upon a challenge of his own. And, thus, with the terrific and semi-supernatural High Plains Drifter in 1973, Eastwood's second directorial stint after Play Misty For Me, he wilfully scorched a new trail for the Western, and it was one that giddily combined the best of the dark surrealism he learned from the Italian variety with the more conventional American aesthetic that he had grown up with. It was an absolute winner, but it caught audiences off-guard with its ambiguous, amoral and violent approach. He'd pushed into new territory with it, but now it was time to fully embrace his own vision of the Old West and its pistol-packing stereotypes trampled beneath his horse's hooves.

    Eastwood found what was to be, for a great many, the material that would create possibly the greatest modern-made Western, and perhaps one of the greatest Westerns ever made in The Outlaw Josey Wales, as written for the screen by Phil Kaufman (who would go on to direct Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) and Sonia Chernus, and adapted from the novel by Forrest Carter. And he knew that there was only one man who could helm this lingering, action-packed yet entirely character-based adventure – and that would be himself. He knew the narrative terrain like the back of his hand, knew the geography of the lone warrior's quest and, above all, he had learned from Leone and Siegel where to step and where not to. The Outlaw Josey Wales was never meant to mimic the Spaghettis, but rather to cut his ties to them. But, just as his titular character would find out, some demons are extremely difficult to shrug off.

    “When I get to likin' someone … they ain't around for long.”

    “I notice that when you get to dislikin' someone … they ain't around long, either.”

    The story is grounded sure-footedly in the realities of the weirdness that followed in the wake of Civil War – the animosity between the former combatants, the pioneering that was spreading out and the flotsam and jetsam that attached themselves to such enterprises, the Indian issue that was to become the next and most ghastly phase in America's history – and Eastwood conveys all of this transition in both literal terms, with the refugees who tag along with him, and in the metaphorical transformation that Josey Wales undergoes. If we were to go all high-brow about this, Josey Wales is the human embodiment of the United States, his own saga representing the anxiety, betrayal, corruption, rage, reconciliation and optimism of the troubled but developing nation. The happy but hard-working life of peaceful farmer, Wales, is horribly destroyed when a lawless platoon of Northern guerilla troops, under the command of the bloodthirsty Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney), the infamous Red-Legs (so named after the gang-like colour of their trousers) massacre his family, burn down his house and leave him for dead. After this righteous call-to-arms, Josey hones his shooting abilities and joins-up with rebels to fight his own guerilla campaign alongside John Vernon's charismatic Johnny Reb captain, Fletcher. When the war ends, the animosity between the two sides is far from over. A shocking betrayal awaits the incoming Confederate militia as they surrender their arms to the victorious Unionists, and only the wrathful Josey, who utterly refuses to quit his own struggle against the North and his quest to track down Terrill and every Red-leg who rode with him, is able to turn the tables and become avenger when he commandeers the Gatling-gun they had been using to execute the Southerners and mows down the treacherous Bluecoats instead. This act now makes him a wanted man, with every bounty hunter, turncoat and scavenger-on-the-make on his tail. Tasked with bringing him down, Terrill enlists the reluctant aid of Fletcher, Josey's former commander and friend, and the epic cross-country manhunt begins.

    But Josey Wales is about much more than the gung-ho action vendetta between these desperate and highly dangerous men. It is an observation of the vast tracts that exist between good and evil, deceit and redemption on a grand scale that probes the racial and societal phobias of the era as well as the intensely personal desire for retribution.

    As he travels, with death and danger hidden around every tree and lurking in the shadows of every town, Josey makes acquaintances with a rich and varied gathering of souls who all seem spiritually drawn to him … and the fugitive becomes a surrogate leader to this band of the disparate and the lost. Their shepherd and protector you could say, whilst he, in turn, learns of compassion, humility and selflessness from them … his new “family”. Together, they are a microcosmic allegory of the fledgling country as it approaches its new technological age, a symbol of tolerance and perseverance in a New World that has been hellishly opposed to such ideals since the white man first set foot upon its soil. But change is never easy, and with Josey as their wrathful figurehead, the motley band are going to have to fight to claim their piece of the promised land.

    “Well … he's not a hard man to track. Leaves dead people wherever he goes.”

    The film is also the summation of all that the Western had become by this stage, distilled through the eyes and the mind of a man who knew the genre intimately. Clean-cut doesn't work any longer. Nobody is innocent. But Josey and, perhaps more importantly, through his actions, can find the no-man's land of reconciliation and personal acceptance that, at least, allows for the possibility of change. The three characters that Eastwood played for Leone (and the Man With No Name was three separate people, all, ironically enough, with names) were iconic Hell-driven drifters existing on the opportunities that fate cast down before them. They all has death nipping at their heels, whereas Josey, as Frank Darabont puts it in the excellent accompanying documentary, Eastwood's West, has “life nipping at his.” It is a wonderful way of putting it and, of course, this is exactly what Eastwood was attempting to bring to the form and to his own cinematic persona. I've been that black-hearted mercenary, he's telling us, but now I'm trying to bury him and move on. This is reflected in his later movies Pale Rider and Unforgiven. In Pale Rider, his mysterious Preacher is acting for the betterment of a small community of simple, peace-loving folks being violently oppressed by burgeoning capitalism. In Unforgiven, which truly deserves its own clinical dissection from me one day, he is a broken-down, haggard old gunfighter who has already swallowed the bile of his past and is still suffering the after-taste. It is designed to put the final nail in the coffin of the ongoing Western character that Clint Eastwood made famous – these “heroes” are essentially rotten to the core, no matter what events, as in Josey's case, may have driven them to become such ruthless and efficient killers. As Cheyenne puts it in Once Upon A Time In The West, they all have “something to do with death.”

    I didn't surrender neither. They took my horse and made him surrender. They've got him pulling a wagon up in Kansas, I'll bet.”

    Very like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood would regularly surround himself with familiar faces on both sides of the camera. On the acting front, we find John Vernon and Sondra Locke, Bill McKinney and William O' Connell, the awesome John Quade and Len Lesser, John Mitchum and John Russell. All of whom would appear alongside Eastwood at some point or other throughout the likes of Kelly's Heroes, the Dirty Harry films, High Plains Drifter, Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel Any Which Way You Can, The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy and Pale Rider, with some of the bunch even worming their way through several of those titles, and more. On the production side, DOP Bruce Surtees, composer Jerry Fielding and editor Ferris Webster would ensure that the essential Eastwood look, sound and feel that audiences were coming to adore would be lovingly served-up too. Both Surtees and Webster would be able to ensure that Clint's films, whether he was scaling mountains in The Eiger Sanction, stealing prototype Russian jets in Firefox, or simply riding through the moral badlands of the old frontier, had that supremely evocative, autumnal shade of shadow and chill, and carried that strong, picturesque and gruffly elegant style that Eastwood, himself, always seemed to project.

    As a result of this combined visual passion, the autumnal shadows dance about throughout the first half of the movie, as Josey moves through Missouri and Kansas, and then the scenery embraces the dunes and buttes of northern Texas. While this latter half should be the more overly familiar in visual tone, this is not the case at all. Look at the crazy coloured sandstone rocks, the brittle and powdery texture of the ridges. Look at the weirdly wonderful shots of the where the forest greenery meets the desert. This is a very unusual setting and certainly not the type of locale that you would normally see in an American oater. This is a holdover from Eastwood's Spaghetti days, surely. Even the deserts here … don't look quite right. They seem somehow altered. Removed. America is changing, Eastwood is saying. The war is over and a transition is taking place. As his journey continues, he struggles not to change, himself … but even if the transformation he undergoes remains mostly on the inside, we can still sense it as easily as we can the shifting environment.

    “I came here to die with you. Or to live with you.”

    Eastwood's direction is considerably more mature and relaxed than in his first two self-helmed productions. He understands that he needs to be flexible and give his cast room to breathe which, the exception of Sondra Locke's pretty but gawky and repressed waif Laura-Lee, they all do. Each character, no matter how shunted to the sidelines they may be, is lively, interesting and eccentric. His pacing is stirring until he purposely slams on the brakes once Josey and his “herd” reach their supposed nirvana, the so-called “hippy section”. His opening prologue is a shocker – wild and frantic and barely glimpsed through Josey's eyes as he passes out from his wounds. The family burial is just as affecting, the imagery he uses recalled in The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, and the whole theme lifted and customised by Ridley Scott in Gladiator. His title sequence is just as striking, the screen turning to a shade of midnight blue as we witness an elaborate montage of Josey and the rebels waging war on the Union. This wraith-like shade then gently eases into the natural hues of the environment, the effect isolating the war as something that lives in the murky shade of the past. The violence he orchestrates was considered strong back when the film first came out – Josey simply eradicates dozens of enemies and the depiction of sexual abuse is quite overt too. Poor Sondra Locke. Just what was is it about her that leads Eastwood, who would, of course, go on to marry her, to have her victimised and brutalised and raped in so many films? She suffers an attempted gang-rape here, another attempt is made in The Gauntlet and the full atrocity horribly perpetrated in Sudden Impact. Remarkably the film received a PG rating in the States, whilst its identical version in the UK garners an 18 certificate.

    “We all died a little in that damn war.”

    It is also worth mentioning (as Clint does, himself, in the documentary Eastwood's West) that Josey is not averse to shooting people in the back either. He even puts a round into the back of grievously wounded bad guys scuttling about in the dirt to finish him off – which is only right of course. Eastwood would do exactly the same thing, albeit with an M16, in Heartbreak Ridge, and as Dirty Harry he would take out a retreating robber in The Enforcer with a .44 slug that must him in the ass! Not playing fair? Well, if the situation calls for it, then c'est la vie (or, in this case, c'est la morte!) but this was a markedly different approach to say, John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott. Leone's Spaghettis didn't play fair either, and the young Rowdy Yates learned quickly that you wouldn't last long in this game being merciful.

    But the clever thing that Eastwood does in respect of all this violence is regarding the vicious Terrill. After the raid on Josey's farm and the massacre of the surrendering rebels, he is like a whiskered demon, with his sabre and curled-up hat he comes to resemble a sort of landlocked buccaneer. Yet as the film goes on, his menace is deliberately eroded and Terrill is mostly belittled by Fletcher's growling advisor, with the majority of the action occurring when other outsiders stumble into Josey's path. We all know that a final confrontation is going to take place, but Eastwood is smart enough to understand that the mood of the film has changed by the time this blazing finale comes, and so have the attitudes of all concerned. Come the ultimate face-off, both men are probably questioning just how all this came about … and the outcome is one that offers no salvation for either party. Both are simply going through the motions because their lives have become governed by the gun. Or, in Terrill's case, the sword. At least Josey has tasted the sort of life that exists outside the blood and the hatred, Eastwood silently commenting on the futility of such mythical aggression.

    “And, Fletcher … there's an old saying – to the victors belong the spoils.

    “There's another old saying, Senator – don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining.

    What makes all of this work, apart from the terrific succession of supporting characters that wind-up hanging-on to Josey's coat-tails to forge the new society, is the slowly developing impression that the Outlaw is regaining his heart and gradually coming through the nightmare that had once claimed him. Through Josey, America is both purging itself and re-awakening to the glories and the pride that it once bore like a shield of irrepressible patriotism.

    After his young war-buddy, Jamie (Sam Bottoms) succumbs to wounds sustained during the Gatling-betrayal, Josey may think he'll be going it alone but, before long, he's encountered a meally-mouthed bogus apothecary, a trader-beaten Indian slave-girl, the then-ubiquitous Sondra Locke and her Granny as the pilgrim survivors of a brutal attack by Comancheros and, most famously of all, the incredible, scene-stealing old prairie-dog, himself, Chief Dan George, who had made a name for himself in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man. Oh, and a mangy, red-boned pooch who can be handily spat upon with great big wads of chewed tobaccy like a four-legged spittoon. It's hardly an army … and they are not exactly what the outlaw had in mind when he commenced his mile-munching blood-feud … but these characters become the sort of inspirational tonic that Woodrow Parfrey's charleton salesman wishes he could bottle-up and sell.

    Apart from Clint's relentlessly savage wielding of those mighty revolvers, the film is best remembered for Chief Dan George's hilarious performance as Lone Watie, who we first meet wearing a Lincoln frock-coat and stovepipe-hat, before swiftly reverting to his native garb as he opts to join Josey on the unofficial “raid”. Already an old, old man, Chief Dan George had become something of a cultural icon with his performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man six years before Josey Wales went into production. Single-handedly, he broke down the stereotypical image of the Native American with his wit and humanity, breaking the conventions of how his people were portrayed on-screen. Chief Dan George is absolutely hysterical in this, his inability to remember his lines leading his director to allow him to just do what he liked, so long as he got the gist of the script across. This leads to some incredible mock monologues, a clutch of smart and funny reproaches and a sense of comical timing that is probably the envy of many a screen comedian. So good was he at this improvisational style that Eastwood actually gave him more scenes and more to do. Unable to sneak up on people like an Indian should be able to do, he blames his age. After Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) gets the better of him in an ill-advised ambush, he remarks to Josey that it was lucky he stopped the scuffle for he might have killed her … even though she had a knife to his throat. But the wily old dog still has what it takes to get a lady into bed, much to Josey's chagrin. My favourite moment with Chief Dan George is when he tells Josey about how Lincoln and the US government had admired him and his people and advised them to “Endeavour to persevere.” He talks about how proud he and his brothers were to be photographed for the newspapers beneath that rousing slogan. “We thought about it for a long time,” he regales the now-snoozing outlaw. “Endeavour to persevere. And when we had thought about it long enough … we declared war on the Union.” Honestly, if you're not supremely tickled by how Chief Dan George delivers this beautifully ironic epithet there's a bullet-hole in your sense of humour canteen. Funnily enough, another Native American actor, Will Sampson, who had appeared in the awesome One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and would later save the Freeling Family from those pesky spooks in Poltergeist II, plays an altogether more traditional Indian, the potentially volatile Comanche Chief Ten Bears. But, even here, Eastwood is at great pains to defuse the clichés with the sort of parley that would have given Ford a heart-attack.

    “I'd have been half-way to Mexico by now … but that woman … I can't understand a damn word she says!

    With this being his first collaboration with the late great composer Jerry Fielding, Josey Wales would cement a lasting and highly creative and critically lauded relationship between the two. Having worked extensively with Sam Peckinpah, helping Bloody Sam to begin the swing-shift from traditional oaters to the darker, more violent horse operas that the seventies ushered-in, Fielding already had a known and distinctive voice to bring to the hanging-party with period sojourns Lawman and Junior Bonner and the TV show of Shane further extending his experience on the range. His score for Outlaw Josey Wales is, in my opinion, his best – and this is taking into account excellent work on The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, The Big Sleep, Scorpio, Grey Lady Down, The Gauntlet and The Nightcomers. He is being fabulously varied with this. At times, he is necessarily dark, elegiac and melancholy, but at others he is playful, swaggering, patriotic – his twist on Southern anthem Dixie-Land with infectious drum-beat and charming flute and trumpet melody is utterly irresistible (and it's playing on repeat as I write, in fact) and his honkytonk, twanging variation on it for The Missouri Boat-ride that Josey sends his unwitting pursuers on is a hoot – and then wild and demented all at once. With rising string chords of ominous portent, the trial-by-fire that Josey undergoes is tragic and heavy yet taut with justified wrath. His Native Indian material not in the least clichéd, and his action set-pieces fast, unusual and highly dynamic. Known for his jazz-infused style, Fielding's Western scores were often ethereal, fate-whipped affairs that painted a sombre view of men on the borders of annihilation, and whilst there are plenty of moments, here, when this still rings true, his Wales soundtrack is a never-ending delight of haunted colour and bleeding pastoral.

    “I'm an Indian, all right. But here in the nation they call us the civilised tribe. They call us civilised because we're easy to sneak up on.”

    Josey is also like someone who desperately wants to be the Man With No Name, but just has too much genuine humanity left in him. Like one of us strutting about and thinking we're Rambo, Martin Riggs, Batman, Mad Max or Mad Maximus (all characters that I have often identified with and, ahem, tried to emulate in some way or another!!!), but then realising that we've actually got friends and people that care about us and, worst of all, commitments that stop that mean 'n' moody adventure from ever taking place. These indomitable crusading avengers simply don't exist in the real world. Josey Wales, on the other hand, certainly could exist, but the point is that his “anti-heroic” attitude and the ghosts of his past are eroded in intensity over time and sanded-down with the reluctant realisation that he does still care about other people. Most of this type of cinematic hero, from cowboys to soldiers to cops to superheroes, have a narrative arc that is designed for them to achieve their goal, which pretends to be some form of redemptive inner-harmony that has been structurally engineered to inspire us, but really boils down to simple, and understandable revenge … yet, come the end of their odyssey, we either don't want them to settle down, or their salvation is utterly contrived and unbelievable and a pale lie to all that has gone before. This self-awareness is what gives both the character and the story of The Outlaw Josey Wales their power and enduring popularity.

    That, and the anti-social ability to spit wads of icky black tobacco with pin-point accuracy. For the record, Josey hits that “red-bone hound”, a beetle, a scorpion, a corpse's head and, best of all, the lovely white jacket of the carpetbagger when he attempts to sell his fix-all elixir to him. “How is it for stains?” hisses Josey after his slimy bullseye.

    The legacies of Clint's two main influences sit majestically throughout The Outlaw Josey Wales. We have the slow panning shots that pick out riders or wagons in the middle-distance of a scenic view … and then ominously reveal watchers, usually Indians, right close-up to us at one end of the frame. This is pure John Ford. We have the non-stop procession of weathered and ugly faces that look sprung from a Leone jail-cell, especially the mob of fiendish Comancheros trafficking whisky, guns and women to the Indians. The economical one-liners and episodic momentum stems from Siegel, as does the notion of the mismatched travelling companions on a saga of self-discovery (see also Two Mules For Sister Sara). But look at that weird ghost-town that Paula Trueman's Granny Sarah has led us all to believe will be a thriving Mecca in the wilderness – this is precisely the sort of threadbare, slapped-up shanty that Leone and Carlo Simi erected in the Spanish West of Almeria for A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, and would be seen in the likes of Corbucci's original Django, before the Romano-Spanish designers got ever-more sophisticated in the later 60's. So, both visually and thematically, Eastwood is paying his dues.

    “Kansas was all sunshine.”

    “Yeah, well I always heard there were three kinds of suns in Kansas … sunshine, sunflowers … and sons-of-bitches.”

    Production design aside, we've just got to mention the guns that Josey uses. There's Navy and Army Colts and the really big Colt Dragoons that we see him hefting in that rampaging original poster. Plus there's Remingtons, a Sheriff Special and a few pocket pistols too – and the big guy uses them all at one point or another, fishing them from more holsters and hidden pockets than a pistol-packing wizard. For the famous Missouri Boat-ride sequence when Josey shoots the rope that is bringing a posse of Terrill and his men across a wide river after him, Eastwood produces a Sharps rifle with a long-range sight tube mounted upon it. This is a little homage to Lee Van Cleef's highly specialised bounty hunter, Colonel Mortimer, in For A Few Dollars More, who has a veritable arsenal of distinctive weaponry in a sheath strapped to the side of his horse. Just as Leone always had the same unique sound effect employed for the gunshots in his films – whether revolver or rifle, it was invariably the same – Eastwood, too, likes to use a familiar blast. Some may recognise the high velocity roar that accompanied Dirty Harry's Magnum in the solid, chunky boom from Josey's guns. Even the actual clicking and clacking of the working parts sound emphasised, as you'll hear in the final confrontation with Terrill – another nostalgic recollection from Leone. Again, this is all the cards that Eastwood has been dealt over the years coming to sit in the one hand.

    Thus, with The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood established the new Western trend of intelligent and thought-provoking, character-based studies that cut deep into the myths of the old Ford/Hawks wagon-train and let them slowly bleed out. What Eastwood possibly didn't expect to do was to invent a whole new revisionist myth in its place. And, just as importantly, his own directing style was born and the Man from Malpaso would go on to become a triumphant voice at the forefront of American Cinema.

    Easily as important a film as The Searchers or The Magnificent Seven or A Fistful Of Dollars or The Wild Bunch, The Outlaw Josey Wales takes a severely wounded genre and hauls it onto the horse to ride out once more. And, barring only one or two exceptions like The Quick And The Dead, the Western has followed his gritty template ever since.

    I can't recommend The Outlaw Josey Wales enough. It's certainly one of the best Westerns around and must-have for fans of the form and of Clint Eastwood as star and filmmaker.