THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976)

  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Writers: Phil Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter
  • Starring: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke, Bill McKinney, John Vernon, Paula Trueman, Sam Bottoms, Geraldine Kearns, and Woodrow Parfey
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Score)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

Clint Eastwood is now 91 years old, but still continues to direct and star in films. On the one level this is impressive, but on another level he seems to us young’uns as just another example of a Boomer refusing to retire. Anyway, Eastwood’s new film Cry Macho, in which he, again, also stars, opens today in some theaters (and on HBO Max). From the trailers it appears to be sort of a Western, albeit one set in in the later 20th Century. Given that Eastwood has directed a series of Westerns over the years, and starred in even more, it seemed an opportune moment to revisit another of these movies, which was hardly in the early portion of Eastwood’s career despite being released 45 years ago.

The Outlaw Josey Wales is another of a long run of Hollywood Civil War-adjacent films to somewhat bizarrely depict a Confederate as a hero and the Union as bad guys. In this case, Union troops literally murder the family of the titular character, played by Eastwood, and he becomes an outlaw because, at the close of the war, he refuses to surrender. It was based on a novel written by “Forrest Carter,” which, partly due to the publicity brought by the movie, was discovered to be a nom de plume employed by one Asa Earl Carter, a former KKK leader and a speechwriter for Alabama’s racist governor George Wallace. He is even credited with writing Wallace’s line, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This controversy was likely alleviated at least somewhat by the fact that there are no Black people whatsoever in the movie, and the Native American characters are generally treated sympathetically. As for the film version, I think the movie’s underlying sin is that it wants to be an anti-war film, about what war “does to a man” (to quote a later Eastwood Western), but in doing so it fails to distinguish at all between the two sides of the Civil War. War makes monsters of us all, it seems to say, which would be a more interesting premise if it didn’t seem to elide the very important reasons for this particular war.

The basic structure of Josey Wales, following Eastwood’s failure to surrender, follows his character’s flight from Missouri, first onto Cherokee lands in Oklahoma (referred to by Wales as just “The Nation”) and then to some very dusty corners of Texas, all while relentlessly pursued by bounty hunters, Union soldiers, and his old Confederate Commander, Fletcher (John Vernon). Along the way, he picks up a wise old Cherokee man (Chief Dan George), a Navajo woman who doesn’t speak any English (Geraldine Kearns), and a possible love interest, Laura Lee (Sondra Locke). There are various exciting episodes, some of which work pretty well and some of which don’t. Unfortunately, I found many of these scenes wearisome, mostly because the movie depicts literally everyone except for Wales and his handful of allies as an absolutely, irredeemably despicable human being. By the time he runs into a band of literal slavers and rapists in the middle of the barren Texas desert (a sequence that feels straight out of Mad Max), we get it already, OK?

Eastwood certainly has an eye for shooting American vistas, which is on full display here. His performance as the central, taciturn gunfighter draws obvious comparisons to his “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western trilogy. He talks a bit more here, but not by very much. When the Confederates first come to find him, sitting by his family’s graves, Fletcher introduces himself and says he plans to fight the Yankees. “I’m coming with you,” Wales replies, and that’s that. His performance works here in a way it doesn’t for me in some of Eastwood’s later work (like, say, Gran Torino) because his congenital crotchetiness works better for the character and in context, and is also balanced against other characters like Chief Dan George’s Lone Waite, or the pissed off grandma played by Paula Trueman (who is racist against, among other groups, all people from Missouri), who play off him interestingly.

Eastwood was originally slated only to star in the film, and in fact Philip Kaufman (whose later works included the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff) oversaw most of pre-production. But Kaufman hated the novel on the basis that it was “written by a crude fascist” (he wasn’t wrong) and he and Eastwood clashed repeatedly on a number of issues. Both also apparently fell for actress Sondra Locke, leading to an awkward love triangle. In the end, Kaufman was fired early in the shooting schedule, and Eastwood took over without giving Kaufman any credit. This led to a fine from the Directors’ Guild of America and to the DGA instituting what is still known as the “Eastwood Rule,” intended to prevent stars from firing their directors and then taking over for them. For Locke’s part, she remained in a relationship with Eastwood for about 15 years, which eventually ended so badly that it has since resulted in two entirely separate lawsuits, including a landmark “palimony” suit. Among other things, Locke claimed that she got her tubes tied at 35 because Eastwood didn’t want kids, only to later find out he had secretly fathered children with two other women during their relationship. Unfortunately, Eastwood was so powerful in industry circles that Locke was basically blackballed from major roles after their break-up.

There are moments in The Outlaw Josey Wales that work much better than others, like when a snake oil selling carpetbagger (portrayed with maximum sleaze by Woodrow Parfey) is brought up short by Chief Dan George’s insistence that he drink his product first, if it’s so good for you. Another comes when Wales rides up to a band of attacking Native Americans, led by Ten Bears (Will Sampson, in the only role I’ve seen of his other than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and rather than fighting them earns their respect through a lengthy speech. But other long stretches of the movie were just not interesting to me. I didn’t find it offensive, which it very, very easily could have been, but I mostly found that about two-thirds of this movie just doesn’t justify its own existence for me.

2 thoughts on “THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976)

  1. This was one of my favorite films and I adore spaghetti westerns and everything in the genre from Silverado to Deadwood, but ever since Eastwood showed his racism at the convention, all I can think now when I see an advert for Cry Macho is “Oh, go talk to a chair, old man!” I absolutely HATE it when politics clashes with entertainment and ruins it.

    Liked by 1 person

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