Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie covers a lot of territory and glimpses a large enough cross-section of Western character types, Leone-ish villains, and just plain folks to fill an album of rare and intriguing daguerreotypes. People getting mixed up with and along with one another travel through raw frontier country, seemingly dissociated in their respective enterprises—running away from fascistic Yankee vigilantes, looking for new suckers to buy patent medicine, following a dream of a milk-and-honey land (described in a loving son’s letters) and ending up in a boom town gone bad, repaying the debt of a life saved with unflagging allegiance to the “outlaw” who saved it—but their variety and amicably contrary professions and predilections are among the film’s most likable features. As Josey Wales (Eastwood) moves from that richly colored, deep-wooded Missouri hills country to arid parts west beneath skies brushed a thin blue, where an abundance of rocky places accommodate the likes of bandits, Comanche, and the frontier flotsam of dying boom towns, one begins to feel that the landscapes of the movie are as various as Eastwood’s veritable throng of characters. The progression from East to West, from the cypress-dripping South of Siegel’s and Eastwood’s The Beguiled to starker outcroppings of men and stone that characterize a contemporary Western like Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid seems as natural as the accumulation of humankind that marks Wales’ journey.

The journey is half flight, half revenge quest: Wales is running from, yet intent on wreaking vengeance upon, the men who killed his wife and child during the recently concluded Civil War. But the human variety he and we encounter against a changing landscape elicits a marked feeling of acceptance that I missed in Eastwood’s earlier High Plains Drifter. At one point Josey Wales, noticing that a mangy cur is tagging along with him, just shrugs and says that he might as well come along too, since it looks as if everybody else is. Everybody else includes the cur’s owner, an old Indian down to his last piece of rock candy but hardly his last kernel of wit and quirky wisdom (some of which sounds as though it had been run through Tom McGuane’s typewriter), a stovepipe-hatted, cream-suited grifter selling bourbon-colored elixir, an Indian woman whom Wales rescues from rowdies at a trading post, a Kansas granny and her moon-eyed granddaughter, plus a barmaid and a couple of ghost-town hangers-on. Slowly, the threads of individual destinies begin to form an interconnected pattern: Granny’s dead son owned a spread near the ghost town and kept close company with the barmaid; eventually the whole troupe winds up homesteading the place, forming a little community of outcasts, loners, and diehards far from the blossoming fringe towns with their evolving societies that Eastwood found, in High Plains Drifter, to generate such an unholy formula of fear, self-centeredness, and communal violence.

As the fates vaguely converge around Wales’ itinerary, his former comrade turned pursuer, Fletcher, trails him, half leader, half prisoner of a group of Yankee “Redlegs”; like Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett, Fletcher assumes ambiguous moral shadings, forced into a position where he must track down the man who is, in some way, his friend. Josey Wales is certainly not the sensitive, hunted figure Kris Kristofferson portrays in Peckinpah’s movie, one whose silhouette blends so mythically and mystically with the shadows of the landscapes he traverses; but Eastwood’s character tends to define his own tenuous aptness to the abrasive, brightly variegated world of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Redlegs find only emptiness in a gun wagon that, a moment before, was spitting bullets fired by Josey Wales; his silhouette hovers against a glaring desert afternoon sky, the outline of someone who is hardly there at all. In this he is exemplary rather than unique, as far as the film’s overall style is concerned. People slide out of frame just before a cut, as though to imply they’d never really lived there in the first place; lines of ghostly revenge riders charge through a monochromatic, telephoto-compacted limbo behind the credit titles, emerging into a dawn of color where their dooms await them; the shimmering image of a woman we will never see again (Wales’ wife) stands poised, deep in the frame, amid a grove of overhanging trees just before pillaging Northerners descend on Wales’ farm: Sondra Locke, portraying a fawnlike innocent who falls in love with Wales, gazes wistfully out at an evening sky and says, half to herself, that thoughts are like clouds floating across the sky of your mind.

In this chimerical atmosphere anything seems possible. Even the entourage of fierce Comancheros on horses and in wagons, carrying a human bounty of freshly won hostages through a darkening desertscape, takes on the fantastic quality of some surreal caravan moving through twilight regions of geographical indeterminability. The half-mirage title figure of High Plains Drifteraloof, sinister. remorseless—is surely evoked here. While soldiers crawl out of their tents in longjohns to give chase to Wales’ young Rebel companion (Sam Bottoms), whose corpse has been strapped to a horse and set off through the Federal camp as a decoy, Wales rides slowly into the foreground of the frame, as if he were not really a part of that background world at all, or a dawn whose mortal baggage recedes into the rain and shadows. Death still creeps in various forms through Eastwood’s world, and the Eastwood characters’ souls as well as their hands remain uncleanly immersed in it. Josey Wales, just before he shoots a bounty hunter (one of two who have been hanging around on streetcorners of boom towns and ghost towns alike), tells him that “dyin’ ain’t a very good way to make a livin'”—a quintessential Eastwood line that gets played out obliquely at the end of the film when Wales “dies” as far as the official record is concerned. (The death is reported to two Texas Rangers who don’t know Wales is standing right there in the room with them.) The Outlaw dies; Josey Wales goes on livin’ … perhaps to emerge again, like the reincarnated, revenge-bent figure in High Plains Drifter, in the next Eastwood-directed Western.

THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
Direction: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Phil Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, after the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter. Cinematography: Bruce Surtees. Editing: Ferris Webster. Music: Jerry Fielding. Production: Robert Daley.
The players: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, John Vernon, Bill McKinney, Sam Bottoms, Sandra Locke, Paula Trueman, Geraldine Kearns.

© 1977 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here