Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews, Westerns

Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

It isn’t too likely that a U.S. Senator would arrange the mass murder of several bands of Confederate renegades after their postwar surrender; less likely still that he would himself be present at the grisly deed; and least likely of all that the ex-Confederate officer charged with rounding up and bringing in the guerrillas would, upon watching the massacre, have no more to say than “Dammit, Senator, you told me those men would be decently treated!” There are only two ways to take an outrageously implausible story and turn it into the Winning of the West; and if you don’t have the audacity of a Sergio Leone you might just get by with the humble, trusting naïveté of Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has demonstrated, over the past few years, a steadily decreasing tendency to imitate his mentors (most notably Siegel and Leone) as he continues to develop a style of his own. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of the directorial style of another western legend who got behind the camera, John Wayne, in its penchant for relying on explicit, often moralistic dialogue, on larger-than-life heroes and villains (often viewed from low angles), and on the instant, positive expressiveness of a powerful screen presence (Eastwood’s own) more than acting versatility or directorial imagination.

The message that comes through in The Outlaw Josey Wales is also very much like the one John Wayne pressed in The Alamo: the concept ‘American’ is vastly more important and meaningful than ‘Jayhawkers,’ ‘Hoosiers,’ ‘Cherokees,’ ‘Confederates,’ and other such labels. But where Wayne’s vision was of a unified, patriotic effort of American sub-groups against a common enemy, Eastwood suggests that all the racial, ethnic, and regional sub-groups could live together in peace if only Society and Politics weren’t always getting in the way. Men like Terrill (Bill McKinney)—the “Redlegs” Union officer who swears to pursue and destroy Josey Wales—tend to perpetuate the regional and political differences between people, and so must die, while men like Wales (Eastwood) and his ex-officer, now friendly adversary Fletcher (John Vernon), who have the sense to know when the war is over, win and live on, as legends of one kind or another. There’s more than a little of Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow in Phil Kaufman’s story of Wales (Kaufman began direction of the film), the simple Southern farmer who becomes a renegade and then a notorious outlaw after his family and farm are burned by marauding Redlegs. The same starkness is there: People take precedence over governments, individuals are everything, labels meaningless; the film’s characters are simply good guys or bad guys, and attempt to kill or screw one another on that basis. The same search for roots is there, too, with Josey Wales seeking Truth, no less, in the faces and words of the friends and enemies he encounters in his postwar wanderings. The pace Eastwood establishes, together with Bruce Surtees’s subtle and controlled photography, informs the film with the same kind of expansiveness and illusory length of duration that characterize, for example, Ford’s The Searchers (a not-overly-lengthy film which covers a great deal of time and seems to). In this way, quite in spite of its humble beginnings, The Outlaw Josey Wales becomes a fascinating odyssey, a westward journey both literal and spiritual—and seems surprised to find itself becoming also, along the way, an allegory of the building of America. Me, too: surprised and delighted.

Direction: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Phil Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, after the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter. Cinematography: Bruce Surtees. Production design: Tambi Larsen; set decoration: Chuck Pierce. Editing: Ferris Webster. Music: Jerry Fielding. Production: Robert Daley.
The players: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, John Vernon, Bill McKinney, Sondra Locke, Paula Trueman, Geraldine Kearns, Sam Bottoms, Woodrow Parfrey, Matt Clark, Royal Dano, Joyce Jameson, Sheb Wooley, Will Sampson.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.