The Outlaw Josey Wales

Josey Wales looks stoic with two pistols in The Outlaw Josey Wales

“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

The Western is a genre as old as film, and for a long time it remained the same, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys who fought for good and evil. The 60s brought about a revolution in Westerns by introducing antiheroes and sympathetic villains, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns. By the 70s, the classic Western was mostly dead and the genre was ready to look at some new interesting characters. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, and Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales gives us one such interesting character: an outlaw who hates a corrupt government and fights on the wrong side of history. He’s still a very sympathetic and admirable character, but had this plot been used 20 years prior, he would have been the villain. The film also featured sympathetic and respectful portrayals of Native Americans—something very rare for Westerns of the time (and something I very much appreciated, since I’m a Native American). This is far from the classic Westerns, but it’s definitely one of the best Westerns that I’ve seen.

The plot follows Josey Wales, initially a man working on a farm in Missouri with his family until Union soldiers show up, kill his family, and burn his farm to the ground. Wales signs up for the Confederate army just before the Union wins the war. He tries to rescue some of his fellow soldiers as the Union army begins executing them, but is unsuccessful. The Union army then puts a big bounty on his head and Josey finds himself on the run from bounty hunters. As he runs, he finds that many people are taking advantage of the frail state of post-war Confederate states and he steps in to protect people when needed—which, of course, makes him more of a wanted man. As Josey struggles with what kind of life he wants to live, his past is always catching up with him and forcing him to turn back to violence to survive.

I notice when you get to disliking someone, they ain’t around for long neither.

The cast of characters was great in this film. Eastwood’s Josey Wales is just as great as his Man With No Name character in Sergio Leone’s trilogy. But the real star of the show was Chief Dan George as Lone Watie. He showed us a Native American whose culture had been deteriorating his whole life due to white colonization, but he handled the role with humor and charm. Due to his age (76 while filming), George frequently forgot his lines. Eventually, Eastwood pulled him aside and said, “Chief, just forget about the lines—tell me the story about the man who rode over the hill.” And that he did. George was a natural storyteller and ad-libbed most of his lines, which ended up being perfect for the film and adding a lot of depth to his character and the film overall. Rarely in film is a Native American character given this much depth, and it was a fantastic dimension to this film.

Like many films in the 70s coming out of the Vietnam era, there’s a strong anti-war sentiment here. It was based on a 1972 novel with strong anti-government ideals, which the screenwriters decided to tone down. When Eastwood took over as director, he made sure to amp that back up. This is not a whitewashing of Civil War history, as in Gone With the Wind, but it doesn’t shy away from showing how awful that war—and every war—was. I don’t think we’re supposed to admire that Josey Wales fought for the Confederacy and killed Union soldiers, and the character is certainly not proud of those actions. In Josey’s own words, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales
Chief Dan George did an amazing job bringing Lone Watie to life, and many of the best lines in the film are from him.

The character Josey Wales has that tough cowboy thing going on, but it’s very different from the classic John Wayne cowboys for one reason: Josey doesn’t want to be the tough guy. Throughout the film, Wales yearns for a return to his simple, peaceful way of life with his family, but the war changes him and the fallout from that conflict keeps forcing him back into the outlaw role. This is not toughness for the sake of toughness, as many classic Westerns seemed to portray—in fact, the toughness shown here is not even entirely positive, as we see throughout the film that it only leads to more conflict. This was a very progressive message, particularly for its time, and it showed that Clint Eastwood was more than just the John Wayne for the next generation—he wasn’t afraid to show us characters who really struggled to do the right thing and plots where nobody was really doing the right thing.

The Outlaw Josey Wales is a great modern Western that was years ahead of its time in its portrayals of imperfect characters and Native Americans, and it makes a statement on war that’s important, if not as direct as films like The Deer Hunter. Post-Civil War America was a rough place, and this film shows us exactly how dangerous it could be, so it’s not one for the kids. Everything’s very PG-13, though, so most teens and adults should be fine with it.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:15
Director: Clint Eastwood
Year: 1976
Genres: war, western
Rating: PG

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