Josey Wales, a man of no particular distinction, works the Missouri soil as his wife calls his son to their small home. The older man’s worries aren’t many and his grudge against the Union soldiers that move against the Confederacy is no more serious than his neighbor’s. Because his feelings on the war are so mild, he’s caught completely off guard when Union Redlegs set fire to his home and let his family burn up inside, while he’s cut across the face and left to bleed on the grass. The kind of life he had hoped to simply preserve and protect turns to nothing but charred wood and ash. And so, within the first five minutes of The Outlaw Josey Wales, we know that, in the eyes of the film’s director and star, Clint Eastwood, war has no noble cause, nor any promise of honor.
The figure of “Dirty” Harry Callahan was still alive and well in the minds of Americans in 1976, when The Outlaw Josey Wales was released, but there was already a sense beforehand that Eastwood’s directing career would take on a different moral hue than that of the films he appeared in as a star. His directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, and the May-November romance of Breezy hinted at a curiosity for emotional complexity and societal dialectics that “Dirty” Harry or the Man with No Name would have merely sneered at. As if to tease expectations, The Outlaw Josey Wales begins in a fashion that would suggest a return to the tales of vengeance that had become Eastwood’s stock and trade. The eponymous gunslinger (Eastwood) buries the bodies of his family and rides out on the trail of the Redlegs with a battalion of Confederate bushwhackers, led by “Bloody” Bill Anderson (John Russell) and Captain Fletcher (John Vernon). Wales’s intentions are those of the classic dollar-western heroes: vengeance enacted through a campaign of bloody murder against the Union.
The Union isn’t a ship of fools, however, and as the war ends the battalion is cornered and given no choice but to join the Union or face death. Wales, sensing something off about the deal, holds back in the bushes and witnesses the Union’s merciless ambush, which claims all but one of the men that fought alongside him. Having already sworn an oath to the Union, Fletcher sees honor in leading the party to hunt down Wales, flanked by the Redlegs who were at least partially responsible for Wales becoming the outlaw. Eastwood, working with the great cinematographer Bruce Surtees, shoots the ambush with a sense of space and movement that speaks to his influences but is wholly of the filmmaker’s creation. There are a handful of exceptional action sequences depicting Josey making his way through the territories, on his way to Mexico or wherever he may find his peace, but each has a distinct visual marking that’s unique to Eastwood. One of the more impressive standoffs occurs in a trading post, where light shines in through the slots between planks of warped, flimsy wood, and yet we are totally aware of the precision of the action and the movement that goes on in the darkened post.
Killings litter the landscape of The Outlaw Josey Wales, many of them done by the titular hero, but very few of them are done strictly in the name of revenge. The men Wales guns down in the trading post are attempting to rape a young Navajo woman before they decide to try and turn in Wales for the bounty on his head. Wales only wants his liberty, but his consolation for his good deeds is a small community that begins to join up with him on the trail, of which the Navajo woman, Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams), is only the second member. The first comes not long after the ambush on Wales’s Confederate brothers-in-arms, as Wales sneaks up on a disgraced elderly Cherokee warrior named Lone Watie (a very good Chief Dan George). The fraternal bond that builds between Watie and Wales is handled with expert subtlety, devoid of easy politics or rhetoric, but even more impressive is how the script by Sonia Chernus and Philip Kaufman develops this communal aspect of the story and express almost all capitalistic endeavors as wrong-headed, greedy, and ostensibly heartless.
The politics of the film are admirably a little stickier than one might imagine, but this isn’t to suggest that they override or hamper Eastwood’s narrative engine. The source novel was written by Asa Carter, who had been a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan at one point, but the issue of race is largely absent from the film. It’s suspicious but not extensively detrimental to the film’s natural, vibrant look at the vagaries of the American landscape. Indeed, the film is indebted to the rustic atmosphere that Eastwood carefully orchestrates—the sense of space and the menagerie of evocative, familiar sounds, not interrupted but accompanied by Jerry Fielding’s score. The script has its share of potent wit and is conceived with fascinating nuance, but The Outlaw Josey Wales is a film made of its director’s stylistic tenacity, which rightly garnered him newfound attention as a director.
By the end of the film, Wales and his cohorts have expanded to include the stragglers of an abandoned town, which dried up as soon as the silver was gone. A romance can be seen forming between Wales and the youngest member of the group, Laura Lee (Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s longtime partner), but the narrative remains focused on the facile righteousness of war ultimately, as it all comes down to a shoot-out between Wales’s clan of far-flung misfits and the remaining Redlegs that murdered Wales’s family. It’s an ironic, moving conclusion: The one deserving of retribution walks away from what he once saw as justice, only to see those who took away his civility come after him in the name of their own particular sense of honor and revenge. The film ends on an ambiguous meeting between Wales and Fletcher, wherein Wales leaves with a gushing wound and his fate uncertain.
To an extent, The Outlaw Josey Wales plays out like Unforgiven in embryonic form, unsure of its feelings on death, but certainly oppositional to the common thought that war is justifiable or a simple issue; it’s surely no mistake that the film was made as the Vietnam War was simmering down. In Unforgiven, we hear the last pleads and cries of a man dying a slow, excruciating death, prompting a moment of grim clarity that most filmmakers couldn’t stomach. A young man dies in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and it indeed takes a long time for him to pass on, but here Eastwood is obliged to give him a song (“The Rose of Alabama”) to sing as he drifts off, to ease not only his pain but also the audience’s. Perhaps he thought that would be enough.
When Warner Home Video gets the inclination to pull out all the stops, the results are often revelatory, and in the case of The Outlaw Josey Wales they've done some extraordinary work, as anyone who has compared this release to the DVD release of Eastwood's film can attest. The rustic settings look magnificent and the colors come off very naturalistic. Clarity of image is outstanding, with the small shanties, ghost towns, trails, and small farms of Eastwood's landscape garnering a very impressive depth of field. Detail and the sense of texture are also quite admirable, especially when it comes to wardrobe, and there's no evidence of noise reduction. There's also a healthy layer of grain. One could, I suppose, nitpick about the blink-and-you'll-miss-it instances of haloing, but this is the only factor that hampers the transfer that isn't a problem inherent in the film's original photography. The audio isn't as clear a triumph, but it nevertheless boasts a level of care that great westerns need and deserve. Dialogue is clear, clean, and out front in the mix, with the excellent, immersive atmosphere noise and Jerry Fielding's memorable score balanced beautifully. I would be very surprised if a better looking or sounding version of this film ever surfaced.
Richard Schickel, Time's regular film critic and Eastwood biographer, offers an excellent commentary track here, chock full of knowledge about nearly every facet of the production, including the reception of the film and its place in Eastwood's career, both as an actor and as a director. It would have been nice to hear the grizzled yet elegant master talk about one of his most popular films, but Schickel makes for a solid proxy here. There are three sizable featurettes that cover the making of the film and the thematic weight of the film, including its importance as a western made in the Vietnam era. The featurettes bleed together a bit, but this is all enjoyable, informative supplemental material, nonetheless. A theatrical trailer is also included.
The remnants of war are fractious and far-flung in Clint Eastwood's impressive revisionist western, which looks as good as it ever will thanks to Warner Home Video.