It was with some alarm that I heard Ben Mankiewicz declare of Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) that “there’s no better Western than this” at Saturday’s TCM Festival screening. He proceeded to read some amusingly negative contemporaneous reviews, which were closer to my own distant memory of the film, and related the bizarre story of the right-wing nutjob, Asa Earl Carter, who had written the source novel under a pseudonym. Eastwood was entirely unaware of the author’s racist past and a certain tension between his own curious politics, Carter’s past life as a staunch segregationalist, and the latter’s new emphasis on his fractional Native American roots, may perhaps have contributed to the unfocused nature of the film’s fundamental themes.

The Players

  • Director: Client Eastwood
  • Script: Philip Kaufman, Sonia Chernus
  • Producer: Robert Daley
  • Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
  • Cast: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, John Vernon, Sam Bottoms, Sondra Locke, Bill McKinney, Paula Trueman, Royal Dano

The Plot

His homestead razed by Union raiders, Josey Wales joins the rebel guerrillas in vengeance, gaining a fearsome reputation, and continues solo even after peace is declared. Stalked by the army and by bounty hunters, he heads for safety in the Indian Nations. With the ragtag bunch of companions with whom he finds himself saddled, a return to idyllic rural existence seems possible, once he has pacified the local Comanche chief. But Death stalks him still.

The fundamental problem with this movie is one of tone. It asks to be taken seriously, which sits awkward with its familiar tropes. Aside from the fact the Eastwood is improbably too handsome to be a field-tilling farmer at the start, his awesome reputation trades 100% on persona rather than character, established as fact entirely offscreen before we first see him in action on anything but a fence post. He spends much of the movie fleeing and having guns drawn on him – which he can then dispatch with supernatural ease – but the revenge drama is less turned on its head than casually dropped. An increasingly comedic tone sits ill with the body count (high) and the disparity between the cold-blooded killer Wales is taken to be, and the apparently sensitive man who is given a chance to return to a quiet life, is handled with as little sophistication as the liberal strand of “governments don’t live together; people live together”.

It is true that a warm sense of what should be right and good emanates from the film as it looks as though Wales will be able to find bucolic peace once again, but as much due to the spirited playing of the supporting cast. Chief Dan George is an old, solitary Cherokee, something of a classical Fool, and retains the ironic dignity of that role, providing a foil for cloudy conversations about the dispossessed. Trueman, Dano and others sparkle with good humour. Locke is as drippy as ever. But Eastwood’s character is a mess. It is an undeniably invigorating sight to see him narrow his eyes and gallop across the plains, a gun in every hand, but despite his best efforts the more human, sensitive characteristics are as awkwardly grafted onto the persona as the changeable prosthetic scar on his cheek. The laconic underplaying is decidedly unhelpful; the relationship with kid outlaw Bottoms is unremarkably reluctant-paternal, and there’s not the least spark to his eventual splendour in the grass with Locke. So he’s respectful of women, fine, but why is it OK for him to spit on the dog all the time? His laconic one-liners are almost 007 flip and other comic intrusions (a bothersome carpetbagger is particularly unwelcome, but does give Clint his best quip) undermine rather than counterpoint the serious moods elsewhere. The revenge element remains mostly implied; Wales is in no particular hurry to confront his nemesis, who in any case is little more than a ginger beard and a grubby face. Likewise, behind the piercing blue eyes of John Vernon, the motivations of the erstwhile friend coerced into helping track him down flip-flop with vagueness rather than ambiguity, then back again for a dismissably self-conscious finale.

Bruce Surtees photographs the dappled woods and wide plains in a nice array of styles, with a decent rein on over-prettification, and Jerry Fielding provides a robust score. Eastwood’s direction is never less than efficient, sometimes more than that, and even if the film seems overlong, it at least maintains a brisk enough pace from set piece to set piece. The various conflicting elements of tone and motivation feel like banal conceits rather than movements born of character, pseudo-familial ties are worn like so much subtextual window dressing, and the socio-political philosophy is no more sophisticated than “why can’t we all just get along?”.

Rating: 5.78/10