(This is a sort of in depth review, so Spoilers! for the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales)
Remember when you were 7 years old and for holidays such as Father’s Day you could make a macaroni painting and your parents had to be happy about it? Well I can assure you that as a film school drop out I have lots of macaroni in my cupboard, but I’m not going to waste it on some silly painting. This Father’s Day I decided for a gift, I would review my Dad’s favorite movie of all time.
The Backstory: My Dad always encouraged me to play sports. And without bragging, I was pretty good at (some of) them. But for some reason, I was drawn more to movies. Like a typical teenager, at one point I rebelled and denounced all sports. My Dad didn’t really care, he let me do whatever I wanted (after all, he always had my brother whom he could bug and get into arguments over which team is better: The Redskins or The Raiders. Seeing as my brother now has a semi-Redskins tattoo I guess we know who won that argument…). But eventually I returned to sports and enjoy (some of) them now more than ever.
If you were to look at my Dad’s tivoed movies, you would assume he likes two kinds: Westerns and SyFy Originals (Don’t ask). While I’m sure he likes more than just these two, I’m as sure that the Western Genre is his favorite.
Its ironic that I didn’t become big on Westerns until after I had moved out. The one that got me started on them is probably The Outlaw Josey Wales. When it comes to art, in particular movies, its hard to state things as though they are fact. In reality, most things come down to matter of opinion and perspective. No one, and I mean no one, will argue with you if you say its an undeniable fact that Clint Eastwood is badass. It is because of him I got into The Man With No Name Trilogy. That then opened the door to Great Westerns (as opposed to just Westerns) and I found myself craving them more.
I’ve become more experienced in Westerns and I will admit my favorite one of all time (on a cinematic level) is Once Upon A Time in The West. However, returning to Josey, I’ve realized that Josey Wales may be the single greatest Western character. One who transcends money, fame, or revenge, Josey is simply… A Man of Circumstance.
The Story: We open with Josey Wales, farmer, husband, father, working in fields with his son. They are plowing the soil, getting it ready to grow crops. Without wasting any time, a group of ‘soldiers’ attack Josey’s house, setting it ablaze and killing his family. Josey wakes up, digs up the soil, but this time to lay rest to his wife and son.
In a calculated move, he picks up his guns and starts practicing. Soon he is visited by a group of rebels. They tell him the man who killed his family is with The Union and they are going to make things right. Josey pauses… then mutters:
“I’ll be comin’ with ya.”
This could be mistaken for a quest for revenge at first. Seems straight enough. We’ve seen it before. Badguy kills Goodguys family. Goodguy spends movie hunting down badguy. Goodguy kills Badguy.
I don’t think that’s what this movie is though. Josey, as the movie shows later, is a man who thinks things through. Knowing these men were soldiers and that his life was destroyed, he gets his guns and practices so that when the rebels come to get him, he’ll be ready. The country is a t war and there is nothing he can do about it now. He goes along with it because that is the circumstance he is given.
The credits time montage us to the end of the war.
From here we are given what amounts to set piece after set piece of Circumstance.
The Set Up: Fletcher and the rest of the Rebels go to surrender to the Union. Josey doesn’t though. Why? Because this was never really his fight to begin with and the way he sees it, he shouldn’t have to surrender and pledge oath to The Union. He’ll just go about life under a new path, one of peace.
But the whole thing is a ruse and the Union is working with Terrill, the man responsible for the death of Josey’s family.
The Circumastance: Let his comrades die or go in guns blazin’. Josey is not above killing (bad) men if it means another can live. The circumstance changes when he sees a young kid, Jamie, wounded and knows the kid will be dead without his help. They retreat.
The ‘Missouri Boat Ride’: Josey and Jamie cross a boat and are immediately followed by The Union Soldiers. Insteadof running off, Josey ‘creates distance’ but shooting the ferry’s rope mid crossing, letting them float down stream.
The Circumstance: Calls for quick action. Jamie’s thoughts are also probably the viewers. Run away. And Fast. But Josey shows his thorough pre planning by not hastily acting, rather making the second, more logical choice of action.
Reward, Reputation, and Respect: Two hillbillies get the draw on Josey and Jamie. Jamie tricks the gunmen and together the two shoot the scum down. Josey doesn’t waste time on their burial (after all if they didn’t try to take Josey in they’d still be alive) but after Jamie dies he sends him off to people who will be able to provide him a proper burial.
The Circumstance: Josey has to put his life in Jamie’s hands, knowing he will make the first move. Note Josey’s ever so slight movement of his right hand to the inside of his vest, where he keeps his second gun. As soon as the kid makes his move Josey is right there with him.
Also, not one to waste this circumstantial opportunity, Josey doubles sending the kid off to his eventual burial as a distraction to sneak by the union Soldiers.
Enter Lone Watie: Josey meets up with Lone Watie, an old Indian Chief.
The Circumstance: A potentially boring sob story of an old Indian Tribe leader. Josey takes a nap.
The Store: a store owner exploiting Indians and then beating one. The way Josey enters this scene is remarkable. He enters as a shadow, backlit from the sunlight, on horseback. If that’s not badass, I don’t know what is. This entrance alone is enough to stop the store owner and send him inside.
The next Josey entrance we have is just as good. Two Union Men are now trying to rape the Indian Woman. Josey bangs open the door and what we have is Eastwood at his best. His posture and stature sends animalistic vibes of ‘Do not mess with me’ and as he walks in he takes control of the room, even though the other two are oblivious.
He even lets them think they’ve got the jump on his when in reality he’s given them a (silent) warning, all in his posture, and demeanor, to not mess with him and just sell him a horse. After being told to take his guns out, by the butt, he knows he’s got them. With a quick spin, he blows them both away. The circumstance called for getting a horse and saving a girl. Mission accomplished.
Enter The Kansas Family: We meet a family from Kansas and Josey is called out and enters a One(/two) on Four showdown.
The Circumstance: Another Lesson in keeping your cool.
“You gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?”
This badass line is said to get a reaction. He sees who hesitates and who wants to draw first. He guns down three as Watie, form the sidelines, nails the fourth.
The circumstance also calls for a hasty retreat, and they leave being Little Moonlight. (Luckily its not long before she catches back up.)
The Comanche Raid: The Kansas family is taken hostage by a group of comanches, who almost rape the girl, Laura. After a comical blunder, Lone Watie is also captures for his lack of sneaking skills. Josey comes to their rescue.
The Circumstance: Josey keeps his cool by not rushing in to save Laura (against the viewers’ hopes and expectations).
During the rescue mission Josey enters with a white flag, but its clear the Comanches want no peace. The circumstance calls for him to kill them all. He does.
The Bounty Hunters: This next scene could probably have an entire essay written about it on its own. As Josey enters the city, he pegs the two bounty hunters (introduced earlier) right away. He goes to the bar.
Eastwood lightens up the tension first with a comical exchange between Josey and the townsfolk, where he is laughed out of the bar for asking for a drink, because the bar has been dry for quite some time. He reenters with a caseful of booze and becomes an instant hero. Next Eastwood switches the dramatic focus over to the elder Kansas woman. When we almost forget about the Bounty Hunters, Eastwood frames them beautifully in the background through a window, with Josey staring that Eastwood stare at them in the foreground.
As one of the Hunters enter, the scroungy dog that has been accompanying them growls fiercely. This is smash cut right to a pose of Josey (again with that Eastwood stare) and could not be a more perfect metaphor for what Eastwood can accomplish with his stare alone. While a dog needs to growl and flash his teeth to show how threatening he can be, Eastwood needs only to look at you.
Josey stays in the shadow as the two men talk:
“You a Bounty Hunter?”
“Man’s gotta do somethin’ for a livin’ these days.”
“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.”
With these truthful words, Josey actually scares the man off, perhaps for the first time able to successfully not kill someone and let his warning be heard. Everyone in the bar relaxes… except Josey. He knows.
The Hunter reenters. ‘He had to’. ‘Josey knows’. They both draw and Josey wins by a long shot. People might wonder why the man ‘had to know’. He was out for money and fame. He wanted the reward and wanted to be the fastest. He couldn’t live with himself knowing he didn’t try and might of had that chance. Josey on the other hand, is a man of circumstance, this one being life or death, he chose life.
Ten Bears: Josey rides off to confront the Comanche Leader. He has tried to warn people before that they don’t have to fight or die. Ten Bears takes this advice. And lives.
The Circumstance: Trying to resolve things peacefully. His conversation with Ten Bears is the most articulate he is with this mentality.
The Final Battle: Josey hooks up with Laura and that night he has flash backs to the destruction of his previous family life. He knows “there ain’t no forgetting” and that Terrill will not rest till Josey is dead.
Josey says to Watie the next morning that he is going to ride of and be back in the Spring, or the next Spring, alluding to the fact that he won’t go out to hunt Terrill, but he’ll make Terrill find him and when he’s found it will at least be away from his ‘new family’.
Josey begins to ride off on his self-sacrificing quest to not make it past the front yard. Terrill and his mini army are waiting. There are enough of them so that even if Josey could get off 12 hots from his 2 main revolvers he wouldn’t have enough bullets to kill them all. As they advance steadily, Josey does not move an inch. He stays his ground.
He knows his new family has his back. And they do.
A nice gun battle takes place before Josey must go solo to hunt down Terrill. He’s given Terrill plenty of chances to stop his manhunt and letting Terrill live gives him a second chance to get a bigger army. This circumstance calls for no survivors. Especially Terrill.
The final grand entrance is made when Terrill is bloody and wounded, limping his way through the nearby town. As the camera pans to follow him, Josey is standing more stoic than ever. A striking shadow of a pillar. Josey even taunts Terrill by aiming at him and clicking away with empty guns (that he knows are empty because before he rides off he fires them and realizes he is out). But Josey is always calculating ahead. He nears closer as he pulls the triggers on his first set of guns. Then the second set. Then he puts them away and stands before Terrill, close range, ready to be stricken down.
A quick flashback shows Josey’s memory of how he got his scar, by Terrill’s sabre. He knows that will be Terrill’s next move and sur enough the moment Terrill draws out the sabre, Josey steps right in and forces back… into Terrill’s stomach.
As Terrill falls to the ground to die, Josey’s face snaps back into reality. In that instance we can see how he has not been doing this for revenge and to him this is just another man dead. What some movies spend entire plotlines on (the pointlessness of revenge), Eastwood manages to capture in a single glimpse.
The End? Almost. We still have one loose end. Fletcher. Josey enter the bar and the townsfolk save him by calling him Mr. Wilson and telling Fletcher and his two Texas Ranger friends that Josey is dead. Fletcher gave up his quest to kill Josey and instead was trying to help him by brining the law, the real law, in to arrest him before Terrill could kill him. But no that he sees Josey in the flesh he knows… and decides to let him slide.
Josey is given the circumstantial opportunity to just ride off into the sunset. And like a true hero, he does.
The Friendship between Josey and Lone Watie: This developing friendship (and playful rivalry) between Josey and Watie is perfect in tone. Imagine the witty banter and chemistry of Butch Cassidy and The Sundace Kid, but in slow motion. Note how Josey always has the jump on Watie (sneaking up on him and pre planning Watie’s jump and countering it with Little Moonlight’s jump on Watie). The only time Josey is beaten by Watie is to bedding Little Moonlight. What can you say? Watie got game.
Josey’s Planning: The discussion with Watie after the One(/two) on Four shootout and Josey’s rallying defense speech in the new home near the end show how thorough Josey is in his attention to detail. Imagine the entire movie, form the beginning of every scene/dilemma he is thinking as frenetically as how he describes the defenses of the house. Only Josey knows that to out draw your rival you need Reputation, and his reputation is to be stone cold calm, even when staring down the barrel of a gun.
Josey’s Entrances: From the way I describe his entrances in the shop scene, Josey has many more like it. He enters the house near the end the same way he enters the store. His silhouette either on foot or horseback is enough to stop character’s in their tracks. His presence and entrances alone are a non-verbal/cinematic cue that you should not mess with him.
Lone Watie: Lone Watie is the comic relief. With such intentionally humorous lines as: “I didn’t surrender. But they took my horse and made him surrender.” and “I could have missed.” after Josey explains why he shot ‘Crazy Eyes’ first and why he never paid no mind to the man on the far right.
But Lone Watie also serves as the Voice of Reason. While Josey need only spit on The Elixer Salesman to show he does not want any, Watie uses questions to out-logic the Salesman. He also makes the elder Kansas woman see that Josey isn’t so bad when she calls him a ruthless killer and he asks if she’d rather be back with the Comanches.
I don’t know if this combo is used that often in movies but I think its an interesting one that adds depth to an otherwise throwaway role like comic relief.
Conclusion: Josey Wales is a Man of Circumstance. A t the beginning he finds himself a lost soul, a man without a place in the world. He joins the Rebels since they show up first. Josey is not a hero in the sense that he is out looking for trouble. If his surrounding circumstance is unjustice to a living, decent person then he finds a way to set it right. If his circumstance is tense or chaotic, he keeps his composure. If his circumstance calls for him to draw his guns, he’ll do it the fastest.
I imagine raising two boys my Dad was in the same boat. He had to set things right in times of sibling arguments. He had to keep his cool when things went awry. He had to draw his guns the fastest… wait…
So will my Dad like his ‘real’ present more than this? Probably. Is The Outlaw Josey Wales a great Western? Definitely. Is Clint Eastwood a badass that both father and sons can admire?
“I reckon so.”
Final Grade: hAppy fAther’s dAy, dAd!
PS The Outlaw Josey Wales is Now available on BLURAY and DVD!