1970s, 4/4, Clint Eastwood, Review, Western

The Outlaw Josey Wales

#5 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

This is one of those movies where there really should be a co-directing credit. Phillip Kaufman co-wrote the script, went through all of the pre-production, and then filmed about the first two weeks of the shoot before Clint Eastwood convinced the producer, Robert Daley, to fire Kaufman and let Eastwood direct. There’s so much work in the film that that’s obviously the work of Kaufman in the role of director that despite Eastwood firing him for whatever reason (either Kaufman was working too slow or Kaufman was competing with Eastwood for the affections of Sondra Locke) the credits should have been treated like on the Howard Hawks and William Wyler codirecting effort Come and Get It. Well, aside from all that, all that really matters is the end result, and the end result is the best film Clint Eastwood had a hand in directing in his young career.

Josey Wales (Eastwood) is a small Missouri farmer when a group of Kansas Jayhawkers, made obvious by their red boots that give them the nickname Redlegs, kill his wife and son and burn his farmhouse to the groud. In a largely wordless sequence save for praying over the graves he dug, Wales digs out his pistol and teaches him how to shoot until a group of bushwhackers arrives and offers to take him up. The Civil War occurs over the opening credits, and the South is defeated, leaving the bushwhackers the choice to either pledge loyalty to the Union or become fugitives and outlaws. Wales is the only member of the unit led by Fletcher (John Vernon) to refuse, watching from above as the former Jayhawker Terrill (Bill McKinney) organizes a double cross that leaves everyone but the kid Jamie (Sam Bottoms), whom Wales rescues, dead.

So begins the chase for Wales, led by both Fletcher and Terrill, through Indian country and down towards Mexico (this could practically be a Peckinpah movie). Along the way, Wales loses friends but picks up more including the old Cherokee man Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), a squaw named Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams), and a grandmother and granddaughter pair from Kansas, Sarah (Paula Trueman) and Laura Lee (Locke). They have to navigate an increasingly dangerous series of events as Wales continues to be pursued by Union forces and they even have to navigate through Cheyenne territory.

Ultimately the movie is about moving on and the effects of war on the everyman. It was government policy that pitted man against man, and the man paid dearly for it. When the government declares the conflict over, can the man let it go? Wales has a stated mission of turning around in his escape and facing down the Redlegs, mostly Terrill, for what they did to him before the war. However, as he gains a posse of his own, his responsibility increases. He goes from gunning down everyone who draws on him to needing to find ways to talk down situations from violence. He’s creating a new life, and he doesn’t even realize it until it’s too late to undo it. He likes the people he’s gathered around himself.

There are some great moments throughout the film that are done largely wordlessly that communicate a lot. The first is that opening with Wales learning how to shoot by firing into a post, getting better as the montage continues. The other major moment is late when Wales has a final confrontation, and he takes every gun he has on him, pulling the triggers over and over again, never firing a single bullet because they’re all spent. It’s a great moment because the target is in increasing fear as the process continues, convinced that the next click will mean his death, but it also has a wonderful underlying meaning. Wales is simply spent. He’d happily like his prey go if the prey would flee. He no longer sees it as his fight. He’s moved on. That his opponent is an official agent of the state is definitely important as well. It’s the state not leaving the individual alone, not accepting that he won’t declare loyalty to an entity that would show no loyalty back. It’s very ruggedly individualistic.

All Josey ends up having is the community he chooses.

So, to jump back into the authorship question (it’s actually not that important, but it is kind of interesting), should this be a Kaufman or an Eastwood film? I really think it should be both. On the one hand, Kaufman’s professionalism and adeptness with storytelling is evident, a huge boon to Eastwood’s professionally technical execution of the script once he took over. Eastwood’s inattentiveness to the strengths and weaknesses of a script have been the major drawback of his early work, and building off of the strong script with clear ideas that Kaufman and Sonia Chernus left for him is a great thing to have. It also speaks to what seems to be a growing thematic underpinning of Eastwood’s work, about individuals up against more powerful state interests, obviously something that drew him to the project to begin with before a tiff over the affections of Sondra Locke became an issue. Really, I wish there was a co-directing credit. Oh well, that’s part of why the DGA invented the Eastwood Rule after this, I suppose.

A strong script and strong directing creates a complete picture of a story in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Eastwood gives one of his best performances, showing a surprisingly wounded and unsure central hero, while Chief Dan George really shines as Lone Watie, the almost sarcastic and very knowledgeable Indian companion. There are several standout sequences, all in service to a story that knows exactly where it is going and how to get there. This is the pinnacle of Eastwood’s early directing career.

Rating: 4/4

4 thoughts on “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

  1. This always felt like two movies to me and I don’t know if the director change is the source of that feeling. It might just be the character growth, but the first part of the movie feels like a chase/outlaw movie, while the second half feels like a Howard Hawks movie like Rio Lobo or something.

    You can really feel the influence of the Spaghetti Westerns on this one, it almost feels like a movie that should have been filmed in Spain a decade earlier.

    I like it. I like other Clint Westerns more, but you’ve got some very quotable lines and a fairly clear story that still manages some deeper themes, as you ably drew out.

    I quibble with the story itself, but this is far from the only Western to demonize the Union soldiers.

    As for the Eastwood Rule, well…I see the point. But the actor replacing the director will happen again. They just won’t get public credit for it. Or public blame…


    1. I get the sense that the disconnect between narrative styles of the two halves are probably baked into the cake from the source material, not that I’ve read the novel. I think Kaufman directed only about a quarter of the film.

      The Eastwood Rule is probably why Eastwood didn’t get credit for Tightrope. Of course, there’s also stuff like Tombstone that probably were affected by it as well.


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