The Outlaw Josey Wales

Review by
Robert W. Franson
and David H. Franson

based on Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter

Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Forrest Carter (novel); Philip Kaufman, Sonia Chernus


  • Clint Eastwood — Josey Wales
  • Sam Bottoms — Jamie
  • Chief Dan George — Lone Watie
  • Geraldine Keams — Little Moonlight
  • Sondra Locke — Laura Lee
  • Bill McKinney — Terrill
  • Woodrow Parfrey — carpetbagger
  • Will Sampson — Ten Bears
  • Paula Trueman — Grandma Sarah
  • John Vernon — Fletcher
Warner Brothers: 1976
135 minutes
February 2011

After war, fighting for personal peace

The Outlaw Josey Wales is a solid Western adventure with good values and plenty of action. The film has two short sequences prefacing the main section, which establish the situation and Josey's character:

In an introductory sequence, we are introduced to Josey Wales (played by Clint Eastwood) as a farmer and family man in Missouri. He is a peaceable man, but the Civil War is about to spill upon him with the chaotic violence of guerilla warfare. His life quickly is overrun and destroyed, leaving him with iron determination and good reason to take up the war himself.

In a wartime sequence, we flicker through a few scenes showing Josey in the Civil War, or rather at its fringes, fighting among men who are as much outlaws as cavalry raiders — depending on who you ask.

The third, and main, section begins as the Civil War ends: organized fighting is over even in the West, and finally the most intransigent in the Border States are laying down arms. And, again for good reason, Josey Wales turns out to be the most intransigent of all. He becomes a hunted man, a price on his head sufficient to attract former guerillas as well as bounty hunters; he turns his horse toward the Southwest.

Josey is not looking for a hideout or haven, rather just to put sufficient distance between himself and his pursuers. It is important to see that despite his wartime career, Josey is a peaceable man — as long as he is let alone. He had taken up arms as the Civil War began to strike back at those who had killed his former life and everything good in it. The peace signed, he is willing to let his raiding period go into his past, but with his reputation and his wary refusal to surrender, the war won't let go of him. The spreading and distant ripples of battle pursue him in vendetta even after the official peace. Now officially outlawed, Josey Wales remains wanting peace his own way, which requires him being wary, armed, and ready to defend himself.

The physical boundaries of wars are not as clear as they look on the map, nor do they start or stop as cleanly and abruptly as treaty-dates and even invasion-dates indicate. There is confusion and messiness around the edges, both topographic and chronological. Some fascinating wartime histories and fictions concentrate on these border zones of less-disciplined conflict, of anticipation and after-wash.

The Outlaw Josey Wales portrays very believably the period right after the American Civil War, as many people both North and South, their lives disrupted, headed to the frontier of the Far West or Southwest to rebuild their lives. The Rebel (1959-1961) is a fine Western television series with a similar postwar theme. Firefly (2002) is a superb science-fiction dvd series, where a civil war's frontier aftermath is inspired by the situation after the American Civil War.

Josey is more representative than his pursuers of Abraham Lincoln's vision for the post-war reunited America, a restored America without vengeance. This vision of peace after Union victory did not include outlawing Rebels. But at the tattered end of the fighting, Josey is declared an outlaw and so the war seems to stick to him, he cannot shake it off.

The territory of The Outlaw Josey Wales is a very lived-in West, and a vivid sense of place with real inhabitants is one of the movie's distinct virtues. There are no Rhinestone Cowboys; the people we meet look like they live there, with an economy and social life. We get a strong impression of a working society, from a river ferryman to a patent-medicine salesman. Some of this richness of characters keep turning up in Josey's path: some good, some not; all comprising a colorful spectrum of the Old West. Once strangers realize who Josey is, they must deal with the lure of the reward crossed by fear of the guns in his hands. Along his lonely way from war, Josey Wales finds himself recreating a family out of assorted outcasts.

The fine set of characters are very different people, well delineated and well acted. We have plenty of fight scenes, mostly gunfighting. A range of Indians are treated realistically and respecting their characters, in a variety of interactions.

Any frontier is a dangerous area. In this slice of Civil War cross-currents and lingering entanglements, Clint Eastwood has created a tough film that strives to be realistic, with dangers to be faced, and friends and enemies in a lived-in world that was not so long ago nor far away, and whose heirs and continuers we are.


© 2011 Robert W. Franson
and David H. Franson

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