Many actors from the golden age of cinema would quote about how much they enjoyed being in westerns. I am thinking of the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Glenn Ford. These are all very much men’s men, seeing the challenge of rugged frontiersmen against the elements and to a large extent against themselves. Clint Eastwood fits well into this category. Few have kept the spirit of the western alive as much as Clint Eastwood. He went on to promote this cause definitively when he made Unforgiven in 1992. Few have presented the dust and the hardship of the old west as consistently well as Eastwood and none as truer fitting into its historical time space as The Outlaw Josey Wales made in 1976. Other films in Eastwood’s canon also figure in the macho loner figure up against the elements and himself including the Dollar trilogy, High Plains Drifter (1973), Pale Rider (1985) – well about all of Eastwood’s westerns fit into this really. However, The Outlaw Josey Wales is perhaps one of his most time specific westerns. The film opens with Eastwood as Josey Wales, the peaceful farmer ploughing his land finds his world shattered when pro-Union Jayhawkers come through and kill his wife and son (that’s his real life son Kyle being killed here) and leave him for dead with a sword scar across his face. Cut to the end of the Civil War in 1865 with Confederate soldiers putting down their arms and surrendering themselves to Union soldiers and declaring their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes – all from the band of Confederate soldiers led by a Captain Fletcher (John Vernon) that is except the by now embittered and battle hardened Josey Wales. But these men have surrendered themselves to Redlegs (including Fletcher) who have joined the Union cause and gun down those Confederates who have surrendered. In the midst of this massacre Wales attacks the Union camp, takes a Gatling gun and shoots up the soldiers. The only survivor from the Confederates is a young hot head played by Sam Bottoms. Now on the run Wales and his wounded young friend (who later dies) are being hunted down by his former friend Fletcher and the despotic Terrill (Bill McKinney). We later learn that it is Terrill and his men who had murdered Wales’s wife and child. Wherever Josey Wales goes a posse is hunting him down and he soon finds the whole of Missouri are after him. He does pick up support along the way even though he prefers being a loner including an elderly Cherokee called Lone Waitie (played by the always brilliant Chief Dan George), a Navajo girl (Geraldine Keams) and a family of settlers, one of which includes Sondra Locke. Needless to say in the end Josey Wales is fed up with a life on the run and stands and fights; haunted by his past he now wants to settle down (one assumes with Ms. Locke).
Based off the novel ‘Gone to Texas’ by Forrest Carter, this was one of Eastwood’s most fact based westerns to date including many real life characters and incidents including the American Civil War, Senator James H. Lane and the Jayhawkers. Eastwood sets a good sense of time and place with this film and directs from behind the camera as well as acting in front of it – no mean feat! The genesis of the film originally emerged in 1972 and the script was worked on by among others Michael Cimino (he directed Clint in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974, before going on to direct The Deer Hunter in 1978). Eastwood was keen that the film should be true to the period without detracting from the atmosphere from the film, including uses of dialogue with the occasional “ye” and “thee” thrown into the mix. Eastwood scouted locations and chose areas around Utah and California to shoot (rather than Missouri and Texas where it is set). With the casting of Chief Dan George, who had previously risen to prominence acting opposite Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970), he was given another prominent role here. There is much in the way of humour coming from Dan George in the exchanges between he and Josey, including the observation by Lone Waitie: Josey: “When I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long” to which Waitie replies, I notice when you get to dislikin’ someone they ain’t around for long neither.” Perhaps the part of the film best known for being the first appearance together of Clint Eastwood with Sondra Locke, who would go on to star with Clint in his next six features and would be his significant other for the next few years until the early eighties. The casting of Locke was one of the things that producer and script writer Philip Kaufman did not like and this was the one of many rifts Eastwood had with Kaufman during production leading Eastwood to fire Kaufman and give the job to Bob Daley. Not only that, but the co-writer and producer also began directing the film before being sacked by the films star. Within the industry this was a matter of some controversy and did cause something of a storm in Hollywood at the time, leading Warner Brothers to have to intervene. Kaufman wanted more in the way of realism in the story than Eastwood was offering, with the Clint as the owner of Malpaso not wanting to divert from the spirit of the project. Never the less Kaufman should be applauded for his efforts as the historical accuracies in it are insightful; the Jayhawkers were a real mob, while Fletcher’s mob were based off the real life of Confederate bandits, Quantraill’s Raiders; even Josey Wales, although himself not a real life character was loosely based off a re al life Missouri farmer and bushwacker named Bill Wislon. The result was impressive on its release and was highly praised by critics and went on to critical acclaim and was perhaps one of Eastwood’s better films since the early seventies, if not one of his best films of the decade and is often cited as being one of Clint’s favourite films of all those he has been in or made.