screened April 25, 2008 on Warner DVD in Weehawken NJ
“An army of one,” the poster for The Outlaw Josey Wales proclaims, its space dominated by director-star Clint Eastwood brandishing his trademark feral squint and massive six-guns, an icon of rugged individualism carried over from his immortal starring roles for Sergio Leone. Eastwood wrestles – perhaps not altogether successfully – with his protagonist’s proto-Ramboesque vigilantism, alternately ingratiating audience blood lust while pointing out the emotional vulnerabilities of this otherwise remorseless killing machine. The film both indulges in and subverts Western formula, gradually chipping away at Josey Wales’ stolid, trauma-borne impassivity by gathering around him a ragtag band of frontier types (an aging chief, a squaw and two Jawhawk pioneers, all perfectly played) who ultimately combine to form a progressive vision of a diverse, self-determining Western culture. The script (by Sonia Chernus and initial director Philip Kaufman) and direction reference a litany of Western classics and directors: not just Eastwood’s mentors Leone and Don Siegel, but also Ford (characterization through broad typing) , Hawks (vibrant ensemble work and budding sense of community), and Peckinpah (ecstatically choreographed violence). Sharing a concern with Eastwood’s Unforgiven for the necessity of violence and the responsibilities of citizenry under the rule of societal corruption, this is more expansive and subtle in its re-visioning of the West, as well as the more optimistic; for all of its contradictions, it’s one you could actually build a future upon.
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Clint Eastwood’s fifth film as a director (1976) shows an almost equal balance between his two main influences, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. As the title character, a Confederate guerrilla out to avenge the murder of his family by Union redlegs, Eastwood combines the cold pragmatism of a Leone hero with the strident Old Testament morality of a Siegel protagonist. Although the last part of the film becomes repetitive and slightly confused, Eastwood manages the picaresque plot with skill, and his visuals have a high-charged, almost Germanic quality. Wales also possesses a touching emotional vulnerability that marks another significant step away from Eastwood’s often-overcriticized “macho” image. All in all, a very creditable film.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Each time Clint Eastwood, in The Outlaw Josey Wales, kills someone, or is about to kill someone, or is on the verge of some other major policy decision, he spits. This is to establish the character.Mr. Eastwood has established several pints of character by the time he rides off into the sunset fully two hours and seventeen minutes after the movie begins. A number of other characters are established by devices every bit as worn and dribbly. A hard-luck but winsome Indian girl repeatedly gets knocked off her feet or worse; a sneaky boatman cringes and leers; a spry old woman bustles about with a broom, shrills out hymns, and grabs a rifle to shoot marauders; a doe-eyed young woman opens her eyes reindeer-size to convey fear, passion, or bashfulness; a young follower of the outlaw manages three distinct and radiant deathbed scenes on one bullet hole…
- Richard Eder, The New York Times
View the original theatrical trailer:
While The Outlaw Josey Wales can be watched and enjoyed simply as the tale of a wronged farmer out for vengeance, the film works quietly on several other levels. In one way this is an epic circular odyssey, charting the period that Josey spends in the wilderness after losing one family and before gaining another. While nominally a loner, even Josey has, and needs, a place in the community (a structure which is shown to underpin and give shape to the society as a whole). From a different angle, the movie successfully subverts many of the usual Western stereotypes, principally with Eastwood’s portrayal of Josey. He is a cold-blooded killer by reputation yet this is a position forced onto him by circumstance rather than choice. Fundamentally he is compassionate and altruistic, a well-armed shepherd who tends to the weak.The script of The Outlaw Josey Wales hangs together astonishingly well for something so episodic and diffuse. Events occur without any motive force, although there is a growing sense of inevitability throughout the film. The glue which holds everything together are the characters; well written, they are a group of pragmatists, outwardly disparate but sharing common values. Surrounding the taciturn but quite human Josey, Chief Dan George is exquisite as the wronged chief, full of life and experience, while Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) is his equal in every way, combining crusty belligerence and an indomitable spirit in a powder-keg of little old lady. Every role has a quality which makes it special, a significant consideration for any film.
Eastwood does an eminently reasonable job of direction, firmly steering it in the intended direction though never suffocating its essential vitality. If anything Eastwood is a little too loose-handed, since the whole package could do with a touch of sharpening up. Coupled with excellent visuals (though it is hard to mess up any film with locations like these) and a spirited score, The Outlaw Josey Wales paints a vivid picture of humanity. Life, rather than death, is the key here, even if the film takes a bit too long making that point.
[Chief Dan] George achieves the same magical effect here that he did in “Harry and Tonto,” trading Mixmasters for Indian medicine in a jail cell: He’s funny and dignified at once. He joins up with the outlaw Eastwood, and their relationship is a reminder of all those great second bananas from the Westerns of the 1940s — the grizzled old characters played by Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette. But Chief Dan George brings an aura to his role that audiences seem to respond to viscerally. He has his problems (he’s humiliated, as an Indian, that he’s grown so old he can no longer sneak up behind people), but he has a humanity that’s just there, glowing. He’s as open with his personality as Josey Wales is closed; it’s a nice match.
- Roger Ebert, January 1, 1976
Josey is forced to acknowledge the existence of his dual personas. He’s put in situations where he’s forced to acquire a new “family” by happenstance, such as his fellow outlaw’s massacre or Laura Lee’s (Sondra Locke) and Little Moonlight’s (Geraldine Keams) near-rapes. However, in scenes heralding a threat to Eastwood’s new family, flashes to visual and aural elements from the opening homestead raid and burial sequence are repeated as psychological echoes (acting as premonitions and flashbacks). The jarring quality of these signs of mourning, speak of Eastwood’s repressed rage, dread and reticence about his inevitable transition to Eastwood-as-Star. Notably, he always disappears briefly from the screen during his transformation, the effect of which is to both build audience expectation about the forthcoming violence that he commits and to signal that it is out of his control because it’s morally “just”. When he reappears however, just before he enters the fray, the mise en scène always describes him to the onlookers as an ambiguous presence. Set either into the recesses of deep shadow, with a carefully choreographed slash of light falling on just one intensely blue eye, or as a translucent apparition coming out of the sun, they’re never absolutely sure of which Eastwood he is. Hence the necessity of enlisting featured side-kick characters like Lone Wattie (Chief Dan George) who do the announcing for them (and us). For example, at one point he declares to Laura Lee: “Get ready little lady. Hell’s coming to breakfast!” And it is for precisely these indulgent moments that the older Eastwood films are significant, glorious, and more importantly, despite all their violence, fun.
- Karli Lukas, Senses of Cinema
The Outlaw Josey Wales is played out against the end of the American Civil War, and ironically was filmed whilst the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. As much as Clint Eastwood testifies that the last line he utters in this movie had nothing to do with the general feeling towards this conflict, it still seems a bit opportunistic to say it anyway. The Outlaw Josey Wales is probably the first movie ever to portray the Native Americans in a way that is neither clichéd or idealised, which shows the last remnants of a once proud culture who have become little more than a shadow of their former selves – whereby they blindly follow the law of the white man, having lost all the fight that had once made them independent long ago. And before Dances With Wolves came onto the silver screen, The Outlaw Josey Wales cast real Native Americans for the part of Native Americans… as against white men painted in dark makeup saying “How!”
As far as this movie’s plot and motivation is concerned, the story first seems to be little more than a tale of revenge and retribution. Even with Clint Eastwood’s unique direction adding much more to this fable than the average non-Eastwood westerner, I can’t help but think that the anti-war message being uttered by his character is constantly at odds with the actions taken against his enemies. Ultimately his desire to seek vengeance against those who were responsible for his family’s death goes into almost inconsequential killing of personnel who have had very little to do with the attack on his home life in question – sure he has to defend himself, but he has to start practising what he preaches as well.
- Warwick Gaetjens, DVD Active
What makes this film interesting is how unconventional it manages to be within a very commercial Western structure. Josey Wales begins as yet another “stranger” figure, of the sort which Eastwod made his own in the sixties, living up to his Civil War reputation as a savage killer. But what the film does is go one step beyond this to examine how the post-War environment might affect such a man if he were challenged to live as part of a community. Few other Westerns have such a potent evocation of the barely healed scars left on America by the War and the resentments of the South at being beaten by a decidedly ungracious enemy. While this is greatly simplified for dramatic effect, the scene where the outlaws are forced to line up and swear an Oath to the Union has real emotion behind it. The film benefits enormously from this powerful context, returning to it time and time again, most notably in Josey’s final meeting with Fletcher when he says “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.” There are nice incidental details here too, such as the ferryman who can whistle “Dixie” or “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” to order, depending on the sympathies of his passengers.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is also distinguished by some wonderful lighting from the great Bruce Surtees. Not quite as remorselessly dark as his work on Pale Rider but just as elegant, it is often breathtaking with some clever use of space and landscape (a particular talent of Surtees’, as a look at Dirty Harry will demonstrate). Eastwood discusses in the documentary how he wanted the faces of some of the characters to remain shadowy in order to keep them ambivalent, although this is only partially successful and not consistent. Very competent technical credits all round, with Jerry Fielding deserving a mention for his excellent music score. That it doesn’t make you think of his equally good work on The Wild Bunch is quite an achievement.
The emphasis on redemption rather than revenge doesn’t mean that there is no action. Eastwood stages some superb set-pieces, notably the suspenseful fight between Wales and Terrill and the pace is measured but never slow. Some viewers might have reservations about the political simplification of the film, turning the South into the oppressed good guys and the North into hardened and treacherous sadists but that would ignore the whole emphasis of the second half of the film which is about healing rather than fighting. It’s also fair to point out that the oppression of the Southern soldiers was often harshly peremptory – this is something which is at the base of many later Westerns, notably Walter Hill’s The Long Riders. In mitigation of the more comic-strip elements of the film, at least Eastwood is trying to examine the themes of guilt and betrayal rather than merely presenting them as inarguable precepts. As in High Plains Drifter, Eastwood gives early notice here of the complex vision of the West which found most complete expression in Unforgiven and, as such, The Outlaw Josey Wales is essential viewing for Clint fans and anyone who likes Westerns.
- Mike Sutton, DVD Times
If you’ve got a girlfriend or nephew who isn’t too sure about westerns, this is a good one to start ‘em on. It’s got good squinting, spitting, shooting action, but also a lot of great one-liners and plenty of humanistic live-in-peace sorts of themes for the sensitive types out there. Clint Eastwood has directed 4 westerns–we reviewed one, High Plains Drifter previously. Maybe I’ll hit Unforgiven next week. Ten points if you can name the forth one . . . nah, never mind, too easy: Pale Rider. But The Outlaw Josey Wales may just be the most entertaining of the bunch. Oh, and there’s a DVD out there somewhere that I hear is terrific. This is a picture worth seeing on wide screen.
James R. Rummell of Hell in a Handbasket offers an exhaustive rundown on the history and authenticity of the various firearms and weapons used in the film.
Elspeth Haughton, The Apollo Movie Guide
Paul Sutton, Cambridge University Camera Journal
About the Warner 2001 DVD
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks great, though there is a flaw or two. Colors look crisp, and the scenery is warm and detailed. Blacks are very black, and flesh tones are dead on. The overall impression is a very good one. The 5.1 audio mix is outstanding. The surrounds get used both subtly during outdoor scenes and more obviously during the gunfire and horses running. The front soundstage is deep and broad. The Oscar nominated score by Jerry Fielding is very dynamic and moody as well, and comes off beautifully here. Dialogue remains clear and crisp throughout. As for extra content, I’m not unhappy. This disc comes from Warner’s budget line and retail price is 19.95, and I bought it for less than $12 at a Wal-Mart. For this budget price I got the anamorphic transfer and 5.1 re-mix, but also got extensive production notes, cast and crew bios and filmographies, and 13 trailers, all westerns or Clint Eastwood films.
- Norman Short, DVD Verdict
Whilst not flawless, this is nevertheless a superb transfer of a 25 year old movie.The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is 16×9 enhanced. The majority of the movie is quite brightly lit, and there are enormous amounts of fine detail in both the foreground and the background of images at these times. The level of detail able to be resolved by this DVD was actually quite amazing at times, and I was stunned when I got to the end of the movie and noted that it was 25 years old. Having said that, the image does falter in darker, low-lit scenes, when shadow detail really suffers. Darker scenes are few and far between, fortunately, but the really dark scenes are essentially composed of silhouetted figures against a uniformly black background with no detail resolvable. At least the blacks were cleanly black, with no low level noise marring the image.
The colours were impressively rendered. Whilst I would never describe them as vibrant, they were occasionally at least vivid. The general tone of the movie is towards muted browns and greens, and these are very nicely represented in this transfer. As with the sharpness of the transfer, darker scenes were far less colourful than the mainly brightly-lit scenes. There was never any hint of colour bleed nor oversaturation.
While it’s not featured back, I really enjoyed what was offered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film. First up is a 45 second Introduction by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood briefly explains the film’s importance to himself while a few clips are shown in non-anamorphic widescreen. I would have liked more to this intro, because it seems to be cut short.Next are some text based supplements. Adapting The Novel focuses on the book itself and the approach to adapting it for the screen. This is somewhat lengthy, and I found it quite interesting. Shorter are Casting which focuses on who was picked, and Shooting The Picture is the shortest and focuses on the film’s production.Eastwood In Action is a promo kind of deal back when the film was made. Clips from the movie and behind the scenes footage is used. Yes, it’s promotional, but given the style of how this was editied, it doesn’t exactly feel that way. Eastwood provides some pretty interesting comments about directing and all. Overall, pretty solid for a good eight minutes.
Arguably the best supplment of the disc is Hell Hath No Fury: The Making Of The Outlaw Josey Wales. This nifty pieces runs for nearly a half hour, and is quite excellent. It features non-anamorphic widescreen clips of the movie, and interviews with Clint Eastwood, Bill McKinney, editor Joel Cox, John Vernon and more. This is very nicely produced, as the material’s background is discussed, the film itself and the shoot, especially from Eastwood who talks about his approach on the story and making the movie. There are some cool background stories that are told here, and I really enjoyed everyone’s contribution, especially about the main themes of the story. This is one documentary that is not to be missed.
Also included is the original Theatrical Trailer in English mono and anamorphic widescreen.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is simply the case of a confident, talented director in charge of a rather unfocused story. Though I found much to applaud about Eastwood’s masterful crafting, I can’t say that overall I’m a big fan of this film. Those who are, however, should be delighted by the top notch transfer on this DVD, and will no doubt find this disc a worthy entry into The Clint Eastwood Collection.
- Michael Jacobson, DVD Movie Central
Eastwood has tapped, perhaps, into the essential comedy of this post-modern age, in which we take all our pleasures knowingly. He allows audiences to indulge every wish-fulfilment fantasy of super-competent heroism without having to believe in the hero. Which is not to say that he is drained of positive value – just that his heroism is exercised as a self-conscious gesture, as if ‘doing right’ was somehow detached from personal virtue.
- Richard Combs
“The variety Eastwood’s audacity brings to his work is perhaps the most attractive aspect of his art: defined by an assured sense of pace, the uncluttered, stylish camerawork of regular collaborator Bruce Surtees, and his own effectively understated performances, Eastwood’s best films remain fine examples of well-crafted, intelligent popular entertainment.”
- Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
“He has used the control over his films to fashion one of the longest and most fascinating examinations of masculinity in American cinema, especially with respect to themes of individuality, violence, and more recently, ageing. Furthermore, this masculinity has been inseparable from the national culture in which it is conceived, with Eastwood’s films consistently exploring his country’s myths and legends through such emblematically American genres as the western, the road movie and the action film.”
- Andrew Syder (Contemporary North American Film Directors, 2002)
“Eastwood the director is infinitely more interesting than Eastwood the superstar, but his films are less predictable. Quite how the man who made Play Misty for Me and The Outlaw Josey Wales could also make The Eiger Sanction and The Gauntlet is a little baffling. But one gets the impression, to echo T.S. Eliot, that ‘he will do as he do do, and there’s no doing anything about it!’”
- David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)
Eastwood’s self-satirising of his Eastwood-as-Star persona coincided with the rise in popularity of the Hollywood action blockbuster and the later emergence of other, mostly younger action hero figures (e.g. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the mid to late 1980s). These new stars all used the Eastwood-as-Star persona as a template from which to fashion a seemingly more contemporary version of the male American hero (in reality, however, many of them seem more like parodies or at best, homages). Unlike his action genre contemporaries such as Charles Bronson, Eastwood seemed to have responded to this challenge as an actor/director by pursuing more independent projects that both acknowledged his acting oeuvre as well as his other off-screen (that is real-life) interests and social causes. Eastwood began to imbue his Eastwood-as-Star hero template with an increasingly “liberal” social awareness, helping us to further fuse Eastwood (the actual man) with Eastwood-as-Star. This has ultimately resulted in Eastwood-as-Star becoming a more three-dimensional figure who remains familiar yet chimerical, a ploy that has sustained a remarkably long career.
- Karli Lukas, Senses of Cinema