My main man, Clint Eastwood, has made a tall heap of classic films, starred in 'em, directed some of 'em. If you were to press a shiv against my carotid artery and urge me to pick a favorite, I'll go with 1976's THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (with 1993's IN THE LINE OF FIRE a close second). THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is a masterful western, one of the genre's very best. It's chock full of Old Squint Eyes being stoic and laconic but then erupting into badass form, taking out fools with his smoking pair of Colt Walker 1847 Dragoon revolvers. There's even a whiff of social commentary peppered here and there, and, refreshingly, an unstereotypical portrayal of Native Americans.
As someone said, it's the winner what gets to write history. So, most times, regarding the American Civil War, what we get in movies and in books as lead protagonists are folks from the Union side of the argument. But not so with this one. Josey Wales was a simple Missouri farmer who was mindin' his own business when Union soldiers, these savage "Red Legs," came along and slaughtered his family and left him for dead. And so there goes a vengeful Josey saddling up with the first bunch of Johnny Rebs to come upon him, because the enemy of my enemy...
Somewhen during the months and maybe years of warring that elapse, Josey Wales became a very scary man, mighty deadly and unflagging in his quest to take out Union soldiers. Imagine the chagrin of the man when the war ended, and, worse, that the South ended up on the losing side.
It's based on Forrest Carter's book GONE TO TEXAS, but I haven't read the book, so I don't know how closely the movie clings to the original source. What I do know is that THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES left a lasting impression on me when I first saw it years ago. It was this one - and not, say, The Man With No Name trilogy or the Dirty Harry crime thrillers - that cemented Eastwood as an iconic figure in my eyes. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES generates this mythic vibe. In Eastwood's hands, as actor and as director, Josey becomes larger than life. The movie achieves a balance of grit and grandeur and authenticity. The period detail that's worked in helps to immerse you even more into the narrative. There's a sense of lives being lived unglamorously in the mud and the mire and nuthin' pretty about it. Moments of violence, brutal and explosive and sudden and random, perforate the screen, and it sinks in that sh-- like this happened quite a bit back then. But, too, there's the epic sense of scale. At some stage, as Josey Wales inadvertently, reluctantly picks up more and more companions during his travels, the one man revenge story transmogrifies into a rich, sweeping saga.
And there are those neat character flourishes, like how Wales spits tobaccy with uncanny aim and there's that one illuminating scene in which he explains why he shot those pistoleros on the boardwalk in that particular order. And, then, those colorful supporting characters. Chief Dan George, brimming with wry humor and with sheer humanity, is unforgettable as the old Cherokee Indian, Lone Watie, who ends up tagging along in the bulk of Josey's adventures and who ends up snagging the film's most memorable one-liners. Lone Watie, the chatterbox, and Josey, who hoards words like water in the desert, produce an effortless chemistry. Doe-eyed Sandra Locke, who I don't much remember in anything but in Eastwood pictures, comes in later as the prospective love interest and the token damsel in distress. Geraldine Keams doesn't have much dialogue but still impacts the screen as the capable Navajo girl, Little Moonlight. And then there's John Vernon as Fletcher, him what recruited Josey Wales to the Confederate cause in the first place. Fletcher the practical man who, when peacetime broke, tried to broker a deal with the enemy so as to save what's left of his men. Except that Josey Wales, that ornery cuss, wasn't having it. Except that Fletcher had the bad cess to make a bargain with a viperish Union man. And so there's Fletcher, reluctant villain, roiling in equal dosage of regret and resolve, expressing with his basso profundo rumble: "A man like Wales lives by the feud. As of what you did here today, I got to kill that man." That's as good a testimonial as any on what makes Josey Wales tick. I do believe Josey is Eastwood's most badass role. Sorry, Harry Callahan and Bill Munny. Sorry, Frank Horrigan. Sorry, Dude with No Name.
For those who can't get enough, there is a 1986 sequel THE RETURN OF JOSEY WALES with Michael Parks - whom you'll recognize from films such as NIGHTMARE BEACH and CAGED FURY - directing and starring as Josey Wales. I say, skip it.