Clint Eastwood is a top man. No doubt about it, and although off screen some of his behaviour can be somewhat erratic and controlling, he is both a very fine actor and very accomplished filmmaker.
His body of work is hugely impressive – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Dirty Harry (1971), The Gauntlet (1976), Palerider (1985), Unforgiven (1992), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), American Sniper (2014), the list goes on. And at the ripe old age of 88 (his first acting role was in Revenge of the Creature (1955)), he is still acting and making films.
For me, perhaps his best and most accomplished film was The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). It was perhaps the first modern western (Blazzing Saddles (1974) apart) that I really liked. The movie also has a very interesting history.
It is based on the book Gone to Texas (1972) written by a certain ‘Forrest Carter’ (named after an American Civil War General) but in fact that was an alias for Asa Earl Carter. His colourful background (if you pardon the pun) was that he a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader in the 1950s and the co-writer of the segregationist speech by American President hopeful George Wallace when he said in 1963 “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Carter had previously set up a KKK group that attacked (and tried to kidnap) singer Nat King Cole. Carter later seemed to eventually abandon these activities and relocated himself to Texas and became a writer. His most well-known work became the basis for The Outlaw Josey Wales. Carter sent his novel to Eastwood, who, unaware of the author’s KKK connections and politics, greenlighted making the movie.
Originally, the film was to be directed by Phillip Kaufman, who did co-write the screenplay but Eastwood fell out with Kaufman and sacked him, being replaced by himself as the Director. Kaufman went on though to co-write Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and write and direct The Right Stuff (1983).
The Outlaw Josey Wales starts with Eastwood as Josey Wales who is a settled man during the American Civil War with a family and a farm in Missouri until a group of Pro-Union Army ‘red legs’ turn up raping and killing his wife and murdering his only child. Seeking revenge, Wales joins a group of pro-Confederate ‘bushwhackers’. Following conflicts and fights with Union troops and the end of the war, the group give themselves up but are duped by both their leader and a Union Capt (both played by Eastwood regulars John Vernon and Bill McKinney. This leads to Wales trying to come to his comrades’ rescue by wiping out most of the red legs (and a fair bit of the Union army) with a Gatling gun in the style of John Rambo.
Wales escapes and whilst a large bounty is put on his capture/death, he heads out on his journey whilst being stalked by a variety of militia and hunters. During this, we get to the real heart of the movie when our hero (or is that anti-hero?) Josey Wales says “I don’t want no one belonging to me”, but people want to belong to him, as he picks up a selection of companions.
These include proud rebel Jamie (Sam Bottoms), an old Cherokee (played brilliantly by Chief Dan George who was a real life Chief of the Canadian Tsleil-Waututh Indians), a Navajo Indian saved by Wales (Geraldine Keams – a real life Navajo herself) and two ‘Kansas Pilgrims’ (Paula Trueman and a certain Sondra Locke). Locke of course became Clint Eastwood’s romantic partner off screen living together from 1975-1989 before falling out in a very bad way via a palimony suit and dying just in late 2018. A very fine actress herself, she starred in 6 Eastwood productions over that period.
The success of The Outlaw Josey Wales and why I like it so much is in not just a really fast moving plotline of Wales going from being the Hunter to being Hunted down, but in the great personal onscreen chemistry between him and the companions he picks up on the way. There is very good humour as Wales spits his tobacco juice just before he takes someone out, his caustic barbs with Chief Dan George (not a very good Indian), and his film long duel (and relationship) with John Vernon’s Capt Fletcher. There are also some cracking lines -Four Union soldiers recognise Wales in one scene and even though he is carrying his provisions, he barks at them “Are you going to pull those pistols or whistle ‘Dixie’?”-before wiping them out.
It is also a strangely moving film as Josey Wales goes from a grieving father and husband seeking retribution to finding some kind of peace at the end – as the Paula Trueman character of the pilgrim granny remarks to him that he has “..changed from a murderous bushwhacker on the side of Satan to a better man trying to delivers us from the philistines” . Say Amen to that!