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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Film Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales (dir. C. Eastwood, 1976)

Some readers of this blog have argued that this is the best Clint Eastwood movie. I apologize, in advance, for the following statement: This isn't even the second-best Clint Eastwood-directed movie. That would be Million-Dollar Baby (2004), behind Unforgiven (1992). Although this is a close question; Eastwood has directed a number of great movies. He may be the least appreciated director of his generation.

This is not to say that The Outlaw Josey Wales is not an excellent movie. My problem is that the screenplay is a bit heavy-handed in parts. For example, do we really need to see the slaughter of Josey Wales's family? Couldn't that have been achieved through flashbacks, rather than presented before the montage of Civil War battles? Think of the movie starting about ten or fifteen minutes into the movie. It's a better movie. Leave Josey's motivations a bit of a mystery, at least for a while. In this telling, Josey is not mysterious, at all. And do we really need quite so many hangers-on? I mean, Granny, Sandra Locke, the folks from Santo Rio, the Cherokee Chief, the Navajo woman . . . it seems like the screenplay really wants us to get that Josey has a heart. Um, I think you could do this with less. (Again, you could cut about ten minutes of the screenplay by omitting one of Josey's charity cases.

Plus, I think that, again, the screenplay disappoints in the final shoot out. Clearly, the film has to end with a shoot-out with Terrill, the leader of the "redlegs" who killed Josey Wales's family. But there isn't really a mano a mano shootout; instead, there's Josey Wales against, what, eight men? The film suffers from this one man against many conceit. Josey Wales defeats multiple assailants, time and time again. Again, I get it. He's got the skillz to out-shoot ten men. But do we have to be shown this, again and again?

Then, no shoot-out/showdown with former comrade (and turncoat) Fletcher, played very well by Dean Wormer, er, John Vernon. I guess this could be seen as a twist ending. Indeed, the film ends in a weird posture. Will Josey Wales survive his wounds? If so, then what? If he doesn't survive, what about his (off-screen) death?

Let me say what I like about this movie. Eastwood is great, both as an actor and as a director. Few false notes in the entire picture; the problems are more screenplay than director/acting. The film is shot very darkly. (Btw, the DVD version is amazing. A beautiful digital transfer that makes the movie look like it had a 2004 release date.) This is an interesting choice, emphasizing how dark the subject-matter of the film is. (Of course, one might argue that the film could be a little darker, in terms of story, but that's just my taste.) Plus, the movie has an interesting anti-war message, made pretty plain by Eastwood's introduction on the DVD.

I know that this wasn't a full review. No plot synopsis. Sorry. I guess you'll just have to watch the movie. Which you should do.


At 1:47 PM, Blogger Curat Lex said...

The thing I don't get is the fascination with Unforgiven (I haven't seen Million Dollar Baby). That movie, at best, seems perfectly adequate as a western but no great shakes - and plenty violent to boot. (Talk about dark - that movie is dark and rainy.)
But the plot is pretty standard: old gunfighter towels off his dusty boots to make things right, old west town run by (mostly benevolent) dictator, various hookers with hearts of gold. Absent the performances by three American Greats (Hackman, Freeman and Eastwood) and a fine ensemble of others, there's not much there there.
OJW, on the other hand, seemes to me to break ground. It is certainly violent - but this is the 1970s (and 1860s) so seedy violence was all over the screen. But none of it seems gratuitous. Maybe you could do without the first fifteen minutes, but that opening lets us know at least two things: the war is over and that's how farmer Wales wants it; the red legs are the outlaws acting under color of authority.
In the almost thirty years since the film was made ambiguity about who was good and who was bad (or right or wrong) in the Civil War has crept not only into popular culture but also my own mind. When I was a boy I equated the Confederates with the Nazis and Soviets - that is, they were the bad guys. OJW was the first time I saw the Union soldiers portrayed as something other than heroes and Confederates as regular, decent, non-slave holding folks. That might not sound like much now (or register at all with people raised in the South), but in the midwest of my youth there weren't a lot of example of Confederates as anything other than the bad guys. It should be noted also that (along these same lines) the indians we see are strong, useful (if dottering), funny and honorable. These are not astounding cultural points to make in 2005, but I wonder how many popular movies before 1976 this was true of.

I certainly agree with the Granny/Sondra Locke and various hangers-on criticism but am less bothered by this as time goes by (probably because one of the other two great westerns in my mind - Lonesome Dove - makes OJW look like Waiting for Godot). Eastwood seemed to need to have Locke in all his movies over the course of a few years and she seems best in the role she plays here. I make no apologies for the Chief who plays the perfect sidekick once the boy is gone. (A point about the boy - he is just right here. He doesn't stick around enough to become irritating or a drag on the action but he's around long enough to have Josey play off of him. I like the parts where he's in the movie. I particularly like when they lay the horses down and Josey goes into an elaborate plan as to what will happen if they are spotted - but then that doesn't happen and so none of that is done. It's a nice, seemingly real life bit - the first time you see it you expect that what Josey says is going to happen is going to happen because that's what the plan is. But the it doesn't. This happens later when he goes and meets the indians - the viewer expects (I sometimes still expect) that he'll get in a pitched battle with them. But that never happens.)
There is too much for me to say about this movie (particularly since you didn't not like it, you just don't like it like you like some others) so I'm going to stop here. But I've seen all the CE westerns from Hang Em High ("when you hang a man you better look at 'im") through the Spaghetti Westerns you've reviewed (and High Plains Drifter which I don't think you've done yet) through Two Mules for Sister Sara and even (gasp) Paint Your Wagon through Pale Rider and on to Unforgiven. I don't hate any of them but only OJW and maybe Pale Rider are in the Pantheon with Lonesome Dove and The Shootist.
To be continued.

At 9:44 PM, Blogger Number Three said...


Great points. I agree in that I liked the ambiguity/idea of making a Confederate guerrilla the hero, not to mention a sympatheic hero. My complaint here is that none of this is a mystery--the first ten-fifteen minutes is mostly exposition, which I tend to dislike. Make him interesting and compelling, and then make him sympathetic. It might be harder for viewers, but in a great movie, some things will be hard.

Unforgiven is a great film because CE's performance is absolutely amazing (plus Freeman and Hackman, as you say). And I've seen almost all of the CE corpus, although not Paint Your Wagon. (That's hardcore.)

The Shootist gets us into John Wayne territory. Now, I have some ideas, here, but, whoa, nelly, do we really want to get into a Stagecoach-Rio Bravo-The Searchers-True Grit etc. discussion? I was absolutely raised on John Wayne movies, and I'll watch anything he's in, from Green Berets to Donovan's Reef, in a second. (I also love The Fighting Seabees, but that's not a western . . .)

If Clint is the coolest person who's ever lived (and I stand by that), then John Wayne is . . . what, exactly?

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Curat Lex said...

John Wayne is...something else. He is something that can't be defined but certainly cool in his own way. Clint was cool because the character he was playing seemed to have the goods in any particular situation - you knew the character was a bad ass with legit (usually gun-related) skills. That is, he looked the part.
But John Wayne was someting different. Especially in his later movies the fact that he was John Wayne overcame what he appeared to be on screen. You mentioned Green Berets. JW is quite possibly the least believable Special Forces character in the history of movies (though I note that in the movie Leviathan one of the female characters is supposed to be a former SEAL - not SF, certainly, but in that vein)(and the A-Team was not a movie). And yet he pulls it off because he's John Wayne and John Wayne is always believable as the leader/hero even when a real person who looks and acts that way would almost never be the leader/hero. But a person who looks and acts like CE in any given role would be the renegade lone cop. That's what a lone wolf looks like: Clint.
(For the record, I do not like Green Berets. But I do like the fact that it has got the guy from the original Fugitive series - a show that I loved in reruns - in it. I like that guy and wish he was in more stuff. He's the Michael Moriarty (Ben Stone) of that generation, I think.)


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