While Clint Eastwood is usually associated with the director who started his career Sergio Leone, he’s always bore far more resemblance and himself held more admiration for American master John Ford. Ford for all his acclaim in regards to his westerns avoid typical characters and story-lines (with the possible exception of ‘My Darling Clementine’) Ford favored story’s and people that would be left behind or lost and devoid of well known western archetypes like Billy the Kid. Eastwood seems to take a similar approach here covering a period in history somewhat neglected. That period being the end of the civil war period where many civilians were killed an taken as ‘spoils of war’.
At the start of the film when Wales’ family is killed by the renegades , Wales unveils his pistol and already gives a sense of where the film is going. But Eastwood isn’t gearing up for a civil war story about a man out for revenge in the name of the confederacy in the fact the war itself is summarized within the opening credits sequence and the story picks back up after the war has come to a close. The film consists of Josey who has refused to to officially surrender to the union; clashing with the law, bounty hunters etc…in the process the film interweaves a cast of memorable characters specifically the Indian Lone Waite(played by real life Indian Chief Dan George).
At glance the film may seem like another dime-a-dozen western revenge story but Eastwood knows otherwise. Eastwood had made a few films before ‘Josey Wales’ but its often considered his first great film(more so than ‘High Plains Drifter’ though also brilliant) and there is truly a sense of how his strong his understanding of the medium is in how effortlessly he avoids cliches and utilizes brief moments of nuance(like Ford) to let us comprehend so much. The example is the beginning as we discussed is in fact set up to be a rebel flag waving revenge story after his family is killed he draws his weapon and rides off into battle; now here most other filmmakers would chronicle the battles themselves but Eastwwood is finished with it as soon as the opening credits conclude and the story picks up with the ‘hero’ in but another state of defeat, we can conclude his place in battle proved futile. But this only the first ten minutes or so and Josey has been at war for amusingly some time and the film never addresses whether or not he gets even with his families murder’s. Its thanks to Eastwood’s insight that it becomes apparent this is not a man seeking revenge anymore and not one trying to settle the score just one with nothing left to loose who after relentless violence doesn’t know anything else. However while film really doesn’t shy away from the violence there isn’t really a sense that its endorsing it either at least not by the film’s end when almost any sign of morality (or sanity) behind the violence is gone.
The ‘Outlaw Josey Wales’ upon its releases wasn’t treated as anything spectacular though having mostly positive reviews, aside from Orson Welles who called Eastwood underrated. But today when the western genre is all but dead its easy to see how effective the film truly is not in the same sense as other revisionist westerns for sympathising with outlaws but for understanding how easily the mentality of an outlaw can take root ‘when all you’ve ever cared about s’been butchered or raped’ in the light dying seems easy and living seems hard, that’s Josey’s case and in the end Eastwood showcases his ability as a storyteller and his position fairly ambiguous or….is a death a release the war my be over ‘but I guess we all died a little in that damn war’