Movie review: ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’

tojwClint Eastwood first made his name in westerns and later in his career got an Oscar in 1993 for his direction of the western “Unforgiven” and was nominated for best actor for that one, but many consider his 1970s western “The Outlaw Josey Wales” superior on both counts. I’d say “Josey Wales” is Clint at his best behind and in front of the camera. I never watched much western-themed entertainment (say TV’s “The Rifleman” for example), but I certainly have watched “The Outlaw Josey Wales” many times. It’s worth it. If you’re a fan of westerns I know you’ve seen it; if you’re a fan of Clint, you’ve also seen it. If you’re not a fan of either, check it out – it is simply tremendous.

‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’
(1976; 135 minutes; rated PG; directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George and John Vernon)

SEEKING SOMETHING HE MAY NEVER FIND

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more opinion and updated links on May 2, 2016.)

I’m not a big fan of westerns. Actually, you can count the western films I rate as “superior” on one hand. Along with “Silverado” (click here for my review) and “The Long Riders” (click here for my review) is “The Outlaw Josey Wales” from Clint Eastwood, who directed and starred in it. Although I’m sure a true connoisseur of westerns will disagree, I believe it’s the best of the best of the genre of Westerns.

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The film never received the critical acclaim it deserved at the time because Eastwood wasn’t in the best of lights. He first upset Hollywood liberals by making the title character in uber-popular police flick “Dirty Harry” an icon (he was branded then a fascist for Harry’s brutality – click here for my review). However, Eastwood later evolved into a Hollywood favorite and movie industry legend). Further, the film is based on a book by an author with a disreputable past (I’ll explain later in this review). In the end, “Josey Wales” actually garnered an Oscar nomination – for the music score.

When Eastwood earned an Oscar for his direction of “Unforgiven” in 1993 (as well as a nomination for best actor), some opined that they thought it was the Oscar that he should have received for “Josey Wales.” I’d agree wholeheartedly. “Josey Wales” is far superior to “Unforgiven” in just about all respects. It is certainly head-and-shoulders above the solid western effort “The Shootist” (click here for my review) from John Wayne in the same year and it was that Hollywood legend’s last film.

So, Eastwood plays “Josey Wales,” a farmer whose family is destroyed by “Red Legs” (guerilla fighters from Kansas, according to Wiki). He joins up with a ragtag bunch of southern guerillas in the Civil War and makes a deadly name for himself while being a bitter enemy of the Red Legs.

At the start of the film Eastwood’s group, led by “Fletcher” as portrayed by John Vernon (you know him better as “Dean Wormer” from “Animal House”), is at the brink of surrender. Vernon double-crosses them and only Eastwood and a wounded Sam Bottoms (“Jamie”) are left. Vernon, along with the leader of and some Red Legs (the ones who killed Eastwood’s family), set out to get him before he extracts murderous vengeance on them.

Throughout the film Eastwood slowly gathers his own group including a Native American played by Chief Dan George, who was already an Oscar nominee for his role in “Little Big Man;” and a bunch of settlers headed into Texas aiming for a new life.  A mongrel dog tags along, too. From shootouts at a trading post, in some woods, in a town, against some bandits and finally with the Red Legs, Eastwood leaves bodies everywhere. He has a signature here: spitting his ever-present chewing tobacco, especially on the heads of his victims.

Here’s a look at some of the primary cast:

  • Four-time Oscar winner (and five-time nominee) Eastwood as the headliner gives a career-best performance here. Much better and truer to the character than he would as a U.S. Marine in “Heartbreak Ridge” a decade later, but not as dark as the one he played in “Unforgiven.” He goes from droll to deflated to incensed with aplomb and he should have won an Oscar here. Eastwood’s credits are too many to list, but I liked him in “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review) and another World War II classic – “Where Eagles Dare” (click here for my review).
  • While Eastwood brings clarity, reality and death to just about everything he touches, the film’s best acting comes from Chief Dan George as “Lone Wadie.” He has just the correct amount of cynicism, sarcasm and humor to leaven Eastwood’s efficient brutality. He doles out his lines as the world-weary victim of institutionalized racism that he is and, like Eastwood, gives a career-best here. Chief Dan George, who passed in 1981 at the age of 82, earned both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for “Little Big Man” and was in “Harry and Tonto” and “Americathon” as well as the “Centennial” TV miniseries. He even appeared in an episode of TV’s “Kung Fu” with David Carradine. He was also an author and a poet, according to his bio on Wiki.
  • Vernon gives a perfect turn in a supporting role also worthy of an Oscar nomination as the treacherous “Fletcher.” It’s tiring writing “world-weary” but it perfectly defines how Vernon does his character. He’s given just the right amount of screen time and makes the best out of every moment. Vernon was prolific in his career with 197 credits from 1956 until his death in 2005. In addition, he worked with Eastwood as the mayor in “Dirty Harry.” He, too, did a “Kung Fu” episode. Despite an extensive TV resume, he never did a “Love Boat” episode (the only thing missing on his CV – click here for my review of that series).
  • Will Sampson plays “Ten Bears,” the leader of the tribe that comes to peace with Josey Wales. Sampson doesn’t have much screen time – his character’s involvement is late in the film and nothing but a bridge to the climax. However, like Vernon, he makes the most of it. Sampson’s most noted for his role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He died in 1987 at the age of 53 of complications from surgery.
  • Sam Bottoms plays “Jamie” and he’s Clint’s protégé early in the film. Bottoms does earnest and inexperienced very well and helps the film segue from the initial violent sequences to the next violent sequences. He was in “The Last Picture Show” and he’s certainly equally good here as his work in “Apocalypse Now” and much better than in “Seabiscuit.” Bottoms died at 53 in 2008 of brain cancer.
  • Bill McKinney plays the leader of the Red Legs and has to be one of the actors you don’t remember by name, but by credits, such as in “Heart Like a Wheel” (he played “Big Daddy” Don Garlits), “Deliverance,” “The Shootist,” “Against All Odds” and even a TV episode of “I Dream of Jeannie.” He died at 80 in 2011 of cancer.
  • The only piece of incompetent work here is by former Eastwood squeeze Sondra Locke. She plays “Laura Lee,” an innocent girl who becomes enamored with Eastwood. Locke doesn’t do a good job communicating the character and is basically a waste on screen. She’s also been in … ah, who cares? I don’t.

The supporting cast in “Josey Wales” – from assorted killers to a “carpetbagger” – is varied, good and just too many to mention specifically.

The climax is basically in two parts: Eastwood’s showdown with the Red Legs’ leader then with Vernon, with a surprising result.

The Eastwood-Vernon scene is truly excellent cinema. The audience has been brought so far by these two men who are separated in acting in the same scene by nearly the entire film. However, it’s worth it to watch “Josey Wales” just for their work together at the end.

Josey Wales” was just outside the top 10 films of 1976 at the box office with $31.8 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. Like most of Clint’s films, this one was profitable as it was made on a budget of $3.8 million. Eastwood’s other film that year “The Enforcer” was top 10 material with $46.2 million and good for ninth place (click here for my review). The top film at the box office was “Rocky” with $117.2 million. Here are some other films from that year that I’ve reviewed:

Other cast and film notes (from IMDb.com and Wiki):

  • The film’s screenplay was adapted by Philip Kaufman from a book “The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales” by an author named Forrest Carter. Carter, who claimed a genealogy including Native American, was also given national honors for a children’s book “The Education of Little Tree.” Despite his vigorous denials, he was shown to be Asa Carter, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and an anti-segregationist.
  • Eastwood has been quoted as saying “Josey Wales” is his personal favorite film he’s made. Also, Johnny Carson is quoted as calling the greatest Western of all time.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “This movie received a lot of high praise among Native American viewers for its non-stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in the film.”
  • Also directly from IMDb.com: “Philip Kaufman started to direct the film but was replaced by Clint Eastwood, a controversial move which prompted the DGA to institute a ban on any current cast or crew member replacing the director on a film – a rule which has ever since been titled the “Eastwood rule.” According to Eastwood biographer Marc Eliot part of the acrimony between the two men was a result of both asking female lead Sondra Locke out to dinner on the same night.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The movie received mixed reviews on its release, but it wasn’t until a few years later that aficionado Orson Welles, during a guest appearance on The Merv Griffin Show, declared: ‘When I saw that picture for the fourth time, I realized that it belongs with the great Westerns. You know, the great Westerns of Ford and Hawks and people like that.’”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
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