Manhood, Revenge, Justice and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Clint Eastwood belongs in the Canon

I need you to go watch The Outlaw Josey Wales with the fanaticism you would ordinarily reserve for guarding your pre-teen daughter at a Beastie Boys Concert.  I’ll wait.  Glad you’re back.

I am intrigued by the Western.  As a genre it provides fertile pastureland to graze in for ideas about Manhood, Revenge, and Justice. The Western also assumes that physical violence is an acceptable and even desirable way of solving problems and testing one’s manhood (women’s roles in the Western are usually pretty limited–bar girls, dancing-girls, prostitutes–etc.  Yes, I know, not in True Grit or The Quick and the Dead and we could all name a few other anomalies but really, let’s just concede the point). In fact the Western’s embrace of violence can put it at odds with Christianity in fascinating ways.  I am indebted to Jude Russo for the following observation, the Western is not so much anti-Christian as it is a-Christian.  More like a Homeric epic.  “No religion west of St. Louis, no law west of Ft. Leavenworth” or something like that appears in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. The use of landscape can also be an integral part of the Western and more on that in a later post.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (OJW) is one of Clint Eastwood’s finest Westerns (Unforgiven is the other best one followed by a wagon-full of good ones) and that designation as “one of Eastwood’s finest” makes it one for the short list of great Westerns. OJW is an early directorial work by Eastwood (1976–his 4th or 5th feature length movie) and it is based on a novel by Forest Carter.

The opening scenes could be from a silent movie–a farmer ploughs unforgiving land with his son.  The wife calls the son to come in for dinner and shortly after the son goes in for dinner the farmer hears sounds of distress, sees a plume of smoke and runs back to his home to find a marauding band of “Redlegs”–Union soldiers (out of Kansas–the Civil War, Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson, Dred Scott, racism, slavery and much more are in the background but not explicit in the text–Eastwood’s vision is considerably more moral than that of Forest Carter–the bigot who wrote the novel the movie is based on) who are burning down his home and killing his wife and child.  The farmer, the eponymous Josey Wales, suffers a serious wound to his face from a sword–the cut runs vertically from below his eye down to his jaw–from Captain Terrill. (This scar fades over the course of the movie–as it should.) Wales buries his wife and son but in the act of praying over them he bends the cross he has fashioned from sticks into the ground–and effectively renounces his former life (and his religion).  From the rubble of his burned-out home he recovers a gun and then practices with it–he is a terrible shot at first–and gradually becomes fearsome with the gun and because he is a man with nothing left to lose and only vengeance to live for.  When Bloody Bill Anderson’s men recruit him he joins less from a desire to see the South win the Civil War than for the promise to hunt the “redlegs.” 

The war ends and Anderson’s successor, a man named Fletcher, convinces the remainders of Anderson’s irregulars to turn themselves in–Wales does not go in–he has never been in the war for ideological reasons and so has no reason to surrender; he is a participant so he has a way to hunt for Captain Terrill. Even in the scene where Fletcher explains how they’ll be treated if they turn themselves in, Wales sits apart from the other men.  When the men turn themselves in they are slaughtered and Wales rides in, grabs a Gatling gun and does what he can to save them escaping with a wounded young man (a surrogate for his dead son?) and beginning a career on the run.

Many adventures ensue and Wales picks up a group of followers despite his attempt to be a loner.  A Cherokee Indian Chief, Lone Watie (the fabulous Chief Dan George–the Trail of Tears makes an appearance and links Watie and Wales as those betrayed by big institutions), a Navajo squaw, a dog, and a family travelling from Kansas to Blood Butte, Texas impose themselves on Wales and–I think a strong case can be made for this–become his family.  At the end of the movie I suspect that Wales returns to the ranch to settle down with Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) and abandon his “outlaw” persona.

Despite the violence that pervades the movie (two thwarted-rape scenes and several gunfights), what strikes one about the movie is its lack of gunfights where traditional Westerns would have them.  In 4 fascinating scenes, Eastwood the director works away from the traditional showdown and introduces something different to the Western.  The most traditional of these scenes stages a gunfight (usually these take place in a saloon or the street of the town) where a bounty hunter finds Wales and confronts him only to be sent away with the following memorable dialogue.  Wales: “Bounty hunter?” Bounty hunter: “Man’s got to make a living.” Wales: “Dying ain’t much of a living.” The bounty hunter leaves, the audience relaxes and the bounty hunter comes back–“I had to” he explains to Wales who tells him, “I know” and then kills him.

The other three scenes end WITHOUT a gunfight!  When the motley family that Wales has assembled is thought to be under attack from the Comanche, Wales rides out to confront Ten Bears, the Comanche Chief (and a real historical figure), and, as men who have seen much pain and death (Wales observes, “Dying isn’t hard for men like us, living is hard”) they agree to respect each other–they are men making a pact not the government–and the expected confrontation never materializes–no gunfight. (Lone Watie–who has commented and interpreted Wales to others [and therefore to us] throughout their time together has told Laura Lee that Wales has gone to kill Ten Bears–we believe this and our expectation is happily thwarted.)

When the Union Redlegs led by Captain Terrill do attack Wales and his new “family,” they are repelled and Terrill runs for his life.  Wales chases him on horseback for a long time on-screen (there are lovely long shots of the horses racing across the land) and finally tracks him down in a deserted town.  Wales, having flash-backs to the execution of his wife and son, dry-fires four guns at the cowering and retreating Terrill who, when he realizes Wales is out of bullets, draws his sword (the same sword that cut down Wales’ wife and child and scarred Wales) and then Wales turns it on him and runs him through–no gunfight.

On his way back through town, the injured Wales (he bleeds from his side like the Fisher King) stops for a drink–the saloon regulars who know him well call him “Mr. Wilson” to protect him from two Texas Rangers–then they sign an affidavit swearing that Wales is dead.  Only then do we find out that Fletcher–the man Senator James Lane’s Redlegs used to betray Wales’ group–is in the bar also.  He recognizes Wales but pretends he doesn’t.  Outside on the street mano a mano–(cue the gunfight!) Fletcher tells “Wilson” that he doesn’t believe Wales is dead and that he intends to look for him in Mexico.  He also tells “Wilson” that he’d like to tell Wales he’s sorry and that the war is over.  Wales tells Fletcher that “We all died a little in that damn war” and the two men part–no gunfight.

The end is a bit ambiguous–does Wales return to the ranch he has protected?  Does he die on the way there or else-where?  Is he so broken that he cannot re-integrate to society through the traditional means of marriage? (See Stephen Crane’s estimable Western “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”.) I think Wales, like Robin Hood before him–has been made an outlaw by unjust actions and laws–and returns to his habitual anonymity and family.

There are many other things to consider in this terrific Western including the plight of the Indians, the role of forgiveness, Wales’/Eastwood’s attitude towards commerce (no one who “sells” anything comes off well), the corruption of all institutions, and many more besides. 

Eastwood pushes out the boundaries of a traditional genre and in one stroke makes a claim for The Outlaw Josey Wales to be considered a part of the canon.  What Hamlet is to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, The Outlaw Josey Wales is to the traditional Western.



Filed under books and learning, Clint Eastwood, pedagogy, popular culture, Uncategorized, Westerns

8 responses to “Manhood, Revenge, Justice and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Clint Eastwood belongs in the Canon

  1. f_c_73

    “Don’t pi$$ down my neck and tell me it’s raining” – should be carved into the front of the school. That would never happen, even figuratively – too close to telling students the truth.

    • I’m not sure why this particular quote (and a great one at that) should be carved into the school or why it is “too close to telling the students the truth.” Is the suggestion that the faculty or school is doing this–abusing students and telling them lies about it? I’m afraid I don’t see it, or I certainly don’t see it across the board if that is the claim. Or is this a broader comment that all students (at every school) should demand a sort of realistic accountability from those who teach them? Sorry, I don’t quite understand the comment.

  2. Kholdstare

    A fine analysis of a great film. I’m curious though, as to who ever suggested that OJW did not belong in the canon of great Westerns. Why? Because it breaks from certain ‘traditions’ of the genre? If filmmakers held so steadfastly to every convention laid out by the pioneering of a genre, we’d still be seeing Westerns where men carry rifles in 1860 that didnt exist until 1890, in order to fight “Injuns” who greet people with “How” and slap their screaming mouths with their palms when entering combat.
    Josey Wales, as a character, seems to better represent the idea of “No Law and No God on the Frontier” in his motivation for falling in with Bloody Bill Anderson. In the hands of another director or producer, I cringe to imagine how after losing his wife and son to Union Redlegs, the unrealistically moral pillar that is John Wayne-as-Josey Wales takes up the cause of The Stars and Bars to help bring peace, law, and order to a savage land. How delightfully saccharine and disingenuous that would be. I contend that in making OJW as he did, Eastwood traded away flimsy Hollywood conventions for realism, and did every film-enthusiast on Earth a favor in the process.
    But if you really want to see the boundaries of the Western genre get pushed by a film that still begs inclusion in the canon, then go see High Plains Drifter (truly Eastwood’s best western, in my humble opinion). You’ll never look at “frontier-style” revenge the same way again.

    • Thanks for the interesting reading. I almost listed High Plains Drifter as Eastwood’s second finest (ahead of Unforgiven) but decided against it in part for it’s too-self-consciously mannered directorial syle that is a bludgeon in Eastwood’s capable hands. It’s not so much that I reject HPD, I just think that it’s artistry is SO on display that I feel like I’m watching more of an allegory than a Western. Still–some terrific visuals and the fascinating notion that landscapes (even or especially surreal ones) are representative of interior psychological landscapes gives one quite a bit to admire about it. Western fans, I think, usually like OJW; my claim is somewhat broader, I think it should be taught like people teach Hamlet–not in the intellectual ghetto of the Western, but in the heart of a class.

  3. http://e英語.com/ Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time 🙂

    • ngil

      Ojw is the ultimate in reality.IN as far as heart touching. An more into reality such as a man being turned by this deceptive world ..As it was then,,an as it is now!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. bob s

    real life redlegs were confederate guerrillas.. neither confederate or union military. .pretty much using the war to be able to loot, pillage and kill without regard. .on the movie I would think Terrill and his men joined the union because it won the war and as a union soldier they would be imune to and union retaliation of ones of his type .

  5. bob s

    awesome movie of Eastwood’s best..he commented himself on one interview he like doing it . .and in the movie Pale Rider..there seems to be almost refrences or things that lead to believe the preacher (Eastwood ) is Josey Wales.even if it isn’t said..Pale Rider was made after Josey Wales..and Pale Rider is after the civil war. ..another of Eastwood’s greats..

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