Several years ago, I took on a project called “Lindsey Tries to Appreciate Westerns,” wherein I attempted to grow my fondness for the genre by watching and reviewing more of its films. At the beginning of the project, I called for suggestions, and Todd of Cinema Monolith was kind enough to give me five.

I managed to get to four of those recommendations during the “LTTAW” project, leaving just The Outlaw Josey Wales to be watched. Now, four years later, I’ve finally watched it! (Don’t ask why it took so long. The only answer is, “I’m the worst!”)

(Image via I Probably Liked It)

The Outlaw Josey Wales tells the story, obviously, of an outlaw named Josey Wales. The man is played by Clint Eastwood, who also directs.

Josey is a Missouri farmer whose wife and son are murdered by pro-Union militants during the Civil War. In retaliation, he joins up with the pro-Confederate Bushwhackers, hoping to get revenge on the men who killed his family.

Soon, at the war’s end,  Josey is still full of animosity, knowing that justice for his family has not yet been seen. He refuses to surrender to the opposing captain, and a bounty is put on him.

Josey heads out on the run from the militia and bounty hunters, but finds his escape complicated by a growing group of traveling companions, including an elderly Cherokee man named Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) and Comanchero escapee Laura Lee (Sondra Locke).

The Outlaw Josey Wales was written by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, from the novel Gone to Texas by Asa Earl “Forrest” Carter (a segregationist and KKK member whose ideas, thankfully, seem to have been fairly well filtered by Kaufman and Chernus).

Eastwood introduces the DVD for Josey Wales, calling the film one of the highlights of his career. He says that he felt driven to tell the story because it reflects the impact war has on people. Separated in time by over a hundred years, he saw the Vietnam War and all of its disillusionment reflected in this Civil War story.

Certainly, the film’s stance on war is one of its most remarkable aspects. For Josey and in the real world, the end of war doesn’t mean the beginning of peace. War leaves deep wounds and long-lasting scars on both sides of the battlefield. In one scene in particular that stood out to me, as the men prepare to begin hunting down Josey, the following brief exchange takes place:

Senator: “Hell is where he’s headed.”
Fletcher: “He’ll be waiting there for us, Senator.”

In another scene, Josey himself sums it up very well: “I guess we all died a little in that damned war.”

Chief Dan George gives a great supporting performance as Lone Watie (Image via Actor Oscar)

I was impressed that the film offered such a strong perspective on war, and also pleasantly surprised by its treatment of its Cherokee and Navajo characters. According to DVD commentary, Eastwood specifically sought not to rely on those stereotypes of the “stoic” or the “savage,” instead wanting the characters to have a sense of humor and “realness.”

The supporting performance of Chief Dan George as Lone Watie was one of my favorite parts of the film, not only because the character is treated respectfully by the script, but because he’s such a perfect contrast to Eastwood’s Josey. Lone Watie is open and unreserved, with a certain warmth to his personality, whereas Josey is a man of few words and even fewer expressed emotions. They’re an interesting pair to watch.

As the original trailer for the film tells it, Josey is a man who “lives by his gun, he lives by his word, and he lives for revenge.” His trademark is to spit on everything and everyone.

He’s a rough-edged fella, and his world as we see it is appropriately bleak. The film brings the West to life as a world of grim grays and browns, illuminated by harsh sunlight. It’s a very well-built atmosphere for the tale being told, with stunning scenery (filmed in Arizona, Utah, and California).

By the end of the film, despite all of the violence in which he participates, the loner’s heart grows three sizes. Initially planning to travel alone, he finds himself changed by the diverse band of misfits that join up along the way.

The result of all of this is a film that’s part revisionist Western, part anti-war treatise, part revenge tale, and part unpaved road movie… all of which kept me thoroughly entertained. Recommended!