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Clint Eastwood's best movie: an American Classic
on March 27, 2004
Although Clint Eastwood gained his greatest critical acclaim as a director for 1992's "Unforgiven" and 2003's "Mystic River" -- both of which are incredible pieces of American cinema -- his best film remains this perennially popular Western from 1976. Here's Eastwood's own take on it: "I do believe that if I'd made that picture in 1992, in place of 'Unforgiven,' it might have received the same amount of attention, because I think it's equally as good a film. I think the subject matter of 'Josey Wales' is timeless." Orson Welles himself named it one of his favorite movies!
Yet critics at the time completely dismissed it as just another Clint Eastwood Western-Revenge flick. On the surface, the plot might give you that illusion: Missouri farmer Josey Wales loses his family to marauding Union cutthroats during the civil war. In retaliation, he joins Qunatrill's raiders in the guerrilla warfare that flames across Missouri. When the war ends, Wales refuses to surrender. He flies west across the country, chased by his former leader Fletcher (John Vernon in a great, sympathetic performance) and Terrill, the Union captain who murdered his family (Eastwood regular Bill McKinney). It seems Wales has no future except to stay alive long enough to get his revenge.
But...that's not at all what movie ends up being about. Gradually, Wales finds himself at the center of a growing community of outcasts from many different backgrounds: an old Cherokee named Lone Watie (Chief Dan George, in the film's most unforgettable performance), a band of Northern settlers (including Sondra Locke in her first role with Clint), a girl from another Native American tribe, the residents of a dying Texas town, and a red bone hound. Gradually, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" turns into a story about forgetting revenge and a fixation on death, and instead about embracing life and rebuilding a community. "Dying is easy for men like you and me," Wales says to a Comanche chief (Will Sampson) in one scene. "It's living that's hard." It's one of the most unexpectedly uplifting and moving films ever made. And, let's make no mistake about it, it's also an action-packed, tough, and exciting film.
Strangely, the film came out of extremely difficult circumstances and rough beginnings. Eastwood purchased the rights to Forrest Carter's novel "Gone to Texas," only to discover that the author was actually Asa (Ace) Carter, who had worked as a speech writer for George Wallace supporting racial segregation and had once created a subgroup of the Ku Klux Klan. Upon meeting Carter, Eastwood and his producer Robert Daley found the man to be a borderline sociopath (he drew a knife on one of Daley's secretaries at a restaurant). Regardless, Eastwood loved the beautiful story too much and pushed on with making the film. He hired Philip Kaufman to both write and direct the movie, now re-named "The Outlaw Josey Wales." Kaufman (along with Sonia Chernus) wrote a stunning script, but after only a few days on the set, it became obvious he wasn't working out as a director; his style clashed with Eastwood's. Eastwood quietly removed him as director and took over the job himself. As Eastwood's biographer notes, "Kaufman was to a degree the victim of Clint's growing confidence in his own abilities."
Despite this confused beginning, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" turned into a magical piece of Western cinema and a huge hit with audiences. It gets better and better with each viewing: a thrilling adventure when you first see it, its many layers of beautiful subtlety emerge each time you go back to it. Bruce Surtees's photography is astonishing, Jerry Fielding's music exciting and unusual for a Western, and every performance top-notch. Few films are as all-around well done as this American classic.
The DVD offers the film in a glorious widescreen transfer with a new 5.1 sound mix, but there are no extras. Considering the history behind the making of the film, this disc really ought to sport some fascinating commentaries and documentaries, but alas, nothing. Still, I can recommend few films higher than "The Outlaw Josey Wales."