Credit: Warner Bros.
by Paul Attard Featured Film Kicking the Canon

The Outlaw Josey Wales | Clint Eastwood

May 28, 2021

For more than five decades now, Clint Eastwood’s longevity as both an A-List Hollywood star and director has been nothing short of astonishing. Sure, he’s had his dry periods like anyone in the business, but he’s always managed to rise back up and eventually win back critical and commercial favor, like a phoenix who’s perpetually on the rise from the ashes. In fact, he hasn’t merely risen: he’s ascended still further each time, beginning as a pretty face who wanted to direct himself and eventually becoming one of the most lauded auteurs of our time. He’s competed at Cannes, won several Oscars, and has been on Cahiers du Cinéma’s annual top 10 list on 12 different occasions — even if some of those choices were highly questionable/bordered on troll behavior (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? True Crime? Space Fucking Cowboys?). To be even more accurate, he’s a complete anomaly within the studio system: name one other actor, let alone one who also directs his or herself, whose tenure at the top has been as fruitful and viable as Clint’s. He releases a new cinematic work nearly every year, often shooting them in the span of three months, and often using the first take of any given scene. One could attribute this quirk to laziness, while others claim this is just the byproduct of a maestro in full control of their masterful abilities — to some degree, it’s probably a mixture of both.

His record speaks for itself; or, the work he’s made says a lot about him as both an artist and as a person: his politics, his ethics, his character, his views on masculinity and federal bureaucracy, and how he fundamentally sees and considers the world around him. If one follows the chronological order of his filmography, a viewer becomes aware of the degrees by which Eastwood becomes more confident with this overarching vision and his own personal ambition from picture to picture. With his debut Play Misty For Me, a middling psycho-horror freak-out that features Clint at his most self-aggrandizing (playing what has to be the single wealthiest DJ who’s ever lived) and outright chauvinistic (its unequivocal “bitches be crazy” ethos), he proved he understood the basics of staging action and establishing a clear narrative rhythm. High Plains Drifter, released a few years later, still saw Eastwood struggling against some of his more misanthropic tendencies, but also found him articulating a fleshed-out, anarchic worldview and employing a tight formal aesthetic consistency in the vein of his directorial mentors, Don Seigel and Sergio Leone, while also signaling himself as a talent who was more serious about this whole “directing” endeavor than what most American critics first assumed (for the record, Clint has never had issue finding international prestige; just look up how many times he’s won the Japan Academy Film Prize for Outstanding Foreign Language Film to get a brief sense).

The Outlaw Josey Wales, then, can be seen as a directorial continuation — if one is willing to skip over both Breezy and The Eiger Sanction, which most usually do — of the revisionist Westen iconography found in Drifter, albeit a bit toned down and with far less gratuitous rape. That could be credited to the heavy involvement of screenwriter Philip Kaufman at the beginning of the film’s production, who was first tapped to direct by Warner Brothers before Clint fired him less than a month into production. Then again, Eastwood has always struck a nice balance between light and somber material, even when somewhat lopsided at times; here, he found the right balance between these two thematic poles — between barbarity and humanity, hope and regret. The titular Josey Wales — in many ways, the classic Eastwoodian hero: a man of few words, yet many actions; somber, rancorous, and a figure of authority — embodies this tension beautifully: left widowed by a band of Jayhawkers during the Civil War, he joins up with “Bloody Bill” Anderson and some Missouri bushwhackers to enact revenge. Suffice it to say, history tells us things don’t end well, and when forcibly left on his own again, Wales decides to form his own army of marginalized entities for a new battle: one against civilized society.

Based on a novel written by a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Wales was first envisioned as an anti-government gunslinger battling against a corrupt, anti-segregation system; here, that overtly fascist ideology is thankfully sanded down in the character, whose motivations are firmly grounded within an understandable subjective that’s repeatedly scrutinized by the film’s end. The violence Wales experiences first-hand is always repaid with some form of human kindness, a delicate counterbalance between the pain and beauty of everyday existence. Eastwood’s preoccupation with what some might consider to be insignificant moments — of basic companionship, unfiltered passions, and dry day-to-day activities — intensifies the more brutal moments by comparison, while also punctuating the film’s structure with a sense of optimistic promise. Rather unfortunately, however, it also appears that Eastwood and author Asa Earl Carter probably agree a little too strongly on the treacherous nature of an overreaching liberal government. Clint’s ultimately not terribly interested in the Civil War as a political conflict, but more as an encapsulation of human failure in action, which might help explain how he’d overlooked the premise’s loaded cultural implications.

That, plus his taciturn approach to both acting and directing, sometimes reflects an unwillingness to stake a political position — a strong sense of ambiguity toward authority and violence is one of the many throughlines one can find in Eastwood’s productions — so it might be in best faith to say that he’s being populist here, reflected most poignantly with how he acknowledges the plight of the Cherokee and Navajo tribes at the hands of white America. When Wales claims that “everyone” lost something during the war, it’s a sentiment born from a sincere place for Eastwood — even if it’s one articulated with more wisdom in his World War II diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, made forty years later. Still, while Josey Wales was only his fifth directing credit, Eastwood displays a remarkable maturity and thoughtfulness toward his material throughout, deconstructing his already iconic image by portraying Wales less as a nameless agitator and more as a broken man searching for redemption. What’s most tragic about the film’s ending isn’t a failure to exact revenge, a futile gesture; instead, it’s when Wales has been separated from his cultivated world for the last time. It’s a fissure he willingly creates, as he understands his proximity will lead to destruction — “Whenever I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long.” He recognizes that he must forever forge his own path in solitude, forgoing the remainder of his humanity in the process. He’s won the battle, but lost the war.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.