a video essay looking at a few aspects of "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976)
The Outlaw Josey Wales stands as one of Clint Eastwood's best films, as well as one of the earliest in which he questioned and challenged his own iconicity. It used the deeply familiar imagery and structures of the western genre not only to point out some of their limitations and contradictions, but to question many of the values at the heart of the American mythology. Additionally, it spoke to the circumstances of a country trying to figure out how to heal after the failures, fractures, and fissures of the Vietnam War.
Like so many movies of the 1970s, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a tale of revenge and vigilantism. Josey Wales's heart is not so different from the heart of Dirty Harry Callahan. These are men who feel betrayed by institutional systems of justice, though the nature of their betrayals and the threats they fight are quite different.
One moment early in the film offers a somewhat esoteric historical connection that is vital for an understanding of the story's meanings.
Bloody Bill Anderson was one of the most brutal guerrilla fighters during the Civil War — the horse captured by the soldiers who killed him wore a bridle with human scalps attached to both sides. He may be best remembered now as the mentor of Frank and Jesse James. (Indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that Anderson is the man who taught Jesse James how to kill.) He began as an apolitical horse thief, but circumstances made him a passionate partisan of the Confederacy, and he eventually aligned himself with the famed bushwhacker William Quantrill and his Raiders. He was a leader of a massacre in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863, where he was reported to have killed fourteen people himself. Soon, he would have a falling-out with Quantrill, riding off to wreak havoc with his own band of raiders. His fame would, for a while at least, eclipse that of Quantrill, as he led massacres and robberies through Missouri, his men killing, looting, and raping with abandon. Theirs were extraordinarily and deliberately brutal acts — Anderson had even trained his horse to repeatedly trample a body on the ground with its sharp front hooves. His were not just, or even primarily, acts of war, but of terror and destruction.
Anderson was killed in October of 1864 in Missouri, where he had been tracked by a Union regiment ordered to stop him. Albert Castel and Thomas Goodrich end their biography of Anderson with these words:
"Clearly there are those who see him as a heroic, romantic figure, a man driven by persecution and crimes against his family to wage a ruthless war of revenge until he died in a desperate, perhaps deliberately suicidal, charge.
"There is some truth in this view of Anderson. But not enough. What he was is revealed both by what he did while alive and the gruesomely fascinating photographs [Robert] Kice took of him dead. They convey the essential and therefore the most terrible truth of all about Bloody Bill, a truth that should not be ignored, for it applies to the present and the future as well as the past.
"Anderson was not unique. On the contrary, in war and peace, in all times and places, there are beings like him, or who become like him when given the stimulus and the opportunity: Savage.
"In that sense, his spirit still lives, and will do so until the end of time."
To have Josey Wales join Anderson's guerrillas, then, is to have him join a group that was considered the most brutal of its age. It is to suggest that his despair and vengefulness led him to commit atrocities. For anyone who knows Bloody Bill Anderson's history, then, from early in the movie Josey Wales is not a noble hero. He is someone whose desire for revenge has turned him into a monster.
When the war ends, Wales is one of the few from his group of raiders to escape the betrayal of the Union-associated redlegs and, most importantly, his former comrade Fletcher. Surrender and amnesty are represented as a trick, with the institutionalized vengefulness of the redlegs and the Union outshining the personal vengeance of Wales. There is no nobility in this war, no trust, no honor. It's every man for himself, with whatever pretense of meaning and purpose to the fighting long lost.
Here it is worth noting that the source of the story for the film was a novel called The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, later retitled Gone to Texas. It was written by Forrest Carter, the pen name of Asa Earl Carter. Carter is best known for the book The Education of Little Tree, first published as a Native American memoir, but later shown to be fiction. Carter had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a speechwriter for George Wallace, a right-wing radio announcer, and as late as 1970 ran for governor of Alabama as a white supremacist. Carter died in 1979 at the age of 53, his true identity having only become known to Hollywood and audiences after the release of the movie. In a 1991 New York Times article, history professor and distant cousin Dan T. Carter wrote that
"...there are threads that stretch from Asa Carter's racist pamphlets to his new-age novels of the Native American: We live unto ourselves. We trust no one outside the circle of blood kin and closest comrades. We have no responsibilities outside that closed circle. Government and all its agencies are corrupt. Politics is a lie."
While the film of The Outlaw Josey Wales tones down some of Carter's pro-Confederacy subtext, the protagonist remains a brutal Confederate guerrilla.
But he is also Clint Eastwood: the Man with No Name and Dirty Harry. Even in 1976, Eastwood could not play a character such as this and simply disappear into it. Audiences saw the character, but they also saw the actor and his previous roles. He is a character, certainly, but he is also an icon. What makes so many of the films in which Eastwood has directed himself interesting is that he seems to know this.
The progress of the film's narrative is, first, toward the creation of a self-sufficient community, and then toward some sort of redemption after a war where brutality has overshadowed the cause.
The self-sufficient community is a village of people who should hate each other, but who are able to shed the wounds of wars and betrayals, to leave the disagreements of governments behind, and to find individual commonality. People from all sides of the country's previous battles join together and create a small community.
Josey Wales is the last to find redemption, if indeed it is redemption that he finds. The movie opened in the United States in June 1976, just over a year after the fall of Saigon, and its last words must have been heard by its first audiences as speaking to their own lives.
Like a good western hero, Josey Wales rides off into the sunset at the end, but it is an end where he has refrained from fighting a last duel — where he has refused revenge. He rides off wounded, perhaps to die. His fate is uncertain, its meaning ambiguous.
The film concludes, then, as a plea for peace and reconciliation. Nothing else can break the cycle of violence and retribution that war inspires. The ending is not one where the characters have overcome prejudices, buried the past, and learned to love their fellow human beings. They have overcome some prejudices, they have buried certain pieces of the past, and through mutual reliance they have discovered some love for each other. But their situation is precarious, their wounds deep. The plea of the film is a utopian plea to some extent, but it is far more a pragmatic one — the characters do not necessarily become peaceniks who see humanity in all people, but rather they become people who must rely on individuals from a group they had previously thought inferior to their own. Grandma Sarah will likely still remain skeptical toward Confederates and convinced that the Union was far more in the right; so be it. But there is also now a Confederate for whom she has respect and trust — and not just any Confederate, but one from the most bloodthirsty and ruthless of the guerrilla groups.
The Outlaw Josey Wales becomes, by its end, a film about the need for coalition politics, the need for us to set vengefulness and ideology aside in some circumstances and to find the people who will help us preserve our lives, and who will help us bandage the wounds of a war that set us all against each other. Revenge may be possible, and in the immediate moment it may even be pleasurable, but it is not fulfilling and it is not life sustaining. Circumstances may push us toward savagery, but we can choose to become something other than savages — to look beyond differences, to forget even the most hurtful betrayals, to bury the dead, and to till the blood-drenched soil so that something new may grow.
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