The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
The Outlaw Josey Wales is often hailed as the last great western from the golden era of the genre. As a child when I first saw the movie, I failed to appreciate its subtleties, having been raised on a more traditional diet of movies from this genre such as El Dorado. It has only been in more recent years that I have revised my opinion of this finely crafted piece of cinema. It is radically different from the much of Clint Eastwood's earlier work and most certainly displays a quality in his film making that was not apparent previously.
Actor and director Eastwood called The Outlaw Josey Wales, "an anti-war film". This western, set during the Civil War decade, certainly addresses themes that can be seen as allegorical of the Vietnam War. However upon repeated viewing the movie offers more and more, showing great depth with its exploration of racial politics, spiritual redemption and the burden of obligation. Once again the universal medium of the western genre provides a broad canvas for an interesting analysis of the human condition.
Eastwood is a very functional director and his earlier works are often quite linear and minimalist. The Outlaw Josey Wales on the surface offers simple story of revenge and reconciliation. Yet despite the subtlety of its narrative, the film provides a wealth of complex characters. The script by Philip Kaufman is lean yet there is a great deal of weight to most of the dialogue. The production benefits from a strong ensemble cast with memorable performances from John Vernon, Will Sampson and Paula Trueman. Yet it is Chief Dan George who steals the show as Lone Watie. His performance as a world weary Indian is an absolute delight.
What makes The Outlaw Josey Wales so different from contemporary movies is it's foundation in strong characterisation. Eastwood's functional approach to film making allows viewers to focus on the story and its protagonists. That's not to say that there aren't any good set pieces, because there are. However they are an embellishment, rather than a focal point and do not detract from the from the main story. The reason the movie works so well is because we care about those we are watching. This is something that is so often lacking from many of the movies I see nowadays.
Perhaps this movies master stroke is its ending which takes the concept of the classic showdown in a different direction and resolves the underlying conflict between Eastwood and Vernon is an unexpected way. It makes several thought provoking statements that give the viewer much to reflect on. Cinema is after all not quite the passive experience that some would have you believe. Such is the nature of quality film making and The Outlaw Josey Wales is a fine example of such. It certainly deserves its reputation and rates highly amongst Clint Eastwood's finest work.