Eastwood's Killer Wales
It would be fair to say that the 70s saw the demise of the western, but in amongst the ropey remains of a once great genre now reduced to less than mediocre outings were a few examples of why the western was such a dominant force and why still today the occasional western gets made. One of the best examples of all that was good about the western is "The Outlaw Josey Wales" a movie not only starring Clint Eastwood but also saw him direct as well, using his knowledge of the genre to craft something very special. I say special for many reasons from the way Eastwood brings the humour of the story without spoiling the drama whilst also delivering triumphant action scenes. But more importantly is that with "The Outlaw Josey Wales" he crafts a movie which starts as an obvious revenge movie and evolves into something different and something quirky yet still retaining the element of revenge and redemption.
When his family is brutally murdered by a group of Union Red Legs, Missouri farmer Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood - Magnum Force) joins up with a group of Confederates looking for revenge on the murderous men. Even when his fellow Confederates surrender as the war ebbs to an end, Josey refuses to buckle and goes on the run as an Outlaw, hunted down by a group of men including Terril (Bill McKinney) the man who killed his family. But as Josey travels across country, trying to keep one step ahead of his pursuers whilst still looking for revenge he finds he is joined by one person after another eventually having a substitute family who through their actions soften his need for revenge.
Now "The Outlaw Josey Wales" starts in an almost cliche way, hard hitting but cliche, as we witness Union Red Legs murdering Josey's family, burning down the farm house with them in it. But there is a lot of power in these opening scenes which culminate with Josey not only burying his family but joining up with a rag bag bunch of Confederate soldiers as he seeks revenge on the murderous Red Legs who destroyed his life. And then we get the opening credits, not some boring opening credits but an action packed montage of fighting between the Confederates and the Union soldiers all of which looks pretty epic in scale. In those 5 or 10 minutes Eastwood may have given us a cliche but embellished it to such proportions that he has you hooked.
Now the amazing thing is that whilst we get this element of revenge continuing as Josey ends up an Outlaw on the run after the rest of the Confederates surrender in what is another powerful and surprising scene, the storyline evolves into something different. And that difference comes from it becoming almost a buddy type movie as Josey finds himself making friends on his journey with these people ending up travelling with him as he tries to stay one step ahead of the men who are hunting him down. It is shall we say quirky when you have Josey travelling with an old acerbic Indian, a proud mother of a Union soldier, her beautiful yet slightly simple grand daughter and a young Indian Squaw. Yet watching this very strange bunch become like a substitute family is so entertaining thanks to the blend of humour and drama it delivers. And it also brings a different sort of redemption as whilst you still have Josey needing revenge for the murder of his family he has found a new family to ease his suffering.
All of which makes "The Outlaw Josey Wales" one hell of an entertaining movie which almost has an episodic feel about it as we have a series of events which blend drama, humour and action. And it has to be said that Eastwood gets the action spot on with wonderful short bursts of gun fighting with punctuate the story. The montage over the credits is spectacular but then there is the equally spectacular action when the Confederates surrender and of course the inevitable final battle as Josey comes face to face with the man who murdered his family. Yet you then have the smallest of moments such as Josey out smarting the pursuing Union soldiers as they cross a river on a ferry, a scene which in many ways is obvious but exceptionally well executed with that wonderful blend of drama and humour to make it memorable.
Now as well as crafting a wonderful movie as director Clint Eastwood also puts in one of his most entertaining performances. The thing is as Josey Wales Eastwood doesn't do that much different to what he did in other westerns, he is heroic, a little mysterious, powerful yet amusing and also someone you warm to as well as fear a little. But Eastwood looks so comfortable through out, playing a role with such confidence that you don't care if it is familiar. And because Eastwood delivers a confident performance the rest of the cast which includes John Vernon, Bill McKinney, Sam Bottoms and Sondra Locke all seem to be as confident. Although even Eastwood is out shone by Chief Dan George who is so dry and comical as Indian Lone Watie that every single scene he is in brings a smile to your face.
What this all boils down to is that whilst the western genre was dying out as 70s cinema changed "The Outlaw Josey Wales" showed that good westerns could still be made. Even now it is still a magnificent movie full of drama and action as well as humour and shows how a cliche story can evolve into being something simply brilliant.