Here I am, curing my cinematic blindness one movie at a time. Ryan @ The Matinee provided the impetus for this monthly exercise. Head on over to his site and check out what others have watched. This month, I finally got to see...
Why did I pick it? I cut my cinematic teeth on action flicks. Those over the top one man army adventures of the 80s were, perhaps, the biggest part of my movie watching diet. Though I've never met any of them, I was on a one name basis with Sly, Arnie, Seagal, and Van Damme. Yes, Van Damme is one name. So is Jean-Claude, so I could've went either way with that one. Anyhoo, The precursor to these movies were the westerns my grandfather watched whenever he had the chance. After all, the guys I've mentioned were nothing, if not gunslingers...occasionally without the gun, but gunslingers nonetheless. Their movies were westerns in urban settings, sans horses.
By the time I was born, the number of westerns being made was dwindling down next to none. Ever since they have come few and far between. They were dying. Sure, the occasional western was still made, but in large part, the gritty crime dramas of the 70s had risen up to take the place of the western as the most prominent type of films marketed to men. There was one superstar who was successful in both genres, Clint Eastwood. In my extreme youth during the 70s, he had become known as the iconic Dirty Harry, the titular cop in an entire series of films. If you don't know, Harry is a rough and tumble police officer in modern day San Francisco. During the 60s, however, Eastwood was known primarily as The Man With No Name thanks to a trilogy of now legendary "spaghetti" westerns directed by Sergio Leone. I've seen all three of those, and something in the neighborhood of twenty five other movies he's directed and/or acted in. Why not see one of the most revered movies in the career of the guy who is the preeminent star of westerns in my lifetime?
We start this movie the way we have so many action flicks, with the murder of our hero's family. In this case, it's his wife and very young son. Clint, or rather, the eponymous Josey Wales sets out to get revenge on those responsible, and away we go. Sort of. There are some details that need filling in to make our story more specific. The first is that this happens during the Civil War and Josey is a southerner. He quickly finds out those responsible are Union soldiers. If only for the chance at killing them, Josey joins a group of ruffians who fight for the Confederate States. We're then thrown headlong into a montage of battles Josey and his newfound friends fight with soldiers from the north. The real meat of the matter takes place just after the war. Everyone in the crew Josey rode and fought with has decided to turn themselves in, and swear allegiance to the United States. They will then be free to live out the rest of their days. At least, that's what they think. Unable to reconcile those actions with what happened to his family, Josey decides he's not going to do that even though he knows The Union Army will chase him until he's caught, or killed, whichever comes first. Good thing he made that choice because all of his pals are summarily slaughtered shortly after they are disarmed. Josey manages to save Jamie (Sam Bottoms), a young man who is wounded from being shot in the back during the massacre. Jamie is dying, nevertheless, he and Josey ride away in an effort to distance themselves from their pursuers. The ensuing chase takes up the rest of the film.
There is a lot to like about this film. The thing that most stands out is the thing for which I was least prepared. In the tradition of those "spaghetti" westerns Eastwood did in the 60s, there is a pronounced sense of humor running through the film. Much of the banter between Josey and other characters, particularly those on his side, is punctuated with jokes. Most of them hit their target and are genuinely funny. That's more than I can say for the vast majority of movies out there calling themselves comedies. There is a biting sarcasm to much of it, along with some poignant commentary, and of course, sexual innuendo. Because of this, the film's 135 minutes fly by. We're simply enjoying our time with these people. Eastwood's deadpan delivery is impeccable. Chief Dan George as Josey's eventual riding companion Lone Watie gives Josey a perfect complement. The two men play off each other marvelously and keep the film between gunfights highly entertaining. Spitting is also used to great comedic effect. Josey endlessly chews on tobacco. Obviously, this requires a lot of spitting. This spitting quickly establishes itself as one of the film's running gags. Suffice it to say, Josey is nearly as good a marksman with his spit as he is with his gun.
That Josey picks up companions is another surprise that works wonders. He sets himself up to be the quiet drifter, who happens to be on the run from the law and great with a pistol. Fate keeps intervening to give him more and more people for whom he will have to provide security. It starts with Jamie who is followed by Lone Watie. Eventually, there is an entire town, albeit a small one, that comes to depend on Josey. It's a brilliant way to build the character into someone who feels heroic rather than just telling us the same thing. On the surface, he seems like a surly guy with a bad disposition. His actions tell us otherwise. They tell us he is a big-hearted guy who simply can't help but to help those in need. We get very little exposition, if any, to tell us this. It just happens. Good writing knows what needs explaining. This film never explains something that doesn't need it. It lets things happen and trusts us to sort it out.
At fairly regular intervals, we get action as Josey finds himself face to face with one threat or another. During these scenes, we get Eastwood in his full glory. He carries these moments as only he can, hardly breaking a sweat while dispatching bad guys. Even here, humor is present as his coolness and ability to escape life or death situations is almost impossible to believe. His quick hands and quicker thinking might make us roll our eyes in a lesser movie. In this one, it feels as if it's done with tongue in cheek. The glob of cud Josey spits directly on some baddie's head after he's killed them comes off as if Eastwood had looked directly into the camera and winked at the audience.
Within the fun and games, we get some interesting characterizations and political stances that bear examining. As characters go, we see lots of stereotypes bandied about, but at the same time the film flips the script by presenting it's Native Americans as far more civilized and honorable than its whites. It's an interesting about-face for a genre known to portray non-whites as props. Their portrayal here isn't perfect, to be sure. After all, the film gives us two "noble savages." For those not in the know, the noble savage, as defined by the good folks at Google, is "a representative of primitive humankind as idealized in Romantic literature, symbolizing the innate goodness of humanity when free from the corrupting influence of civilization." The main job of such characters, much like the Magical Negro, is to help the white protagonists. Lone Watie certainly fits the bill to a tee. He serves practically no other purpose, save for comedic relief. The same goes for Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams), a young girl who fell into the group due to some unsavory circumstances and speaks no English. The performances by the two actors keep it from being offensive. Chief Dan George is particularly effective in that realm. While his character does have many of the abilities, mannerisms, and speech patterns Hollywood readily thrusts upon Native American characters, he manages to give Lone Watie depth and dignity.
On the political side, The Outlaw Josey Wales reflects the times in which it was made. Made in the shadow of the Vietnam War, it espouses the distrust of the U.S. government held by many people at the time. That war marked what was probably the first time a large percentage of white Americans were not sure the people they elected had their best interest at heart, and got loud about it. This is evident from the moment Union soldiers show up at the Wales family home. Those in power will use all sorts of nefarious means and stop at nothing to not just arrest Wales, but to kill him. Remember, even before he knows this to be true, Josey decides he simply cannot pledge allegiance to the United States. This is a very risky move for an American protagonist in an American movie. It works because Josey is never belligerent, or vocal at all, about his stance. He's just a guy trying to survive. Meanwhile, the government is clearly out of control. It's goons are every bit the rapists and baby killers many thought the soldiers in Vietnam were. From an individual standpoint, this leaves the film with no singular villain at which to direct our hatred. Instead, we have a faceless, evil monolith acting with impunity, aside from the fate of those who directly cross Josey's path. At the same time, Josey is an Everyman, of sorts, seeking to get along with his fellow humans. To this end, there is even a speech given by a chief named Ten Bears about how relations between factions would be so much better without government involvement. It's a point hammered home, early and often. The unintended consequence is the depths of its own setting going unmined. Many things about the Civil War could have played a bigger role and served the same purpose. Rather than using any of it to further its own stance, we're rushed through the fighting of it and never discuss it.
Regardless of political leanings, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a film that still resonates. It does so because at its core, it's a simple tale of a man who has been done wrong and is desperately trying to piece his life back together. The revenge motif actually goes out the window pretty early because that thirst seems to be satisfied. At the very least, Josey appears to be someone weary from all the fighting at the conclusion of the war. However, because of the choice he makes and the actions of others, he has to continue to fight. It also endures because that distrust of authority, once a festering sore left over from the nineteen sixties, is now part of our national DNA. Finally, it endures because it is plain fun to watch. This is the fifth film directed by Clint Eastwood who has gone on to helm many more. Of the ones I've seen, and despite its length, it's one of his breeziest projects. Even if you don't notice, or don't want to notice any of its heavier themes, you can just having a good time watching it.
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