The Outlaw Josey Wales Special Edition Review
1976 was a good year for Westerns. Arthur Penn gave us the idiosyncratic, often plain barking-mad Missouri Breaks, John Wayne exited with painfully moving dignity in The Shootist and Clint Eastwood directed and starred in a film which remains one of his finest works, The Outlaw Josey Wales. A quirky, often surprising film, it begins as a standard revenge melodrama but develops into something genuinely original. Avoiding genre cliches, Eastwood's intelligent, witty and moving film chooses to be an affirmation of life and optimism in a setting where such things were in short supply.
The narrative begins in a familiar manner. Josey Wales, a farmer in a quiet part of the South during the civil war, finds him home invaded by Union soldiers who burn his house and murder his wife and children. Grief-stricken and righteously angry, he joins a roving group of Confederate sympathisers led by a shady character called Fletcher (Vernon). However, when the war ends and Fletcher decides to surrender to the Union troops, Josey turns out to be harder to turn off than he was to switch on and he refuses to give in to the men who killed his family. As it happens, this turns out to be the right decision since the surrendering men are massacred shortly after making an oath to be faithful to the Union. Wales returns to pick off some more of his enemies before escaping and heading down towards Texas. But things become strange as he begins to meet a series of eccentric characters, all of whom seem intent on tagging along with him. As people find and befriend him, Wales discovers that the route to redemption lies as much in embracing life and friendship as in bloody revenge. Unfortunately, not everybody else feels like this and Josey must overcome the antagonism of both the Cherokee chief Ten Bears (Will Sampson) and the sadistic Union cutthroat Captain Terrill (McKinney).
Eastwood is in commanding form as Wales, managing the subtle character change with considerable skill. He's an actor who has always been good at evoking hidden depths - or at least hidden shallows - and Josey Wales is a perfect vehicle for his, still rather underrated, acting talents. But unlike in some of his seventies films, the supporting cast is just as memorable as the leading man. John Vernon cuts a nicely ambiguous figure as Fletcher, Sondra Locke is slightly less enbalmed than usual and Paula Truman is the most fearsome octogenarian lady imaginable. Even Bill McKinney, erstwhile overactor in more Eastwood films than I can count, manages to be fairly sinister as the ruthless Terrill. But the film belongs to the extraordinary Chief Dan George, perhaps the most unlikely actor to have become a cult figure in the seventies. Playing Lone Watie, a dispossessed Comanche, he is quite simply hilariously funny. Every time he appears, he folds the film in two, puts it in his pocket and walks off with it. Somehow, perhaps through a natural ability untainted by training - he didn't begin acting until the age of 70 - he manages such a dry delivery that he can make even a bad line sound amusing. It's good to see him on DVD but it did remind me that we're still waiting for Little Big Man (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Paul Mazursky's wonderful Harry And Tonto.
What makes this film interesting is how unconventional it manages to be within a very commercial Western structure. Josey Wales begins as yet another "stranger" figure, of the sort which Eastwod made his own in the sixties, living up to his Civil War reputation as a savage killer. But what the film does is go one step beyond this to examine how the post-War environment might affect such a man if he were challenged to live as part of a community. Few other Westerns have such a potent evocation of the barely healed scars left on America by the War and the resentments of the South at being beaten by a decidedly ungracious enemy. While this is greatly simplified for dramatic effect, the scene where the outlaws are forced to line up and swear an Oath to the Union has real emotion behind it. The film benefits enormously from this powerful context, returning to it time and time again, most notably in Josey's final meeting with Fletcher when he says "I guess we all died a little in that damn war." There are nice incidental details here too, such as the ferryman who can whistle "Dixie" or "Battle Hymn Of The Republic" to order, depending on the sympathies of his passengers. The film also addresses another important theme of conflict and reconciliation in the powerful, well written encounter with Ten Bears. Having rediscovered his humanity after being treated like shit, Josey can empathise with the treatment meted out to the "Indians" and he approaches them with respect and understanding. Again, one line sums it up. After making a plea to Ten Bears for the lives of his friends, he says "I'm just saying that men can live together in peace without butchering each other". It's a folorn hope of course, as subsequent history was to demonstrate, but also a rather beautiful moment and it deepens this film into something surprisingly thoughtful. It makes one wish that Eastwood had made a film about this relationship in particular, and also reflect that in his entire Western career, he has never shot a single Indian.
The Outlaw Josey Wales is also distinguished by some wonderful lighting from the great Bruce Surtees. Not quite as remorselessly dark as his work on Pale Rider but just as elegant, it is often breathtaking with some clever use of space and landscape (a particular talent of Surtees', as a look at Dirty Harry will demonstrate). Eastwood discusses in the documentary how he wanted the faces of some of the characters to remain shadowy in order to keep them ambivalent, although this is only partially successful and not consistent. Very competent technical credits all round, with Jerry Fielding deserving a mention for his excellent music score. That it doesn't make you think of his equally good work on The Wild Bunch is quite an achievement.
The emphasis on redemption rather than revenge doesn't mean that there is no action. Eastwood stages some superb set-pieces, notably the suspenseful fight between Wales and Terrill and the pace is measured but never slow. Some viewers might have reservations about the political simplification of the film, turning the South into the oppressed good guys and the North into hardened and treacherous sadists but that would ignore the whole emphasis of the second half of the film which is about healing rather than fighting. It's also fair to point out that the oppression of the Southern soldiers was often harshly peremptory - this is something which is at the base of many later Westerns, notably Walter Hill's The Long Riders. In mitigation of the more comic-strip elements of the film, at least Eastwood is trying to examine the themes of guilt and betrayal rather than merely presenting them as inarguable precepts. As in High Plains Drifter, Eastwood gives early notice here of the complex vision of the West which found most complete expression in Unforgiven and, as such, The Outlaw Josey Wales is essential viewing for Clint fans and anyone who likes Westerns.
The original R2 release of this film, back in August 1999, was a film-only release that had reasonable technical qualities. This new special edition contains two featurettes and a trailer but is otherwise similar to the previous release.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. Compare this to any TV showing or VHS release of the film and you will see how carefully the film has been restored. In particular, the finer details flare out here where they were once lost in the dark interiors. The blacks are deep and clear of artifacting and the colours look just right - they should be slightly muted but occasionally striking, as they are here. There is a small amount of grain in places and some print damage but otherwise this is a very impressive picture for a film which so often looks horrible in pan and scan showings. If you haven't seen it in the full Panavision ratio, you simply haven't seen it properly, since Eastwood and Surtees designed the look of the film specifically for 2.35:1.
The soundtrack is also very pleasing. Remastered from the original mono into Dolby Digital 5.1, it sounds great. Unlike so many 5.1 remixes of mono films this is very eventful with plenty of surround effects and there is a good deal of sub-woofer involvement, notably in the gunfire sequences. Dialogue is generally placed in the centre channel although it is occasionally directional. The music score sounds fantastic, as you would expect. Clearly, there has been some licence used in the creation of this track but it's a good example of how to recreate without destroying the original in the process.
The extra features are limited but valuable. The main documentary is a 30 minute wander through the making of the film called "Hell Hath No Fury". This was produced in 1999 and contains plenty of interviews, notably with Clint Eastwood. All the interview material is interesting and although this is a short featurette in comparison with some that now appear on discs it manages to cover the ground in a concise and entertaining way. There is also some good behind-the-scenes stuff here, which fans will enjoy.
The second documentary is a brief 1976 featurette on the making of the film from Warners publicity department. Not bad of its type and at least Eastwood is an interesting director to focus on in this manner.
We also get the original, lengthy theatrical trailer which is considerably less enticing than the film it's meant to be promoting. There is also a nice introduction from Clint Eastwood who is obviously very proud of the film. Some cast and crew biographies round out the disc.
An excellent film has been reissued and given the care and attention it deserves. A commentary would have been nice but Eastwood doesn't seem interested in doing one for any of his films. Perhaps not quite worth the slightly inflated price Warners are asking, the disc is still recommended and the documentary is good enough to provide a reason for owners of the original release to consider updating their copy.