Reflections on "The Outlaw Josey Wales"

Written by Phil Kaufman and Sonia Chernus from the book by Forrest Carter

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George and Sondra Locke


A video presentation of this material is available here.


"The Outlaw Josey Wales" is something of a revisionist western in two parts. The first part is a grim and realistic representation of war and its horrifying, painful and unjust consequences.

Josey Wales is a simple farmer going about his business when his wife and child are brutally violated and murdered, and his property is destroyed by an unruly group of Unionist soldiers known as "redlegs" under the command of a Captain Terrill. Josey survives the attack and joins a group of rebel soldiers who have presumably suffered similar fates and who seek to avenge themselves, leading to further violence, death, destruction and undoubtedly further injustices.

Eventually, when the rebel cause is all but extinguished, Josey's compadres, exhausted and demoralised, are persuaded to surrender to Unionist forces but they are betrayed, mocked and massacred by ambitious and unprincipled officers and men, including Captain Terrill, who will not be held accountable for their actions. Josey manages to rescue a young but gravely wounded friend, Jamie.

Josey is declared an outlaw by the complicit Unionist authorities in order to protect their positions and to justify their actions. By manipulating facts, fabricating stories and exaggerating rumour, they hope to incite the interest and greed of bounty hunters and gunmen, but they also help create a figure of legend or myth in the process.

After a series of adventures in which our two heroes outwit their pursuers, imply criticism of merchants whose sole objective is to make profit from both sides of the conflict, and kill a couple of bounty hunters who reduce everything to the financial value of their prey, young Jamie dies and Josey heads for Texas in the full knowledge he will be pursued and he will have no recourse to reason, justice or honour.

Under the auspices of war, terrible crimes may be committed. One of the central and recurring themes of the film is that those who do not respect rules of engagement or common human decency on or off the battlefield cannot hide behind the uniform, cause or legitimacy of their faction. Atrocities carry personal responsibility and guilt and may incur personal enmity and a desire for retribution. War cannot be viewed as giving free rein - one remains responsible for one's conduct and the consequences that may entail.

The second part of the film starts with Josey's encounter with an ageing native American played by Chief Dan George. The rain, grime and melancholy of the war scenes gradually give way to brightness, lightness of tone and no small amount of humour.

Although far from free from his past, Josey does not dwell on it - it is there but he is able to focus on the present. As he crosses Texas, he encounters and attracts a number of "strays", people whose lives have gone awry for a variety of reasons and whom Josey is able to help or defend from profiteering or threat, giving him purpose and a means of living with the past.

Josey appears unafraid. He is willing to face and accept death as a consequence of his actions but he will not shrink from defending those under threat. He has no fear of, or automatic respect for those who claim authority. He has seen that policies, positions and laws are all man-made and may be self-serving or open to interpretation, abuse or corruption. He is ready and willing to defend himself and others if such is the case.

The group he gathers round him is disparate and diverse (long before this recent trend in Hollywood) - culture, race, creed and age appear to be immaterial as they unite to combat common enemies or help one another in a time of need or peril. They become a family of sorts. They may bicker and disagree at times but they are willing to overlook foibles, idiosyncrasies and the past as they pull together to help one another build a new life and resolve problems.

As demonstrated in the discussions between Josey and Ten Bears, an Indian chief who is equally willing to defend himself and his followers, they seek to live in peace and harmony which, it is suggested, appears possible if negotiations are left to ordinary men and women as opposed to governments or figures driven by political ambition, commercial enterprise or greed.

Society is what we make of it or, alternatively, what we allow it to become. As reasonable and peace-loving citizens, we must be willing to defend ourselves and those who share common purpose against those willing to impose their will on us or disrespect us. There is therefore a sense of satisfaction, completion and hope when Captain Terrill gets his karmic comeuppance, allowing Josey to put the injustices of the past to rest and focus on the present and the future.

This is something of a deceptive film - I remember going to see it on its release, expecting an entertaining Eastwood action film, and indeed there are several exciting action set-pieces but it is also a film of surprising depth, texture and engagement. Clint Eastwood clearly wanted to depict the horrors of war and the shattering lasting effects it has on individuals, but he balances that with a tale of stoicism, hope, positivity and society in the face of opposition and difficulty, man-made or natural. This is undoubtedly a highlight in his directing career. He retains the classic Eastwood elements of over-the-top confrontation, audience complicity and focus on the taciturn hero's communication through long, meaningful looks, but these elements are complemented by close attention to atmosphere, sympathetic secondary characters and performances, the unlikely inclusion of humour and the appeal of an underpinning "message" about war, trauma, justice and the importance of society, which is accessible to us all.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

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