The Outlaw Josey Wales

Just watched this movie. It’s cinematically well-respected and it has Clint Eastwood, who I usually tolerate, though it’s sometimes annoying how little he will talk during a given film.

First, some random comments. There are some pretty great scenes, like when Eastwood gets behind a gattling gun and proceeds to kill an entire group of union soldiers. I also think Eastwood does great things in the early stages of the movie. When he’s invited to join a group of confederate brigands (not sure the best word, outlaws, land-pirates, bandits, partisans…I’m missing the best word), they tell him that they are heading up to Kansas to put things right. Eastwood responds with a perfect “I guess I’ll be coming with you then.” Unfortunately, some of the dialogue isn’t so hot, and there is a bunch of reckoning in this film. I reckon this I reckon that. Wales is always spitting on things too, and I’m not sure what the point is. I mean, there are a bunch of kind of possible readings that stand out, but in the end, I just don’t think it’s powerful at the immediate level, whatever deeper significance could be found in it.

Philosophically or creatively, the film is about the taint of war and also the inevitability of hypocrisy and injustice. In one of the opening scenes, the confederate rebel group that Wales is riding with is offered a chance at amnesty. They all surrender except Wales, and after turning in their weapons, they are cowardly executed on the spot by the merciless union “red legs” and the senator overseeing the operation. Since the confederate characters are the one’s gunned down, one might be tempted into thinking that the movie is a pro-south attempt to lampoon yankee arrogance. But really the point is just that down at the level of everyday life, there is no justice, only institutions with more power than the others. The confederate soldiers are on the wrong side of the war, but they are tricked and then massacred by brutal union peacekeepers. In fact, quite symbolically, they are killed trying to pledge allegiance to the union.

Things are tainted right from the start, and the hypocrisy and impossibility of justice is best put by the head of the “red legs,” who says that “there isn’t any end to doing good,” and this is not meant to be read as lamenting the enormous amount of good that needs to be done. Rather, it’s about the inevitable tendency for righteousness to flip over into persecution. To the leader of the red-legs, there is never an end to confederates to kill and rape and houses to burn and pillage, all in the name of the union. In fact, the movie is at its height when it mercilessly mocks the union’s new foundations, which is built on the back of Indians, innocents, blacks, carpetbagging salesmen, and mercenaries who know no other trade than to kill.

Wales fits perfectly into this world because he tells himself that he is out for justice when he joins the confederate outriders at the beginning, but that word never crosses his lips after the war is over, and indeed, justice is the furthest thing from his mind. He kills two men and decides not to bury their bodies saying “the vultures need to eat too.” And later, he tries to buy horses from two men who are in the process of raping an Indian girl. He does not intervene, but defends himself once they try to kill him for the bounty on his head. In an interesting sense, though, what appears as callousness in Wales really might be a kind of moral minimalism that the movie is trying to champion. Since everywhere else in this move, righteousness turns to butchery, Wales refuses even to intervene in the smallest struggles, for he fears that his response will be corrupted or perhaps corrupt him. He stays true to his single mission, revenge for the killing of his wife and child.

Still though, the movie I think loses its focus later on. He finds a nice young women, and it’s not clear what role she plays. Does she redeem him? Does she represent the possibility of him loving again?


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