Revenge is the motive in The Outlaw Josey Wales (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1976). The title character lives with his family in Missouri, a border state. Border States were neutral in the Civil War, but the term can be misleading. In this film neutrality means not merely neutrality in the North-South conflict, but also moral and civil anarchy, a region where neither North nor South is in control and the forces of chaos reign. Guerilla activity was especially strong in Missouri during the Civil War. As the war rages on, Wales farms in Missouri with his wife and son. While he is plowing his fields, Union raiders burn his house with his son in it and rape and kill his wife. When a band of Confederate soldiers passes by intent on taking revenge against the Union marauders, Wales joins them. After they wreak havoc against Union forces, they are given the offer to surrender with amnesty, and all accept, except Josey. He still wants revenge. When the Union soldiers kill the surrendered Confederate raiders, Josey’s desire for revenge only increases. He becomes, in effect, the last unreconstructed Confederate, and he begins heading west, intent on confrontation with his Union pursuers.
The fact that Union soldiers are the villains in this drama, which is told from a semi-Confederate point of view, is unusual. The fact that the book on which the film is based was written by Asa Earl (“Forrest”) Carter, an ardent segregationist, Klan leader, White Citizens Council organizer, and George Wallace supporter/speechwriter during the 1960s and 1970s may account for the point of view. (After the 1940s, most films about the Civil War South were told from a Northern point of view. The one exception I can think of is Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, 1999, also about Civil War guerillas, but there must be others). But these Union soldiers are not after all the standard variety but brigands, deserters, and guerillas who use the war as an excuse to rape, kill, and plunder. In this film, it just so happens that they ride under the order of a U. S. senator and a general, implicating the “union” as a concept on a much broader scale. One point driven repeatedly home throughout the film is that no one has a corner on virtue and justice. Everyone is corrupt, for the most part. Although Josey devoted himself to the peaceful and hard life of a Missouri farmer, once his family is dead he reveals his capabilities as a cutthroat killer, always capable of shooting his way out of tight spots (there are a good number of them). In fact, the plot of the film moves from one tight spot to another.
The interest of this film lies in how many scoundrels, Union soldiers, comancheros, and generic scum Josey will kill before he achieves the revenge he wants. It lies also in the issue of personal redemption—will Josey ever move beyond his desire for revenge?
Along the way, Josey picks up various vagabonds and victims. An old Cherokee, an Indian woman, an old granny and her granddaughter, a bunch of ne’er do wells from a deserted saloon, and so on. We find here the same interest in eccentric characters we have seen in earlier Eastwood films, including those directed by Sergio Leone. Like many Eastwood heroes, Josey has a fundamental sympathy for victims, marginalized characters, the weak, but it’s not always evident until some moment of crisis.
Chief Dan George plays Lone Watie, supposedly a Cherokee chief whom Josey runs across in Indian Territory. He plays a character similar to his character Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man (1970; dir. Arthur Penn), though here he seems less wise and more loony. His purpose seems mainly to be rescuing Josey from a few tight spots, serving as a source of humor, and spouting various absurd witticisms. The Indians in the film, needless to say, are stereotypes, though at least Josey treats them well, and the film portrays them as rounded human beings.
The film loses steam when Eastwood and company arrive at a ranch in the far west where the granny and her granddaughter plan to settle. By this time, Josey has started to wish for a different life. He gives a bounty hunter who confronts him in a saloon a chance to back off instead of shooting him outright (when the bounty hunter doesn’t back off, Josey shoots). When he knows that Comanche Indians are going to attack the ranch, he rides out and makes peace with the chief. And finally, he passes up a chance to face down the man who betrayed his band of Confederate raiders to the Union raiders.
The film’s final scene, with a wounded Josey riding off into the desert, echoes the end of Shane (1953; dir. George Stevens), though it’s not as clear here that the wound Josey has suffered will be fatal (given the other difficult situations he managed to recover from, it probably isn’t).
Josey’s unwillingness to surrender to the Northern soldiers, or to show allegiance to any other source of authority, indicates his existential aloneness. The fact that he has ridden with Confederate raiders and eluded Union pursuers only accentuates his isolation. Josey is like Dirty Harry and the Man without a Name. He’s an isolated man intent on revenge even though it may well mean his life.