Gorgeously photographed in color by Bruce Surtees, son of Robert, so that we never lose sight of the beautiful land that has been and is being bloodily spoiled, The Outlaw Josey Wales is scenarist Philip Kaufman’s veiled meditation on the U.S. war in Vietnam. Set right after the conclusion of the American Civil War, it is based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter. It opens in Missouri; farmer Josey Wales is helpless to prevent an invasion of Northern “redlegs” who burn down his house and slaughter his family, because Wales has refused to concede defeat (which is no reason at all), setting him on an outlaw course of hateful vengeance. The war that has ended thus goes on, in another, sublimated form, and is given by dint of political allegory an anti-American twist insofar as the U.S. rampage in Southeast Asia is seen as a foreign invasion exacting a hideous toll. One can cynically suggest that Clint Eastwood, who replaced director Kaufman with himself, hasn’t a clue as to any of this; but his later, fine Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) imagines the Pacific phase of the Second World War from the Japanese perspective. Regrettably, however, all of Eastwood’s contributions to The Outlaw Josey Wales—direction, lead performance—are inept, with a single exception: the hilarious speed with which Wales apparently becomes a pop/folk figure. Chief Dan George gives the best performance, as Lone Watie, an old Cherokee who is philosophical about war and about defeat: “I myself never surrendered. But they got my horse, and it surrendered.” Wales brings Lone Watie into the fold of his own journeys, eventually also admitting others, by getting him another horse. A horse can be replaced; alas, the surrogate family that Wales attracts cannot restore all that he has lost.
Johnny Carson, the Internet Movie Database claims, considered this the greatest Western; but, given its rich raw material, one is constantly nagged by how unfeeling, cluttered and unfocused it is. I suspect that Kaufman would have done better; it is impossible to imagine his doing worse.
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