The Greatest Western

"Dyin’ Ain’t Much of a Livin', Boy"
 
 
The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976) is my favorite western. Some consider it the greatest film of the genre.  Directed by Clint Eastwood, it stars Clint Eastwood, Sandra Locke, Chief Dan George, and John Vernon.


 

 
great western should have a collection of strong key elements; The Outlaw Josie Wales has them all.
 
The setting is the savage Civil War in Missouri and Kansas where atrocities and outrages were perpetrated by irregulars of both sides. At the time, these criminals and guerrillas were called “bushwackers.” The fighting in this theater of the Civil War is not commonly known except by students and historians of the war, and was particularly ugly and violent; perhaps the Civil War was at its most "uncivil" in the border states. Most actions were small unit affairs that often involved people who knew each other before the war. Crimes against civilians were common as both legitimate armies used irregulars to terrorize the civilian population. The massacre of Union soldiers at Centralia, Missouri, September 27, 1864 was perpetrated by Bloody Bill Anderson and his men, for example. This event is not mentioned in the film for obvious reasons—no one associated with this heinous act could engender sympathy from any audience. 
 

The Outlaw Josie Wales captures the ugliness and horror of those times and provides a motivator to the title character when his family is murdered by Kansas irregulars fighting for the Union. Wales is enraged and joins Bloody Bill Anderson’s Confederate guerrilla outfit. When the War ends (at least according to the film), it is one of the last organized Confederate units to surrender. Wales’s comrades surrender themselves at a Union camp, Josie Wales refuses to join them and watches the proceedings from a distance. But everything is not as it seems and as the men surrender their arms and take the Oath of Allegiance to the Union, they are all viciously massacred in cold blood. It turns out that the same unit that killed his fellow Confederate holdouts is the very same that had killed his family several years before. And so the chase begins . . . Wales is now the “Outlaw Josie Wales” running from the Union killer "redlegs," bounty hunters, and every male in the territory with a gun not to mention the Union army; oh, and hostile Indians, too.
 
Josie Wales is played by Clint Eastwood and this is one of his best performances. The character is very much like the “Man With No Name” from his Spaghetti Western days. Closer to “Blondie” in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) than the silent gunslinger of Pale Rider (1985), Wales is essentially a good man driven by circumstances to revenge and violence, and a desperate strugggle to survive. He is the everyman of the Civil War (and of history in general) dragged against his will into the maelstrom of massive historic events. As he runs from his pursuers he picks up a ragtag crew of fascinating characters who ride with him, eventually heading for southern Texas. Along the way there are gunfights, suspense, and action.
 
A great western should have certain components including:
Wales is a hunted avenger as he rides across deserts and through broken-down frontier towns. He has no options but to find a place to hide, or just keep on riding forever. Every shooting that involves him is in self-defense or in the defense of others who cannot defend themselves; the hero is no savage killer. He is a hero, an unsurrendered soldier of a dead country, haunted by the senseless murder of his family.
 
The film has beautiful scenery, lots of horses and pistols, rotten villains who deserve to get shot (and generally do), suffering innocents who need protection, and one of the coolest hats in American cinema history.
 
Josie Wales’ hat is stained with sweat, it’s a deep Confederate gray with a wide and slightly upturned brim, it's unusual and will always be associated with this character. Eastwood hides his eyes under the brim of this hat, and when he slightly lifts his head to look at someone—they know immediately that he is not a man to be trifled with. He has a sense of honor and obligation to others, but has no compunction about shooting those who are hunting him or are fixin’ to hurt his friends.
 
There is a touching moment after Eastwood and his friends arrive at their Texas destination. Sondra Locke, dressed in a fine white dress, talks about how beautiful the clouds look. She has gone through terrible abuse and trauma and was rescued by the hero. She represents the stability and happiness that Wales lost when his family was killed, and his pre-war life of peaceful farming. The look of sadness and dissociation that Eastwood delivers in this sad scene between the two of them is a fine one. After all of his war-fighting, losses, and the damage and pain caused by the now ended war, Josie Wales must try very hard to find a place for himself in a post-war world. Killing is easy now for him, it’s the living without violence that he knows will be so difficult. One of the more powerful aspects of his character is that he wants to try, and the viewer is confident that he will doubtless succeed.
 

__________________________________
Daniel Mallock is a historian of the Founding generation and of the Civil War and is the author of Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution. He is a Contributing Editor at New English Review.
 
More by Daniel Mallock.
 
Help support New English Review.