The Greatest Western

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.


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:

  • Beautiful scenery

    • Desert, prairie, and/or mountains will do 
  • A good story line

    • Pursuit and evasion helps
  • Excellent minimalist dialogue
  • Small ramshackle frontier towns
  • A hero or anti-hero with strong and understandable motivations
  • Guns, ideally pistols

    • Shootouts
  • At least one attractive woman in dire need

    • More people who need help, the better
  • Excellent hats

    • There is no better hat in a western film than the one worn by the lead character in this movie
  • Indians

    • Motivated, tough, and real is best
  • Horses

    • Obviously, the more the better
  • Rotten villains

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.


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.


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