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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #219: The Outlaw Josey Wales

Clint Eastwood is one of those actors whose name immediately evokes the image of the mythic American cowboy. Perhaps second only to John Wayne, many of Eastwood’s movies have become classic Westerns, only many of them are quite darker in tone than Wayne’s films. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) is one such film. Featuring Eastwood behind the camera and in top anti-hero form as a gunslinger who sends many men to their graves across the American south after his family is killed during the Civil War. He may not wear a Sheriff’s badge, but once he draws his guns you can’t help but root for him.

Another English-to-Spanish exercise, this was a movie I watched while living in South America in the early 2000s. Possibly HBO or some other movie channel would run old American movies with Spanish subtitles, which is a good way to learn the language when you first move to Chile and which you get used to once you actually learn the language. Either way, it’s a Clint Eastwood movie, and if a Clint Eastwood movie is playing on TV the whole family can set aside a few hours to watch him do his thing (unless it’s The Bridges of Madison County).

As the movie opened I had no idea what the movie was or where it would go and it does go into surprising places. Josey Wales starts off as a simple farmer driven into the Civil War after Union soldiers murder his wife and son. Already a bold plot decision since the Union won the war, but America always had a soft spot for underdogs. Wales transitions from underdog to outlaw once the war ends, but he refuses to surrender. His act of defiance actually saves his life since he is not present when the rest of his men are massacred by Union captain Terrill (Bill McKinney). In retaliation Wales mows down many of Terrill’s men with a machine gun, putting a huge bounty on his head.

Running from Terrill and whatever bounty hunter would dare try to take him down, Wales begins what could be described as an odyssey across the south. Given his propensity to shoot his way out of most situations you would expect a character like that to stay alone, but Wales draws a surprisingly high number of companions in his journey. The most interesting of these is Lone Watie, an old Cherokee played by Chief Dan George. Not portrayed as a “noble Indian” or as a savage like most Native Americans were often portrayed in Westerns, Watie is a man first and foremost. He has a dark sense of humour about life, he is not as stealthy as he used to be, and when Wales rescues a much younger native woman, he has no shame about sleeping with her. Well, if they are both consenting adults, why should he?

Amidst all of the shootings, and Wales and his travelling companions do fire a lot of bullets, the story takes a few other humorous shots at typical Western tropes. When they settle down at a ranch they must fortify it against a possible attack from Chief Ten Bears (Will Sampson) and his tribe. While barricading the windows old Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) talks about giving hell to those redskins, but is careful to say “no offense” to Watie. Not a problem since later on the situation is reversed when Union soldiers are about to attack and Watie can talk about giving hell to those palefaces. “None taken,” says grandma.

Also featuring a scene where Wales spits at a carpetbagger (Woodrow Parfrey), there is a lot here for American southerners to like. However there is also a lot for pacifists to like because despite the high level of violence, the film feels very anti-war. In the beginning Wales is alone and surrounded by death because of the war. The more he gets away from conflict, the closer he gets to finding peace again, building a surrogate family in the process. The result is not just a Western with both barrels loaded, but also a great movie regardless of the genre.


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