By the time Clint Eastwood directed his fifth feature, The Outlaw Josey Wales, he had already been a Western icon for well over a decade, thanks to his roles in Rawhide, Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, and Hang ’em High, among other seminal works. Yet the culture, and by extension the Western’s place in it, had changed drastically during that time. When Rawhide premiered in 1959, it was part of an all-pervasive boom in television Westerns; by 1976, when Josey Wales was released, the Western was virtually extinct, having lost its spot at the top of the action genre pantheon to cop movies (like Eastwood’s own Dirty Harry pictures) and disaster films. By necessity, therefore, The Outlaw Josey Wales is a transitional film, both a summing up of the Western conventions of the past and an inquiry into how they apply in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America. It is also the first of Eastwood’s masterpieces about violence and its relationship to community, a film that looks forward to Unforgiven, Mystic River and Gran Torino.
The underlying story is elegant in its simplicity, but like the best Westerns of John Ford and Budd Boetticher, it serves as a launching pad for a multitude of complex ideas. After his family is brutally murdered during the Civil War and his riding partners are executed in the war’s aftermath, vengeful ex-Confederate farmer Wales (played by Eastwood) is pursued by a posse led by a former friend and mercenaries looking to collect a reward. While on the run, Wales gradually picks up a number of companions who force him to reconnect with his fellow man: a witty Indian chief and squaw, a strongly willed old lady and her shy daughter-in-law, the last inhabitants of a ghost town and an orphaned dog. Throughout the movie, this unlikely “family” alternately flees and faces various foes, ranging from bounty hunters to Comanche Indians, and a man obsessed with death finds cause to embrace life.
In fact, for all the film’s violence, at its core it stands alongside Bronco Billy as one of Eastwood’s most optimistic, compassionate achievements. The Outlaw Josey Wales exists as a virtual textbook of Western conventions, but the clichés are used to tell a story with contemporary resonance: in its depiction of a country trying to reconcile and heal after a divisive war, Eastwood’s film makes obvious reference to an America splintered by assassinations, riots, Vietnam and Watergate. The final scenes are an eloquent plea for reconciliation and cooperation rather than divisiveness, a message no less relevant in today’s politically toxic culture than it was in 1976. Yet this is no mere message movie — the many gunfights and chase sequences are as kinetic and stylish as any Eastwood ever filmed.
A great deal of that style comes from the director of photography, Bruce Surtees. Surtees was already the cinematographer of Eastwood’s choice as an actor (The Beguiled, Dirty Harry) and as a director (Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter) when they came together on Josey Wales, and they would go on to collaborate on another half-dozen significant projects. The chase structure of Josey Wales inspires their most visually diverse collaboration, since Wales’s flight from his pursuers takes him across varied landscapes characterized by changing weather and topography. The colors are constantly shifting, from earthy browns, muted greens and cool blues to deep blacks and saturated yellows; if Sonia Chernus and Phil Kaufman’s screenplay allows Eastwood to make his first epic statement on the American West, Surtees matches the scope of that ambition with colors and compositions of immense range.
The breadth of Surtees’s palette was compromised on some of the muddy, earlier video incarnations of The Outlaw Josey Wales, but the Blu-ray edition’s new high-definition transfer is excellent. Surtees and Eastwood’s famously dark interiors are presented with clarity and detail in the shadows, and the brighter, more vivid exteriors exhibit a wide tonal range that preserves the painterly quality of Surtees’s lighting — some shots, such as one of Eastwood backlit in the distance as he prepares to rescue some friends from kidnappers, are among the most iconic, textured and beautiful in Eastwood’s entire filmography, and they look fantastic here. The remastered 5.1 channel soundtrack is even more impressive, with effects beautifully spread out on the surround channels and crisp, clear dialogue reproduction in the center. Jerry Fielding’s Oscar-nominated score is presented in all its thunderous, sonic power without overwhelming the more subtle nuances of the sound design.
The supplementary features on the disc are entertaining but relatively superficial, especially considering the complexity of the film. A new commentary track by Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel is more descriptive than analytical; Schickel too often merely parrots whatever is being seen and heard on screen. A new featurette, “Clint Eastwood’s West,” similarly leans toward the obvious, containing interviews with Eastwood fans and collaborators that mostly regurgitate trivia from previous Eastwood DVD releases. An added annoyance: some of the clips are in the wrong aspect ratio. The half-hour documentary’s attempt to provide historical context for Eastwood’s Westerns is somewhat flimsy — the narration’s suggestion that James Stewart and John Wayne’s Western protagonists were unambiguous and simplistic makes one wonder how many of their films the writer has actually seen — though occasional insights from interviewees like Frank Darabont and James Mangold do give it some value. Another 30-minute piece (this one from 1999), “Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales,” is more informative in terms of production history and contains some enlightening interviews with Eastwood and the actors. The final featurette, “Eastwood in Action,” is an eight-minute promotional short from the time of the film’s production; a theatrical trailer completes the package.