It might start sounding strange, after I have written about how the western was dying out in the 1970’s, but this is the fifth or sixth western I have written about in this blog. That is nearly 10 percent of the movies I have covered so far. There are two or three more on the list as well, that I will try to get to before the Labor Day deadline I have made for this project. Apparently, the western did thrive in the seventies. Well no, there were still westerns, but not nearly the number that that there once were, and after John Wayne slowed down, Clint was the only person in Hollywood actively pursuing the genre. He made urban thrillers, and comedies and even war movies, but everyone remembers Clint as a cowboy.
This is a movie that he developed from his own company. The focus of the story is not a heroic lone gunman, rushing in to save the town, or a bank robber trying to outsmart the law and his fellow criminals. Unlike other Eastwood westerns, Josey Wales is a complete story about redemption of a man grievously wronged and seeking revenge. Josey Wales is a killer from the Civil War that has trouble laying down his weapons because he has vengeance and bitterness in his heart. He is pursued in an unjust manner, and he does not back down. Although he is strategically retreating through most of the movie, there is no doubt that he is simply biding his time till he can strike back. It is only through his escape and retreat, that he learns how the war has ruined everyone. He meets reprehensible men that want to kill him for money, bigots that need to overcome their provincial ways to find peace, and Indians that are as different from each other as any person can be from another.
Clint is the star and the director, so it is interesting how much of the film really allows others to shine. Sam Bottoms is very good in the opening third of the movie as a young member of the guerrilla band of Confederates that Josy Wales rides with. He is replaced as Clint’s companion by Chief Dan George as an old Indian who is of the civilized tribes and has lost some of the Indian stealth as a consequence. He has the best lines in the movie and conveys the heart of the ideas that the story is about. He is also a bit like Jimminy Cricket, guiding Josey back from the edge where he really cares about nothing. In the last third of the picture, two women he rescues and a group of townspeople in a dying boom-town, become the main voices and story engines. Wales’ problems are following him continuously and these other lost souls form a group that helps him find his humanity again.
All that being said, don’t get the idea this is a talkie picture, there is plenty of action. Our hero finds ways to get out of scraps without a fight a couple of times, but is death on a horse in many situations. There are dozens of Redleg irregular army dead and and there are bounty hunters and commancheros littered across the west after they tried to tangle with Josey Wales. In all of these encounters, he is not a mindless killer, he frequently looks for another way out, he had not yet become irredeemable. He could easily slip over into “bad” guy, but his humanity was strong initially and the fellow travelers after the end of the war, pull him back. He single-handedly saves some Kansas Jayhawks by brutally turning into a whirlwind of death in a nice action piece. My favorite scene though, is not one of the gunfights but his bold and ultimately peaceful rescue of some townsfolk from a threatening Indian attack. The two ranch hands that he recovers were buried up to their necks, and the small family he was nurturing was outnumbered by the tribe. The dialogue he exchanges with Ten Bears, the chief of the raiding tribe is excellent. It is Clint being low key and lethal at the same time. Ten Bears is played by Will Sampson, who was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the year before. They utter the words that everyone who has gone through wars and lost something believe. It is the hope that people could live together. This is the moment that Josey Wales recovers his soul.
I don’t remember who I saw the movie with. It might have been my friend Dan. I am pretty sure that I saw it at the old Temple Theater on the corner of Rosemead and LaTunas. Not the four-plex that stood there from 1982 till just a couple of years ago, but the single screen local movie palace that was replaced by the multi-plex.
It was a beautiful old theater, and it was one of the theaters that Art worked at in High School, changing the marquee each week. There is at least one other film on my list for the summer that I saw at that movie house, so we can revisit that experience more when we get to that movie. For now, in 1976, the Western was alive in the hands of a master story teller and film-maker, Clint Eastwood.